The “Red Dogs” are a breed apart, unique among their kind.
In the world of Marine Corps aviation, the leathernecks of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 773 form the one and only Marine Corps Reserve light attack helicopter squadron, flying and maintaining AH-1W Super Cobra attack and UH-1N Huey utility helicopters.
HMLA-773 is the Corps’ largest deployable light attack helicopter squadron in terms of personnel and aircraft, operating in separate detachments at three different East Coast bases, according to squadron officers.
One detachment is at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, one is at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, and the third is at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, which is the squadron’s command post. Comparatively, there are a total of eight active-duty HMLA squadrons.
Commanding this uniquely organized, large and decentralized combat aviation unit calls for a singular approach, according to Lieutenant Colonel Kyle Burress, commanding officer of -773 since May 2012.
“It’s a challenge and calls for a lot of travel,” said the Reserve Marine, who drives the six-hour commute almost weekly from his home in Pace, Fla., near Pensacola, to his command headquarters at Robins in central Georgia.
LtCol Burress was on active duty from 1998 until 2008, including service in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom as well as humanitarian operations in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Thailand. He stays on the road now about 75 percent of his time between duty at the three Red Dog locations and his civilian job flying twin-prop aircraft overseas for a private contractor.
Part of the challenge is getting the entire squadron together for training, but LtCol Burress noted that several times during the year they are able to participate in large exercises where the entire squadron is involved.
For example, during a deployment to the Enhanced Mohave Viper exercise at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., nearly the entire squadron supported that exercise.
“We were involved as a squadron in two periods, call it A and B, to give reservists two opportunities to get involved, either at the beginning of the exercise or the end,” said LtCol Burress, demonstrating the flexibility that has to be built into the training syllabus.
Squadron sections deploy on exercises or operations to support the active component as well.
For a recent exercise called “Raven,” the squadron took assets from the three detachments with four Cobras, four Hueys and crews, about 100 Marines, to Edwards AFB in California, where they provided day and night support for U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).
“This is a recurring MARSOC requirement that we’ve picked up where previously an active-duty squadron supported it,” said LtCol David Steele, who assumed command of the Marine Inspector-Instructor (I&I) detachment at Robins in July 2012. “This is an example of how we have absorbed an active-duty requirement, which is one of the mission-essential tasks of Fourth Marine Aircraft Wing, to augment the active forces. That is an important aspect of this squadron, to integrate the three detachments successfully in training so we can seamlessly replicate it in war.”
Another challenge is filling the Reserve officer pilot and enlisted maintenance billets needed to keep the squadron combat ready. Beginning in 2012, the Corps began offering significant incentives for experienced active-duty officers and enlisted Marines to transition to the Reserve.
“Right now we can really use Cobra pilots,” said Burress, who mentioned that in 2012, Marine Corps administrative messages had been released offering substantial annual bonuses and other perks for the duration of a three-year contract to Cobra pilots going from active duty to the Reserve component.
Similar offerings, called “direct affiliation” programs, were announced in late 2012 for corporals, sergeants and staff sergeants, granting bonuses, preference of duty stations, extension of benefits and other motivations.
Direct affiliation means that Marines transfer directly from active duty to the Reserve rather than getting out and going to the Reserve after a break in service. Marines benefit by receiving a guaranteed drilling billet with reduced processing time, according to Major Shawn Haney, public affairs officer for the Department of Manpower and Reserve Affairs at Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps.
Maj Haney noted other incentives, including 180 days of transitional TRICARE for the directly affiliating Marines and their families, among additional benefits that vary depending on the specific program. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act authorized continuation and even upgrades to those packages.
The programs “provide transitioning active-duty component Marines seamless continuation of their careers as reservists and an opportunity to guarantee a Reserve billet prior to reaching EAS [end of active service],” noted one of the messages.
