On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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Not all deployments are created equal.

While all are difficult, and most are dangerous, some are more organized than others.

Sometimes service members are called to deploy within days of learning they’re heading off to a dangerous location to defend American freedom. Others volunteer for assignments without knowing what their mission will be, whom they’ll serve with or what role they’ll fill.

Power line mechanics with Thomson’s squadron—Marine Attack Squadron 231—maintain an AV-8B aircraft on Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in March 2013. Marine Corps photo by Sergeant Gabriela GarciaPower line mechanics with Thomson’s squadron—Marine Attack Squadron 231—maintain an AV-8B aircraft on Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in March 2013. Marine Corps photo by Sergeant Gabriela GarciaSo what happens when crises arise and force the military to throw all of its meticulous preparations out the window?

The troops answer the call and complete the mission.

Former Marine Corporal Devon Thomson deployed twice during his five years in the Corps, and both were rushed.

An aircraft electrical systems technician who worked on AV-8 Harriers, Thomson spent his first deployment as part the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the USS Bataan off the coast of Libya in 2011.

“Both of my deployments were last-minute type deals,” he said. “With … Libya—we got our orders [in mid-March] and we were gone the next week.

“They pulled us together and told us, ‘You guys got three days of leave. Stay within the area and we’re going to be out of here in the next five or six days,’ Thomson, 27, said. “We were on the ship on March 30.”

The Marine Corps always stands ready to respond to global crises—it’s the type of mission the branch specializes in—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute.

With little mission-specific training and not a lot of time to say goodbye to family and friends, Thomson and the 22nd MEU headed out to relieve the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and the 26th MEU.

“Before deployments, we’re supposed to do our pre-deployment health assessment, where you go talk to doctors, and make sure you’re in the right mindset. You’re supposed to go to the rifle range and requalify and get everything like that [out of the way].”

With about six days between receiving orders and shipping out, Thomson and his squadron didn’t do any of that. Not normally seafaring service members, they didn’t have time to acclimate to ship life before leaving.

“We’re supposed to go on ships for the MEUs—about three or four [times] for a couple of weeks at a time, a few months prior [to the scheduled deployment]. We couldn’t do any of that.”

Instead, they boarded Ospreys from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, and landed aboard the Mediterranean-bound ship.

Because they left four months early, their seven-month mission turned into 11. They returned in February 2012.

“Most MEUs are supposed to be six-to-seven month deployments, at the most,” he said, adding it was a long deployment. In fact, Thomson was told it was the longest Marine Corps MEU since Vietnam.

Seven months after returning from the coast of Libya  supporting  Operation Unified Protector, Thomson and his squadron faced a similar situation. This time, Afghanistan was the final destination.

“I remember the time specifically because I was on leave for my sister’s wedding,” Thomson said. “We weren’t supposed to leave until October or November, but the squadron that we were supposed to relieve (Marine Attack Squadron 211) was attacked and they lost all six of their Harriers and their commanding officer was killed.”

Devon Thomson, right, and his grandfather enjoy some time together at Thomson’s sister’s wedding in Georgia. Within hours, Thomson would race back to his Marine Corps base in North Carolina to prepare for an emergency deployment to southern Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Susan ThomsonDevon Thomson, right, and his grandfather enjoy some time together at Thomson’s sister’s wedding in Georgia. Within hours, Thomson would race back to his Marine Corps base in North Carolina to prepare for an emergency deployment to southern Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Susan ThomsonIn the attack, insurgents wearing U.S. Army uniforms launched a suicide assault on Camp Bastion in Helmand province, Afghanistan, the night of September 14. Two Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Raible, the VMA-211 commander, and Sergeant Bradley Atwell, were killed and nine others were wounded.

Numerous media outlets called the assault “the worst loss of U.S. airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War,” and Thomson and his squadron were tasked with picking up the wreckage.

On leave in Atlanta, Thomson, who separated from the Marine Corps in 2013, got the call the day before his sister’s wedding. His command allowed him to attend, but he was ordered to return to base immediately after the festivities.

“We got ready, we hopped on some planes and we were gone. We got out there [to Camp Bastion] and we had to help those guys clean up and relieve them and get immediate air support out there.”

Thomson and Marine Attack Squadron 231 spent eight months conducting operations in southern Afghanistan before returning home in April 2013. Thomson, now a full-time college student, said he’d rather have his boots on the ground in Afghanistan than be stationed on a ship off the coast of Libya.

“I much rather prefer, even though it’s probably more dangerous on land, to be out there [in Afghanistan] because for me, mentally, something about being on a ship for that long just messes with your head.”

Angela Powell understands how Thomson feels.

A former petty officer first class who served in the Navy for more than nine years before separating in 2011, Powell was a damage controlman and an experienced sailor before she volunteered for an Individual Augmentee tour to Iraq in 2009. While in theater, she was attached to an Army unit and tasked with guarding prisoners at Camp Bucca, the largest U.S. prison in Iraq, which housed more than 22,000 detainees at its peak.

“With boots on the ground in Iraq, it was difficult because at any time you can receive incoming mortar rounds, in addition to lots of other threats,” she said. “But there are amenities to alleviate some of that [anxiety and stress].

“Sometimes there are options on base—Subway, Burger King, the PX and the USO—to take your mind off the mission at hand for a moment. If you’re feeling like you need a slice of home, you can probably find something.”

But while underway aboard a ship, Powell said sailors are essentially in a steel box for months on end.

“If your mission requires it, you may not get into port for a very long time. You can’t walk down to the bazaar and grab a movie or get that sandwich. It’s basically what you brought with you and what is on site. And ships are small.”

Powell sometimes went weeks without seeing sunlight while deployed at sea because she was working 10 to 12-hour shifts, sometimes with a six or eight hour watch on top of her normal duties.

“There’s not a lot of down time and where there is, it’s filled with other people. You can’t just go for a walk because there is nowhere to walk.”

Petty Officer First Class Angela Powell flashes a peace sign during Army convoy training in Fort Lewis, Washington. Photo courtesy of Angela PowellPetty Officer First Class Angela Powell flashes a peace sign during Army convoy training in Fort Lewis, Washington. Photo courtesy of Angela PowellTired of watching service members with families serve multiple combat tours while plenty of single troops were willing to go in their places, Powell took the IA assignment while between duty stations. Unlike Thomson, she had ample time to prepare for the deployment, but didn’t know what her mission in Iraq would be when she volunteered. After receiving her deployment orders, she knew she’d be working in detention operations, but wouldn’t know the particulars until she was downrange.  

Nor did she know any of the other sailors in her newly constituted augmentee unit. When she reported to Fort Lewis, Washington—since renamed Joint Base Lewis-McChord—for training, she’d meet her new shipmates who were all bound for Iraq.

She explained the seemingly awkward IA scenario that was used extensively during the Iraq War. To fill shortages in certain roles, a service—usually the Army or Marine Corps—trains personnel from another service to fill the needed job function. In most cases, it was the Navy or Air Force providing the personnel to fill the empty spaces.

“They took these people who were all different ratings—we were just Navy personnel and the majority of us [weren’t trained for that job]—so we were sent to Fort Lewis and … sent through a month of detention training.”

Powell, who also served at-sea deployments in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia, had no prior experience working in corrections, but the Army needed people and she stepped up.

When she wasn’t training for the mission, she prepared herself by researching the area she was heading to and learned about local customs and cultural differences. She said many troops don’t prepare beforehand and once in-country, they can’t interact with the local population.

“You’re confined to a [forward operating base], but even on that FOB there are third-country nationals and people who are indigenous to the region. We want to be respectful to them and learn about them and help them, so it’s good to establish rapport...”

The military provides basic cultural lessons for troops during pre-deployment training, but it’s just enough to get by, Powell said.

“They only give you so much [information] because you’re not going over there to hang out, so it’s very definitive: ‘This is what you do and this is what you don’t do.’ ”

Powell, a Kansas native who now lives in Arizona, is considering rejoining the Navy as an officer once she gets her nursing degree.

During the Iraq tour, Powell said her duties were similar to those of a prison guard, except that they were performed at a makeshift prison on a forward operating base in the desert. She also worked on “max row,” guarding the inmates classified as high-risk detainees—the baddest of the bad apples.

“I chose to take that IA tour—some people don’t, some people just get picked. I chose to do it. I wanted to do it,” she said. “I was very willing to go help Army units and I was also very interested in helping other people. And I’d do it again.”

Thomson and Powell’s deployment experiences mirror the experiences of millions of troops who’ve traveled to faraway corners of the globe to defend America and support its allies. Faced with adverse circumstances, often with minimal preparation and little time to adjust, they trained, adapted and fulfilled their missions with honor and professionalism—just like they planned. 

Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.