After suffering the loss of its commanding officer and all but two of its aircraft in the attack on Camp Bastion, VMA-211 “Wake Island Avengers” is back in the fight.
Following the losses of Sept. 14, 2012, the Marine Corps has moved mountains to make the Avengers whole again at Camp Bastion. Rather than bring them home to Marine Corps Air Station (NCAS) Yuma, Ariz., the USMC leadership has “relocated” six AV-8B+ Harrier II aircraft from VMA-231 (“Ace of Spades”), one of the USMC’s other Harrier squadrons from Marine Air Group (MAG) 14 at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C.
The two Harriers damaged in the Sept. 14/15 attack appear to be getting repaired in place at Camp Bastion as well, and will shortly be returned to service. Other reports have the other pieces of support equipment, soft “hangarettes,” refueling points, etc., being rapidly replaced, as the entire Marine Corps seems to be making the restoration of the “Avengers” its number one priority.
Perhaps the most important thing being sent forward to VMA-211 at Camp Bastion is a replacement for the squadron’s valiant commander, Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” Raible, USMC, who was killed in the attack. Already in place as the new commander of VMA-211, according to the squadron’s web page, is Lt. Col. Troy M. Pehrson, USMC, drawn from MAG-13 at MCAS Yuma, Ariz. where he was until just days ago commander of the legendary Marine squadron VMA-214 (“The Black Sheep”). A combat veteran AV-8B Harrier driver, Pehrson was previously executive officer of VMA-542. Along with Pehrson, replacements for the other Marines killed or wounded during the attack have been deployed to Camp Bastion to once again make VMA-211 whole and ready for combat.
In fact, the squadron never stopped flying missions, even without replacement aircraft, according to squadron personnel, and it is reportedly now flying a full schedule of support missions for ISAF forces in the area. However, the deployed Marines have clearly not forgotten their dead and wounded comrades. While most of the “relocated” Harrier aircraft are still sporting VMA-231 insignia and codes, released photos and video show the names of Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell already painted on the starboard side below the cockpit and on the main gear door of the squadron’s new “03” aircraft, and the “01” or squadron commander’s aircraft retains Raible’s name on the canopy rail.
Along with the good news about the rebuilding of VMA-211, there have been a number of additional details that have emerged about just what happened that night at Camp Bastion. For starters, it is now known just how well planned the Taliban raid was, and how well briefed and trained their sapper squads were prior to the attack. Taliban video, released after the attack, shows fighters in U.S. Army Combat Uniforms being briefed to hit specific targets in Bastion 2, the Marine Corps aviation zone at Camp Bastion.
In addition, details on the first USMC responses to the attack have been filtering out, and are showing the courage and leadership of VMA-211 commander Raible. Having finished up a long day of work, Raible was apparently getting ready to make a Skype call home to his family in Yuma, Ariz., when the sounds of the Taliban attack reached him. Grabbing the only weapon readily available to him, his Marine-issue Beretta M9 semi-automatic pistol, he jumped into a HMMWV and raced to the squadron’s flightline to organize a defense. Calling on his own squadron personnel and others from Marine Air Logistics Squadron (MALS) 13 (also from MAG-13 at MCA Yuma), Raible rallied his Marines until an explosion, possibly from an RPG, felled him.
When we first posted the story about the Camp Bastion attack last week, it was an open question as to whether the USMC leadership, along with that of the Department of Defense (DoD), would have the motivation and funding to keep VMA-211 operational while forward-deployed to Camp Bastion, rather than replacing the squadron and sending it home, and I wrote that the Corps’ “response to this disaster will be a telling report card on its leadership and organizational agility.” I am proud to say that any question concerning the resolve of both the DoD and the Corps has been more than answered. Commandant Gen. James Amos’ leadership, and the hard work of Marines and Marine Corps civilian employees, guaranteed that the squadron was supported in every aspect by every means available over the last two weeks. From a squadron nearly destroyed, there is now a fully mission-capable combat Harrier unit conducting its missions and doing its job. Semper Fi Marines!