“Quite simply, we are now accepting applications,” summarized LtCol Steele. “With arrival of the [UH-1Y] Yankee in 2014 and sundown of the UH-1N Huey, the Red Dogs are actively seeking aviators with combat experience flying our next generation aircraft. We continue to seek Cobra pilots as well.”
In total, about 500 active-duty Marines manage HMLA-773’s facilities and support Reserve operations of at least that many reservists at all three squadron detachment locations. They also routinely fly and maintain the aircraft: 12 Cobras and 12 Hueys.
The fact that most of the pilots, aircraft maintenance and support staff come from the active forces to the Reserve makes -773 a highly proficient outfit.
“We have some of the most senior helicopter pilots and maintainers in the Corps,” said LtCol Steele.
“We have officers today who flew in combat in 2004 in Afghanistan. Some of them have more than 3,000 hours in various aircraft, and they’ve flown at the squadron level for decades,” he asserted. “These officers served on active duty and decided to join the [Reserve] and have flown here ever since. That kind of experience pays off; it’s a game-changer.”
Steele said that the enlisted maintenance Marines are equally experienced and most are combat tested.
“They all raised their hands in time of war—it takes courage to join the United States Marine Corps in a time of war,” he asserted. “So we reap the benefits associated with that caliber of Marine.
“We’re operational reserve here,” LtCol Steele explained. “During the week, the active-duty pilots are flying, and active-duty Marines are taking care of aircraft. On weekends and during other drill periods, reservists come in and are leading and training with support from active-duty Marines.”
He also emphasized that the difference between Reserve and active-duty Marines is on paper only.
“There is only one standard for being a Marine,” he affirmed. “Nothing on the uniform identifies them as [Reserve], and as long as you demand that standard, that’s what you’ll get.”
While drawing heavily from active-duty Marines seeking continued service in the Reserve, there still is room for new blood.
“We have different methods to fill slots here—we can take new accessions from recruiters, for those who want to serve in the Marine Corps but choose to do so with the [Reserve]; so we try to match their skills with our needs,” said LtCol Steele.
Keeping his eye on Marine Corps standards is a large part of the job for Sergeant Major Christopher L. Edmondson, the senior enlisted Marine in the I & I at Robins. A native of nearby Thomaston, Ga., this was his first experience with Reserve or I & I duty when he transferred in 2010.
“It was all new for me; there was a learning curve,” he said. “I’ve had to learn about the intricacies of the [Reserve], the fact that they all have civilian jobs that we need to consider. My biggest challenge as the site sergeant major has been to ensure that the reservists get their ground training—getting them to the rifle range, their PFT [physical fitness test] and CFT [combat fitness test], getting them their professional military education schools; ensuring they are afforded the same opportunities as every active-duty Marine is afforded every day here.”
There is some use of training amenities at nearby Army base Ft. Benning. For example, they can use shooting ranges but must send Marine instructors and set up their own course, complicating the process. For convenience, much of the training is held at other Marine bases such as Parris Island, S.C., for the rifle range or Albany, Ga., for professional military courses.
The squadron also has three of the newest, cleanest and most high-tech hangars in the Marine Corps rotor-wing inventory.
Hangars at all three detachments are within two years old and all are LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-compliant. This means that all aspects of the buildings’ design and construction meet strict “green” standards for air quality, energy efficiency, lighting, ergonomics and other criteria that make them great places to work.
“This is a great place to drill,” said aircraft avionics tech Corporal Aaron Wilson as he worked on a Super Cobra while taking his plane captain qualification test on a Saturday in October 2012. He drills at Robins AFB.
“I drive more than four hours, from Rome, to get here, but it’s worth it. This hangar is fantastic—it’s clean, roomy, high tech,” he added. Rome is in northern Georgia, not far from the Tennessee and North Carolina borders. Three lance corporals—Jonathon Hall, Victor Cogo and Stephen Hammond—were taking the plane captain test with Wilson, and they all drove more than two hours to get to their drill site.
