HMLA-369 at ITX 2-13

In May 2013, HMLA-369 Gunfighters traveled to Marine Corps Ground Based Weapons Center at 29 Palms, California for their first Integrated Training Exercise, although they have attended numerous Mojave Viper and Enhanced Mojave Viper.  Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) is the updated version of the exercise known as Enhanced Mojave Viper (which succeeded Mojave Viper).

The genesis of Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) began in 1975 with an exercise called Combined Arms Exercise (CAX). The purpose of CAX focused on the heart of the Marine Corps mission and that is the integration of Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). CAX provided live fire training involving both air and ground assets in all types of threat levels and terrain. Flash forward to 2004 and CAX became Mojave Viper (ground specific predeployment training) and subsequently Enhanced Mojave Viper (air and ground pre-deployment training).

Gunfighters react when the alarm sounds during a T.I.C. (troops in contact) exercise.

The purpose of the five-week long ITX is to prepare and evaluate units that are about to deploy to combat. ITX involves all aspects of combat operations – from intelligence to mission planning to logistics and maintenance. All these aspects support the mission of a Marine Corps Light Attack Helicopter Squadron – Support the MAGTF Commander by providing offensive air support, utility support, armed escort and airborne supporting arms coordination, day or night under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint, or combined operations – to support marines on the ground. A simple statement, but one that requires Marine Corps aircrews to possess a complex set of skills and have those skill sets honed to a razors edge.

HMLA-369 arrived at 29 Palms with 250 Marines, 7 UH-1Y, and 12 AH-1W and with the primary purpose of preparing for combat.  Gunfighters were based at the expeditionary airfield (nicknamed “Camp Wilson”). The moment the first HMLA-369 Marine arrived, began a 24 hour a day seven day a week wartime operational tempo.

During Gunfighters’ 30 + day DFT (deployment for training), they would fly all mission types they would be called upon to fly when they “go forward” in late 2013. Close Air Support (CAS), Assault Support, Armed Escort, Tactical Recovery of Aircrew Personnel (TRAP), and Armed Reconnaissance are just some of the mission profiles the Gunfighters flew, both day and night.

I had the honor of spending 5 days with Gunfighters during their ITX deployment. For five days I ate, talked, slept, and flew with the Marines of HMLA-369. By all accounts from the Marines I spoke to, 29 Palms has harder living conditions than the base they will occupy later this year. As Lt. Col. Tres “Grinch” Smith, the squadron’s commanding officer, told me – “you put Marines in crappy conditions, austere environments, away from their home and family and morale goes up!”  “At ITX, Marines are able to focus on three things – work, sleep, and bonding with their fellow Marines”, said Master Sergeant Higgs of HMLA-369 Maintenance Department.

in 90 degree temperatures, Gunfighter Marines swap out ordnance form a broken Cobra to the back up AH-1W.

And morale was measured, among other things, by the number of aircraft that were mission capable (or “up aircraft”) and missions completed. I witnessed this morale during a late afternoon launch. Two AH-1W Cobras where scheduled to launch for a live fire CAS Mission. One of the Cobra’s became non flyable, requiring the Cobra crew to fly the back up aircraft. One problem, they had to be on station in 15 minutes and the back up aircraft wasn’t loaded with ordnance. At the time there were a hand full of Plane Captains and maintainers on the ramp. In the blink of an eye, Marines came running from all parts of the ramp. Like a well-choreographed ballet in 90-degree temperatures, Marines (including one of the Cobra pilots) unloaded the broken Cobra and loaded the back up Cobra in five minutes. I was later told that this process takes 30 minutes to accomplish during a normal launch cycle.

I returned to ITX for the final two days of the deployment and found 250+ very tired Gunfighters. ITX had ended and the squadron was getting ready to transition back to Camp Pendleton and home to family.

Later in the afternoon, after squadron photo had been taken, Lt. Col. Smith debriefed HMLA-369’s accomplishments during ITX. The Gunfighter’s accomplishments were impressive to say the least and included:

  • 905 total flight hours flown (2 times the flight hours normally flown)
  • 579 sorties flown (approximately 16 sorties per day)
  • 252 training sorties (or “X’s” given)
  • Ordnance – 87,270 of 7.62mm, 26,427 of .50 caliber, 28,928 of 20mm, 1,456 2.75 inch rockets, 14 APKWS, and 5 Hellfire missiles.
  • Most importantly – No missions missed and no mishaps

Lt. Col. Smith (with squadron Sgt. Maj. Buenafe left) presents his Gunfighters (l to r – GSgt. James Dunlop, GSgt. Matthew Turner, SSgt. William Buckwalter, Sgt. James Atwell, and Cpl. Dagoberto Trejo) with the Navy Achievement Medal for their respective ITX excellence.

On June 6th, after 30 + days of around the clock “wartime tempo” operations, HMLA-369 stood down and prepared for their return home.  At 1700 hours, the Gunfighterstraded their tarmac and ACE Compound for the softball fields of 29 Palms. In 100-degree weather and after a full days work, softball games were played in flight suits and BDUs. At the same time, a bbq was in full swing. After several very competitive games of softball, Lt. Col. Smith had some final words on the excellent work his Marines accomplished during ITX. During this final ITX gathering, Gunnery Sergeant Turner, Gunnery Sergeant Dunlop, Staff Sergeant Buckwalter, Sergeant Atwell, and Corporal Trejo received Navy Achievement Medals for their respective ITX excellence.

HMLA-369 ITX Squadron Photo

The aircraft and aircrews of HMLA-369 departed Marine Corps Ground Based Weapons Center at 29 Palms on June 7th for home the following day. The Gunfighters left ITX with a high level of combat proficiency. A hard earned proficiency level that will allow them to be successful in their upcoming combat deployment.

After ITX, I was honor to be asked to have this article published in the Marine Corps Aviation Association (MCAA) Fall 2013 magazine. Special thanks to Roxanne Kaufman, editor for MCAA, for making it happen.

To see more photo of Gunfighters at ITX 2-13, please go to the photo gallery.