ABOARD THE USS PELELIU -- Many have heard or read about the many heroes in Marine Corps aviation history. Pilots like Col. John Glenn, who went on to become the first man to orbit the Earth and then to become a United States Senator, or Maj. "Pappy" Boyington, the storied WWII fighter pilot from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 214, known as the "Black Sheep," who shot down countless enemy aircraft during WWII, or risk takers like Lt. Gen. Thomas H. Miller Jr., who set a world speed record in an F4H-1 in 1960 and became the first American to fly the AV-8 Harrier.
Very little, however, has been written about the maintenance Marines and sailors in the background, who made it possible, through their hard work and dedication, for the Marine pilots to achieve their feats.
"They are the unsung heroes, the money makers," said Gunnery Sgt. Gordon H. Neilson, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166, MCAS Miramar, San Diego. They are the sleep-deprived, grease-covered maintenance men and women with dirty fingernails, who toil through the hot and humid days and dark and lonely nights in oily coveralls, reaking of jet fuel and hydraulic fluid.
They are Marines like Cpl. Sean A. Skinner, an AV8B Harrier mechanic, with the Blacksheep from Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, Az.
Skinner, whose Squadron is currently attached to HMM-166 for the deployment, said he was aware of and proud to be a part of a squadron with such a distinguished history, but modestly rejects the idea that he is an unsung hero.
Although mechanics rarely get to experience the limelight, that doesn't bother Skinner. Our job is to maintain and repair the aircraft so that pilots can maintain their flight qualifications and so they can carry out missions. "We are a team," said Skinner. If pilots do something good, it reflects on the whole command, he said. "No one part of an airplane can fly itself," said Skinner.
Another Marine who is not concerned with the limelight is Sgt. Amber Follet, a CH-46 Sea Knight airframes mechanic, HMM-166, from Hayward, Wisc. Follet said she was perfectly content with being in the background. According to Follet, she is simply a Marine mechanic doing her job and that any special recognition is unnecessary. Follet said she gains job satisfaction simply by seeing Marine pilots launch in well-maintained aircrafts and watching them return to the flight deck safely.
Follet's view was echoed by Sgt. Kurt A. Imhoff, an airframes quality assurance inspector, HMM-166, from Chicago, Ill. Skinner, a friendly and modest Marine who is quick to laugh when praised, is described by his supervisors as a Marine who works until he drops. He is also a Marine few outside his unit would recognize because he spends most of the time with his face buried inside the body of an aircraft.
Imhoff credits his work ethic to his mother. "She was a single parent and a student and worked very hard to pay the bills and raise me and my sister," said Imhoff. "I just try to work hard and hope the Marines around me will follow," he said. "I remember when I was a lance corporal seeing some sergeants just sit around and not work. I told myself, 'that's not the kind of example I want to set.'"
Setting the example is not the only reason he works so hard, said Imhoff.
"I love what I do," he said as the ocean rushed past him just feet away at about 12 knots.
Working on multi-million dollar aircraft and serving his country on such an important deployment is an experience Imoff said he will never forget.
"When I hear the Cobra blades pop or see a Huey take off with mounted 50 cal. and GAU-17 Gattling Gun to provide close air support to the grunts on the ground, I get this motivating feeling that's hard to describe," said Imhoff.
Cpl. Marrisa M. Rivera, a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter flightline mechanic from San Antonio, Tx., gets similar feeling when she sees and hears aircraft she has spent many hour working on lift off the ground. Rivera goes as far as to admit that she almost becomes emotionally attached to them. It's hard not to. Especially when she stops to consider the seriousness of the work that she and the other Marines do and how it affects other lives, said Rivera, referring to the pilots and Marines who receive support on the ground by her aircraft.
All of the maintenance personnel understand that other people's lives are in their hands, said Rivera.
Because of this, Rivera said most aircraft maintenance personnel often ask themselves in their own way, "Did I do everything I could to ensure the quality of my work."
Rivera said the mechanics and quality assurance Marines in her shop have developed such a pride of ownership and inspect in such incredible detail that it borders on being obsessive compulsive.
"Sure we may not get the recognition that others in the unit get, but that's not important to us," said Rivera. "There are other more important things in life," she said. "I don't mind standing in the shadows."
"We know that the aircraft crews and the Marines on the ground have families who are counting on us to do our job," said Rivera. "Our entire shop works very hard and nobody stops until the job is done and the mission is accomplished," said Rivera.
The job may be done when the bird gets in the air, said Rivera. "But the mission won't be accomplished until everyone is back home safely from this deployment."
For more information on the 11th MEU (SOC), visit the unit's web site at www.usmc.mil/11thmeu.