Captain Jake Kenny, the maintenance admin officer in charge, agrees. The aircraft maintenance officer drives from Holly Springs, Ga., almost as far as Cpl Wilson. “This hangar is state of the art, and the support we get from the Air Force is outstanding,” said Kenny. “We have a good system and an impressive facility here to ensure we all maintain proficiency in our MOS [military occupational specialty].”
About one-third of the squadron’s Marines are just getting settled into the new 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art hangar at Robins AFB in Warner Robins, Ga. The squadron headquarters moved in July 2010 from its location of 36 years at NAS Atlanta, down the road south about 100 miles to Robins, by order of the 2005 BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission.
The construction project included renovation of several nearby buildings on Robins for Marine Corps use. The new hangars at all three detachments include administrative space in addition to materials storage and equipment in maintenance bays and overhead bridge cranes for use in maintenance operations.
HMLA-773 originated as Michigan-based Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (HMR) 773 in 1958, assigned to the Marine Air Reserve Training Command. After a series of deactivations, restructuring, redesignations and reactivations, in November 1990, HMA-773 (flying only Cobras at the time) was the first Reserve helicopter squadron activated and deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There, embarked on the USS New Orleans (LPH-11) and Tripoli (LPH-10), squadron Marines distinguished themselves in mine sweeping escort and combat missions, earning the Navy Unit Commendation.
In 1993, the squadron began receiving Hueys and personnel from deactivated units and became an HMLA to mirror the total force structure and enable smooth integration into active-duty missions.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, squadron Marines, sailors and support staff have continued to distinguish themselves in the global war on terrorism in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The squadron became the Corps’ only Reserve HMLA when its sister squadron on the West Coast, HMLA-775, was decommissioned in 2008.
The squadron detachments all reap benefits from being on board large, joint-service bases. For example, Robins is home to Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS)—the only one in the U.S. Armed Forces. JSTARS is an airborne battle management and command and control platform that conducts surveillance of fixed and moving ground targets to develop an understanding of the enemy situation and to support location, tracking, targeting and attack operations for theater commanders, according to information on the Northrop Grumman website.
“This is a national asset and it’s right here,” said LtCol Steele enthusiastically. “We’ve begun to develop a relationship with them, we’ve briefed with them; camaraderie is beginning to develop between the two ready rooms. Doctrinally, our missions are different, but there is a niche and we’ve found a way to work together.”
Despite making relatively small footprints on large multiservice bases—or perhaps because of it—Marines find ways to make their presence known.
“On the 10th of November we run a formation through the mainside base,” said LtCol Steele. “The Air Force knows we’re here, in a good way. For the Marine Corps Ball we invite all the services, all the mayors from all the surrounding cities. We do lots of community outreach.”
The next chapter for the Red Dogs is going to be introduction of the new and vastly improved Huey model, the UH-1 Yankee, with delivery of four new aircraft at each detachment expected to begin during spring 2014.
The new Huey variant, already in use by the active component, is a completely modernized aircraft with upgrades including avionics, engine performance, rotor configuration and cockpit displays.
In future years, the squadron will receive the Cobra “Zulu” upgrade, which also is essentially a brand-new helicopter now being flown and maintained by active-duty Marines.
With these ongoing changes, the squadron will be looking for active-duty Marines with experience on these two platforms to transition from active to Reserve.
“The Reserve end strength is not being reduced,” LtCol Steele pointed out, contrasting active-duty reductions. “We will continue to seek out Marines thinking about getting out of the active Corps, who have served in combat and are looking to transition into the [Reserve],” he said. “This squadron serves on the leading edge … when the gray helicopter comes over the horizon with the Red Dog call sign, Marines on the ground can be sure we’ll do a great job for them.”
Editor’s note: The author, CWO-4 Randy Gaddo, USMC (Ret), was a combat correspondent as an enlisted Marine and later a public affairs officer. He retired from active duty in 1996 and now is a contributing editor for Leatherneck.