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Training helps ‘Gunfighters’ make tough calls

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When Staff Sgt. Bart Davis, formerly a crew chief with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 and St. Charles, Mo., native, saw enemy combatants shooting at his UH-1Y Huey helicopter during a critical ammunition resupply mission for ground forces in Helmand province, Afghanistan, he had to make a decision.

Davis, as the crew chief of the Huey section’s lead aircraft, had to decide whether or not to return fire in defense of the two crews rapidly off-loading their cargo to the Marines fighting on the ground.

The crew chief’s choice to return fire helped both Huey’s get out of the dangerous situation and helped earn him a Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism.

His actions are considered an example of effectively understanding and employing the rules of engagement, explained Maj. Alan Schuller, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing deputy staff judge advocate and an Issaquah, Wash., native.

Understanding, and being confident in, the rules of engagement and the laws of armed conflict are as critical to air crew Marines in the sky as they are to the infantry Marines on the ground. T

he Marines of the HMLA-369 “Gunfighters” are aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., preparing for another deployment to Afghanistan. They are working with the 3rd MAW Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, as well as the Tactical Training Exercise Control Group to incorporate enhanced rules of engagement training, ensuring the crews are prepared to act decisively and correctly when faced with unclear enemy situations.

“I can rattle off the rules or LOAC principles or the tactical directives,” said Schuller, “but if the air crew hasn’t practiced applying those in close air support-type missions or urban environments, it’s not going to be nearly as useful and they’ll be learning as they go. With additional scenario training by the time they get there, they’ll already understand what’s expected of them.”

Currently, all squadron personnel attend mandatory LOAC and ROE classes as part of their predeployment training, but Schuller has been working with the Gunfighters to refine their scenario flights by flying with them to observe their decision-making skills.

“We’re trying to make a good training program even more effective,” said Schuller. “We’re fine-tuning it for the needs of the air crew and the challenges they’re going to be facing there.”

Schuller explained that he uses the post-flight briefs, or “hot washes” as they’re more commonly called, to discuss the crew’s decision-making during the flight scenarios and other potential factors they could encounter in theater.

“There are very few situations in which the application of operational law rules are very clear-cut,” said Schuller. “We give them book ends – an example of somebody who could have made a better decision and an example of a really clear-cut decision to shoot.”

Lance Cpl. Zach Bailey, a crew chief with HMLA-369 and Springhill, Fla., native, flew a night close air support scenario with Schuller aboard MAGCC Twentynine Palms Sept. 20 and participated in his one-on-one ROE training while in flight.

“[This training] is pretty thorough,” said Bailey, who is preparing for his first deployment. “There are some situations that might surprise me, but I’ll be ready for them.”

Schuller, with the help of Maj. Brett Wilson, the 3rd MAW (Forward) staff judge advocate, debriefed the Huey pilots they observed a night close air support scenario flight, during which the air crew tracked suspected terrorist role players through the streets of Mainside Twentynine Palms and had to make engagement decisions based on the role players’ behavior.

“This helps us sort through the gray areas, and make [the situation] black and white,” said Maj. Dan Groeling, a Huey pilot with HMLA-369 and Chicago native.

Schuller and Wilson seek to incorporate similar specific scenario-based ROE training for air crew in other squadrons before deployments to ensure universal understanding and confidence.

With further improvements to their training, more air crew Marines can emulate Davis’s cool, fast and ROE-correct response under fire.

Article by Cpl. Lisa Tourtelot, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar