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Marines replacing Harriers lost in attack
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The U.S. Marine Corps is in the process of replacing the six Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA-211) AV-8B Harriers destroyed during an insurgent attack Sept. 14 at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
“We are slowly building back up,” Capt. Brett Ackerbauer told the Yuma Sun Saturday afternoon in a hangar at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
To keep the unit prepared for combat operations after the attack, six Harriers were temporarily loaned to the VMA-211 “Wake Island Avengers” from the VMA-231 “Ace of Spades.”
Permanently replacing the Harriers poses a challenge because the aircraft has not been produced since 2003, and is slated to be replaced by the F-35B Lightning 2 Joint Strike Fighter in coming years. As such, the Marine Corps is requisitioning Harriers from other units who have extra available.
“We are starting to accept planes from other squadrons,” Ackerbauer said.
In addition to destroying the six Harriers during the attack, the insurgents were also able to significantly damage two other Harriers, resulting in the biggest single-day loss of U.S. combat aircraft since the Vietnam War.
The attack also resulted in the deaths of Lt. Col. Christopher “Otis” Raible, VMA-211's commanding officer, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, a Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 electronics technician. Raible was killed by an explosion while engaging the enemy with a pistol in hand.
In addition, several other Marines were wounded in the attack carried out by 15 well-equipped and trained insurgents wearing U.S. Army uniforms who managed to sneak past the defenses and gain entry into the compound.
The loss of Raible and Atwell was heavy on the minds of the 40 remaining members of VMA-211 who returned to MCAS Yuma Saturday afternoon. A larger portion of the squadron had returned home Thursday.
“It is obviously great to be back home and just to be in America” Ackerbauer said. “It is sad to not bring everybody back because there are people that don't have anybody to greet.”
Comforted by the knowledge her son Major James Traylor had survived his deployment, Sharon Lunday traveled to Yuma all the way from Georgia to meet him when he returned Saturday.
“I'm lucky I get to do this,” she said, adding she was “very anxious” when news of the attack first reached her. “As soon as I heard Camp Bastion I knew he was there.”
A short e-mail from Traylor after the attack let Lunday know he was still alive, but she was still shocked by the deaths of Raible and Atwell.
“It is really devastating,” she said. “You just don't expect it. That is one thing that shakes you more.”
Traylor was pleased to see his mother, but lamented the loss of his fellow Marines.
“It is good to be back in Yuma,” he said. “It is sad that we didn't bring everybody back.”
Although the Marines had heavy hearts, there was also joy and laughter when they came home. Sgt. Phillip Belanger smiled broadly as his young daughters ran into his arms when he exited a bus on the tarmac.
“It is an amazing feeling,” he said, noting he had been waiting for the reunion a “long time,” because being separated from his family was “absolutely the hardest part” about being deployed.
The first thing he planned to do with his family was to “go get some Mexican food,” he said.
When asked if there was any good Mexican food in Afghanistan, he laughed and replied “no. There is none. They have a Mexican night and that is about all. That doesn't count.”
VMA-211 accomplished the mission they had been assigned to do in Afghanistan, which was to support the infantry units on the ground in harm's way, Ackerbauer said.
“You have to support the guys on the ground because they have guys that don't always come back too. If we can help them, and make sure more of them get back, then we are doing our job.”
VMA-211 will always honor the memory of Raible and Atwell, who made the ultimate sacrifice to accomplish that mission, Ackerbauer added.