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Shaffer
09-12-02, 07:34 AM
In the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on this country, Yuma's Marine Corps Harriers played a vital role in the war unleashed on Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan.

It's a role they're still playing, according to Harrier pilots at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.


Maj. Michael Gough (left) and Capt. Matt Haefner talk Aug. 28 about the events that occurred on Sept. 11. Gough was at his home when he heard the news of the terrorist attacks. Not long after, he and Haefner were flying missions over Afghanistan. Photos by Alfred J. Hernandez
When bombs absolutely have to be on target on time with friendly troops waiting on the ground close by, it's typically the Marine Corps' AV-8B Harrier that gets called in to do the job.

Capt. Matt Haefner, a Harrier pilot with Yuma's Marine Attack Squadron-211, said Afghanistan was no exception, even though the Harriers were hundreds of miles away on ships in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan.

During Operation Anaconda, Army special forces asked specifically for Harriers. The soldiers clearing out the mountainous caves in the Shah-e-kot region wanted Harriers as the primary bomb-dropping aircraft and F-16s as backup, Haefner said.

There was a reason for that, he said: "We missed none of our targets."

As he leaned forward in his chair, Haefner tried to explain to a visitor the art of dropping bombs.

While the explanation is a bit technical, there's no missing the pride in Haefner's voice when he talks about his aircraft and the role it played and is still playing, although without much publicity, he says in the war on terrorism.

"War's bad. There's no other way to put it," Haefner said.

But in this case, it's a necessary evil. "Those guys were ruthless people, and unfortunately, I think we have to be ruthless back."

Maj. Michael Gough, another VMA-211 Harrier pilot who was on the Afghanistan deployment, said it's too bad there's no other solution to the problem than military force.

But when you're up against a "willful enemy," as he puts it, keeping your country safe comes first.

Gough said he was at home on a "crew rest" day when he saw the second plane fly into New York's World Trade Center. He got up and went directly to the air station.

"I knew right then that, hey, I'm not resting anymore. It's time to go to work."

Both men agree that the long-term aspect of the war on terrorism means some pretty significant changes for this country and for Yuma's Marines.

"It really changes the dynamics of what we do around here," Haefner said. Before Sept. 11, he explained, everybody else who had a job to do went out and did it on a regular basis firefighters fought fires, policemen policed the streets.

"The military folks, we train for war, so we're always just training, we're never doing it for real," Haefner said.

Now they are.

"I'm sure that every one of the pilots in this squadron will probably go out and drop bombs for real again, either in Afghanistan or who the heck knows where," Haefner said.

Currently, parts of two Yuma squadrons are deployed with two different Marine Expeditionary Units, said MCAS spokesman 1st Lt. Kevin Hyde.

A detachment from VMA-214 is with the 31st MEU and a detachment from VMA-513 is with the 11th MEU. In addition, a number of Marines from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron-13 also deploy with each Harrier detachment that leaves Yuma.

"It's still going on, and it's still real, and I'm sure there are Harriers dropping bombs over there as we speak," Haefner said of the fighting in Afghanistan.

It's just not reported on as much anymore.

"It's just one of those things. When it's new and it's fresh, it's in the public's eye," Haefner continued.

Lately, the news seems centered on whether the United States will go to war with Iraq, and Gough who's been a Marine for 13 years says that kind of uncertainty is good.

It keeps the military planning for any contingency, and that planning keeps the enemy off balance and unable to organize more terrorist attacks, Gough said.

"If that amount of pressure keeps what happened on Sept. 11 from happening [again] then I think my job is a great job, and I think what we're doing is very, very important."

The men also agree that perhaps the toughest part of their job now is leaving their wives and families.

"It sucks," Haefner said bluntly.

He said his wife "did great" without him, but now that he's home again, he's noticed a change.

"My wife is a lot more worried. I can tell by the questions she asks. She knows I can't tell her if something was going to happen, but every little thing now, she'll be asking, 'Well, why'd you do this or why'd you do that,' thinking it's something extra but it's just normal training."

Gough said his wife, too, has her fears, but she's not only the wife of a Marine Corps fighter pilot, she's the daughter of one.

"My wife signed on the dotted line to be a Marine Corps wife when she married me," Gough said, with obvious pride.

And even though the war on terror has "absolutely" affected her concern for him, "It's part of her job and her background to support what we do," he said.

It's that kind of solid support that makes it much easier for him to concentrate on the work at hand, he added.

The military also needs the public's support, Gough said, because, "It's not easy keeping (up our) level of preparation."

Keeping America a morally and economically strong country is the best way he can think of for the public to help.

It's simple, Gough said. Just continue to go to work, or take a trip or simply be kind to one another.

Then the bad guys don't win.

Haefner said he thinks another major terrorist attack in this country is a very real possibility.

"I think the American people as a whole have a tendency to just assume all that stuff's not going to happen to us, and it is," he said. He suggests that Americans get in the habit of reporting things that seem out of the ordinary.

"People shouldn't worry about hurting someone's feelings if they think something is suspicious," Haefner said.

The most important thing to Gough right now is his family and his "extended" family the people of this country, he said.

"As long as we're keeping them safe, then I think we're doing the right thing."