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Knoll Brings His Marines Home

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  • Knoll Brings His Marines Home

    Knoll Brings His Marines Home
    by Staff Sgt. M.T. Mink
    Marine Corps News
    July 25, 2003

    MCAS MIRAMAR, Calif. -- Vaguely reminiscent of a scene from a movie, in January Col. Stuart Knoll stood before Marine Aircraft Group 16 - his Marines - and told them he was leading them out, and he'd be leading them home.

    More than six months, 4,196 sorties, thousands of MREs and a lot of sand later, Col. Knoll and his Marines are coming

    "When we departed on this deployment, we did not know how long this operation would last, I told those from MAG-16 that I expected to be home in less than 10 months anything less would be good news," said Knoll. "We are coming home in less than seven months, there was certainly some speculating as to when we might be coming home but I never heard any complaints, not one sour note, all the Marines took this deployment in stride and luckily we are getting home in a reasonable amount of time." At home Knoll serves as MAG-16's commanding officer and became commanding officer of Landing Force West upon deployment. "I am very proud of all the Marines that I served with during Operation Iraqi Freedom; they executed their duties to the highest of Marine standards."

    January 16, MAG-16 reported aboard the USS Boxer (LHD-4) and a day later, seven U.S. Naval ships departed San Diego en route to the North Arabian Gulf, part of the largest amphibious deployment from the West coast since the Korean War.

    The landing force was made up of MAG-16 Headquarters, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465, Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 16 (Detachment), MAG-13, Regimental Landing Team 1, Combat Service Support Company 111, Expeditionary Warfare Training Group, and I Marine Expeditionary Force representatives. At its peak, MAG-16 combined for a total of 1,321 Marines and Sailors under Col. Knoll's command.

    "You learn quickly to adapt to the environment and situation, to take everything in stride or your time away will seem longer," said Lance Cpl. Fabian EstradaGutierrez, 20, personnel clerk, Personnel Support Detachment, MAG-16.

    EstradaGutierrez's return to California is more than a return to a duty station. The Calexico native is returning to his hometown.

    After 44 days afloat, MAG-16 settled into its new environment aboard ship and continued to hone their warfighting skills. With the establishment of the MAG-16 Combat Operations Center, Battle Staff Training became a priority.

    Through numerous exercises and scenarios, the staff came together as one unit to provide a comprehensive warfighting picture to the command as well as the USS Boxer staff.

    MAG-16 conducted a Battalion Lift Conference on 11 February to review unit capabilities and assault mission profiles. Rehearsal training included a one-day amphibious raid followed by a night rehearsal. Just 11 days later, MAG-16 and Landing Force West arrived in the North Arabian Gulf on board Amphibious Task Force West, awaiting follow-on orders in support of US Central Command's objectives.

    Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defense training was a high priority for both the Marines and the ship's company. All Marines attached to the landing force received comprehensive NBC Defense training covering the threat as well as individual protective measures. Weekly gas mask drills were conducted while underway. A new combat flight doctrine was implemented that became the baseline 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing doctrine for flight operations in an NBC environment. The process required selected Marine aircrew aboard the USS Boxer to both ground test and flight-test various flight operational regimes in NBC aircrew profiles.

    Flight operations utilizing individual protective equipment (IPE) were developed to support all type/model/series helicopters in various mission profiles to operate successfully in the high NBC threat combat environment.

    The combined Navy/Marine Corps team implemented joint procedures and policies regarding the protection and decontamination of aircraft and aircrew. This included a highly trained joint NBC response team to minimize and eliminate chemical contaminants from aircraft and aircrew.

    As part of the decontamination protocol, the NBC team installed and tested M-22 ACADA monitors on squadron aircraft to test and establish baseline readings. The team also wrote and published the MAG-16 Tactical Standard Operating Procedures for operations in an NBC environment.

    Not long after arriving in the Gulf, MAG-16 off-loaded RCT-1 from the seven-ship amphibious readiness group. The four-day offload began February 24. MAG-16 aircraft flew 155 sorties and 209.9 hours off-loading 1,715 personnel and 178,800 pounds of cargo, tactically inserting RCT-1 into TAA Coyote.

    "It's amazing to me that even at the group level the Marine Corps can move clear around the world in around one month and because they know their job, everyone just does what they know how to do," said Cpl. Ignacio Olivares, 23, airfield operations clerk, PSD, MAG-16. "We just got the job done."

    During the off load, the MAG-16 War Council convened. Made up of senior leadership and squadron Commanding Officers, the council met to discuss operations and tactical level issues.

    March 1, Landing Force West was mission complete. Attached personnel returned to their parent units for follow-on tasking. MAG-16 reported Operational Control to 3rd MAW and reassumed OPCON of HMH-462, forward deployed as the MAG-16 fly-in element to Ali Al Salem Airbase, Kuwait. Two days later the MAG-16 staff flew to Ali Al Salem to conduct an in-brief for HMH-462 on MAG-16 operations. The final piece of MAG-16 fell into place on March 11 when HMM-161 (Rein) returned OPCON to MAG-16 from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit for combat operations. The units attached to MAG-16 at the commencement of combat operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom included MAG-16 Headquarters, HMM-161 (Rein), HMM-165, HMH-462, HMH-465, and a MALS-16 detachment, and the Group was more than 1,300 Marines and Sailors strong.

    Operation Iraqi Freedom began March 19. MAG-16 and its squadrons provided around the clock assault support as well as tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel and casualty evacuation assets in support of combat operations. As part of one of the opening assaults, MAG-16, along with coalition partners, conducted detailed mission analysis and planning to insert United Kingdom 42 Commando Brigade into the Al Faw Peninsula (though the mission, however, was not executed due to weather and crew day restrictions). Also, MAG-16 assets led the assault support of Umm Qasr in support of the 15th MEU. Throughout the period, MAG-16 planned and executed several high-risk inserts of Special Operations forces forward of the Friendly Line of Troops - each mission requiring the Commanding General, 3rd MAW's review and approval.

