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05-11-09, 09:52 AM
Award-winning MCAS photojournalist off to Afghanistan
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May 10, 2009 - 4:26 PM

He joined the Marine Corps in the hope of being a part of something big.

Now, Gregory Aalto's ready for the experience of a lifetime.

Aalto, a 22-year-old Lance Corporal and journalist at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, was picked to cover the conflict in Afghanistan and follow the Marine Attack Squadron-214 during their seven to nine-month tour. He'll report via the base newspaper and a blog on issues in the Middle East.

"It's an honor. I've wanted to deploy for a year now, but it hasn't worked out. I'm finally getting that chance," Aalto said. "I'll get to cover Marine life from a different angle overseas. It's really a dream come true."

Separate sections from VMA-214 left earlier in the week with the rest deploying Sunday afternoon, joining the support in Operation Enduring Freedom. Aalto teamed up with the last group.

The squadron will be involved in the II Marine Expeditionary Brigade, in addition to other crews from Yuma. He'll be covering everything from the daily routine in Afghanistan to convoys to combat. He'll also be writing feature stories about fellow Marines.

A native of Renton, Wash., Aalto joined the USMC in 2006. After attending Defense Information School, a requirement for all Marines entering a media-related field, he received orders for Yuma. He joined the Public Affairs Office and became one of seven staff reporters for The Desert Warrior.

Aalto's work has been nationally recognized in the field of excellence by the USMC. He recently earned an honorable-mention selection for Marine Photojournalist of the Year.

"I couldn't be more excited for him. He's really blessed to be where he is. He's really got a gift," said Marty Aalto, Greg's father, concerning his son's career.

Marty said he is amazed at his son's accomplishments, but originally wasn't happy when he enlisted. In fact, he had to visit the recruiter to find out firsthand what was going on. At the time, Aalto was working in the restaurant business and couldn't have been further from pursuing a career in journalism.

"I thought he was nuts," said Marty. "Greg was always good at making mature decisions, and joining the Corps was one of them, but I wasn't sure at first. I had to go down there and talk to the recruiter myself. After that, I wanted to join."

Aalto had always been into the news, but never consider taking his interest any further that reading the daily paper. His original plan for joining the Corps was to be in the infantry, a spot that was filled while at the recruiter's office. His recruiter then suggested journalism.

"I'd like to say I've always wanted to be a journalist and have that kind of story, but I didn't. It just happened, and really, it's the best decision career-wise I could of made," Aalto said. "It's just natural to me."

Aside from winning awards for photography, Aalto has become a skilled writer. During his first year in Yuma he tackled issues concerning the U.S.-Mexico border in relation to Marine training exercises, as well as wrote stories about Marines who are injured in combat or had interesting jobs. He feels that has been some of his best work.

For Aalto, landing his first tour was a challenge. Working as a journalist in the Corps had placed him in a category deemed undeployable, meaning he's not required to ship out for regular tours of duty. He has to volunteer and be asked by his command officer. He also has to be skilled with a rifle, not just a camera. It took Aalto four times to qualify for deployment via the rifle range.

When orders came down for VMA-214 to ship out in March, Aalto was asked by his CO, Captain Rob Dolan, to join. He deployed on Mother's Day for Afghanistan and will arrive at Camp Bastion in a week.

Lance Cpl. Graham Benson, a reporter for the Desert Warrior, spoke of the impact Aalto has had on his career.

"When I first got here six months ago, Greg's mentorship really helped me out. Due to that, my journalism progressed farther that I ever would have thought. He's our best writer and will definitely be missed here at the shop," Benson, winner of the Thomas Jefferson Award for writing, said. "I owe a lot to him. I give him credit for that award."

Lance Cpl. Pete Zrioka, design editor for the newspaper, said Aalto is the right man for the job.

"Hands down, he's the guy you want on a deployment. He'll do the leg work, the research and look everywhere and report off that. He's known to write stories with impact," Zrioka said.

Aalto's dive into the world of journalism may have been "accidental", but that trip has placed him into time that history books will mention for decades, and he'll be right in the middle, armed with his camera and laptop.

You can follow the progress in Afghanistan from Lance Cpl. Aalto by visiting his blog at www.southernafghanistannews.blogspot.com.