By Marine Corps Cpl. Brian Adam Jones
2nd Marine Aircraft Wing
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan, Aug. 10, 2011 – As an airframe mechanic with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, Cpl. Leonard R. Knudsen Jr.’s job can feel the same whether he is at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., or Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
“I fix parts on the aircraft,” Knudsen said two weeks into his deployment. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in New River or here. The only difference is now it’s hotter and dusty.”
That was until the Chicago native was asked to repair something he never had before: a bullet hole.
One of the squadron’s CH-53E Super Stallions returned from the peril of the dusty southern Afghanistan environment having taken enemy small-arms fire on a recent mission. One of the rounds entered the underside of the aircraft and went through a steel rail used to attach cargo to the hull.
“Seeing that gave me a sense of greater purpose,” Knudsen said, sweat beading on his forehead. “They were standing directly underneath it when they shot. If they’re that close, it shows how dangerous it is out there.”
The dust at Camp Bastion can be so thick as to make earth and sky nearly indecipherable. With a graceful whirl of large blades, the squadron’s Super Stallions frequently depart the security of the hangar and disappear into the sandy expanse to provide a broad range of support for Marines and their coalition and Afghan partners on the ground.
Using the largest helicopter in the American arsenal, the squadron supports the fight in Afghanistan with heavy-lift capabilities, resupplies, and troop insertion and extraction.
When he first arrived, Knudsen said, he would stare at the vastness in front of him and it didn’t seem real.
“In every photo I had ever seen of Afghanistan, there were mountains,” he said. “All I saw here was dirt.”
One morning, Knudsen walked out onto the flightline when the dust had settled just enough, and was able to see the jagged outline of a mountain on the horizon.
“That’s when it hit me that the enemy was out there, and we had guys out there going after them,” he said.
Knudsen smoothed out the steel surrounding the helicopter’s wound. His next task was to cut a piece of metal proportionate to the size of the hole, rivet it to the rest of the railing, and sand it down – returning it to an unblemished piece of steel.
As he spoke of his duties with quiet intensity, Knudsen briefly allowed his mind to drift back to his loved ones back home.
“I’m excited to deploy, but naturally I miss my wife and kid,” the soft-spoken Marine said of his wife, Britney, and his 11-month-old son, Kyler. “When I’m tired from a long day, I go home and call my wife, and I can sleep pretty good.”