    Commanded by Col. Knoll, MAG-16 provided the assault support helicopters (7 CH-46Es and 3 CH-53Es) used in the raid on Saddam Hospital, An Nasiriyah April 1-2, in search of American prisoners of war. HMM-165 and HMH-465 inserted 288 Army Rangers under the cover of darkness. The raid successfully rescued Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch. This was the first American POW rescued since World War II and they also recovered nine Americans killed in action as well as two Iraqi individuals. This action was typical of the Marines and Sailors of MAG-16 throughout the period. In peace or in combat, the Marines and Sailors of MAG-16 are true professionals ready to take on any mission worldwide.

    The MAG continued with combat operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While still embarked aboard the USS Boxer (LHD-4), the MAG supported CFLCC and I MEF operations with numerous forward-deployed detachments and FRAGS.

    April 5, MAG-16 forward deployed with three squadrons (HMM-161 (Rein), HMM-165, HMH-465) to Jalibah Forward Operating Base, Iraq, where it remained through the end of the month. (HMH-462 remained at Ali Al Salem, Kuwait.) The offload was completed with 76 sorties and 125.9 hours, moving 550 personnel and 79,300 pounds of cargo. The move strategically placed the Group and squadrons closer to their supported units allowing MAG-16 to provide responsive helicopter assault support. Steadily throughout the month, improvements were made that brought a desolate Iraqi airfield to a fully functioning Marine Forward Operating Base.

    With the flag moved to Jalibah and the Combat Operations Center up and running, MAG-16 continued throughout the month to push detachments forward supporting the historic march on Baghdad. The MAG completed 166 fragged Assault Support Requests in support of Coalition Forces Land Component Command and I Marine Expeditionary Force operations as well as numerous ground alert and stand-by missions.

    The four squadrons assigned to MAG-16's combat operations flew a combined 3391.3 hours during April, moving 5,124 passengers and 2,718,345 pounds of cargo. During the period framed by President Bush's March 17 speech to the nation and the fall of Baghdad April 17, MAG-16 flew 2,749.5 hours moving 4,126 passengers and 3,259,370 pounds of cargo.

    With combat operations waning after the fall of Baghdad it was time to begin the process of reconfiguring units. April 23, HMM-161 (Rein) returned OPCON to the 15th MEU and re-embarked aboard the USS Tarawa. The MAG, HMM-165, and HMH-465 began to plan the retrograde back to the USS Boxer and the reconstitution of Landing Force West.

    MAG-16 continued operations from Jalibah Air Base, Iraq until May 9 when the flag was re-embarked aboard the USS Boxer (LHD-4). The MAG continued to operate in support of Central Command objectives until May 25. On the same day HMM-165 was transferred OPCON to MAG-39 and departed USS Boxer for Ali Al Salem, Kuwait, where HMH-462 also remained, now OPCON to MAG-39 as well. Two days later, a majority of the MAG departed the theater for return to MCAS Miramar. The Flag and necessary support staff remained embarked and stood up as Landing Force West for the return to CONUS.

    "The manner in which the Marines and Sailors dealt with the unknown during Operation Iraqi Freedom was just eye watering, they all worked very hard in some very demanding environments, they all worked just a little bit harder because this was a real world event and lives depended on how each of them did their duties," said Knoll.

    May 28, MAG-16 set sail out of the North Arabian Gulf and continued sailing throughout the month of June. Three port visits were conducted during the transit, Sydney and Townsville, Australia and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii where the Marines and Sailors of MAG-16 were able to enjoy some well-deserved rest and relaxation.

    "It's an exciting feeling," said EstradaGutierrez. "After been away from everyone you love, it just feels good."

    We faced many challenges while we were away with a single purpose; to win, now as we return we now have to balance our priorities between our Marine duties and our families, they are going to want spend a lot of time with us, in many cases this represents a dramatic change in our lifestyles and it takes a certain period of adjustment for our returning Marines to get used to being home," Col. Knoll said. "The life of a Marine on board the ship is definitely different and returning home can in some cases place stresses on our young Marines, we will do our best to prepare them for their homecoming. Since we have been at sea for nearly two months, we certainly have had enough time to get used to the idea of coming home."

    Most notable throughout this entire period of MAG-16 war time deployment was that under Knoll's leadership and positive command climate, MAG-16 did not lose a single Marine or Sailor to combat or mishap.

    Addressing his Marines just days before reaching San Diego, Col. Knoll's thoughts continued to focus on the safety of his Marines, "My focus right now is safety when we get ashore, with the perils of war that we faced, to lose someone to a senseless auto or motorcycle accident would be a tragedy.

    "This is my sixth six-month deployment, everyone has done a great job, I want to make sure that we continue to do a great job and ensure the Marines and Sailors safety at home," added Knoll.

    Throughout this more than six-month period, MAG-16 units were forward deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as continued to operate out of MCAS Miramar and around the world. The Marines and Sailors of MAG-16 proved themselves true warriors and professional in every clime and place... unquestionably earning their place in history.

    To date, MAG-16 has flown flew 7,166.7 hours moving 13,128 passengers and more than 6,106,740 pounds of cargo.

    "I am both pleased and proud of the superb job the Marines and Sailors have performed," said Knoll. "They are all heroes in my eyes."

    Olivares didn't seem too encumbered with the new title. The Los Angeles native has an appointment to keep. "They waited to have my brother's wedding, until I came home safe, so I'm going to Vegas."