MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Families waited anxiously in the darkness for their Phantoms to arrive. When they finally did, loved ones cried, and children jumped and hollered with happiness – their Marines and sailors were back home safely from a seven-month deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Marines and sailors from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, also known as the Phantoms, were reunited with their loved ones in the wee-hours Thursday at the Combat Center.
Family members welcomed them with homemade banners, signs, and decorated T-shirts, while Marine Corps Community Services provided a catering truck filled with all types of food, drinks and snacks.
Pamela L. Worthington and her husband Jeff wanted to be the first to welcome the Phantoms to the Combat Center, so they waited in the darkness just outside the main gate holding a sign for their son, Sgt. Michael Falzone. When the three buses drove by the couple, they jumped with joy and waved their sign as if trying to get the attention of a rock star.
“Words just can’t describe how happy we are that he’s home safely,” said Mrs. Worthington. The Phantoms supported U.S. and allied operations with two highly advanced unmanned aerial vehicle detachments during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
The RQ-7B Shadow detachment saw action in Afghanistan, while the Scan Eagle detachment operated in Iraq. Scan Eagle later joined the rest of the squadron in Afghanistan in late January, said Sgt. Shawn L. Purnell, UAV operator and Weapons & Tactics instructor, from Millersville, Md.
“We were able to build up and do a lot of things for the Marine Corps and the VMU community that hadn’t been done,” said Lt. Col. James W. Frey, commanding officer, VMU-3, and a native of Pennsylvania. “Between OIF and OEF, the squadron flew over 29,000 hours of Shadow and ScanEagle, which is a record by Marine Corps standards.”
"The Phantoms flew countless hours to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and were instrumental in fire support coordination, terminal guidance operations and artillery targeting,” Purnell said.
But it wasn’t easy, said Sgt. Maj. Rufino Mendez, the squadron’s sergeant major. Mendez said the Phantoms had to overcome typical challenges faced by new units.
“Since day one, it’s been a marathon. Like not having the normal overhead stuff that normal units have – the desks, the computers, the electronics, things of that nature, that made it difficult from the beginning,” he said.
But with the help of sister squadron VMU-1, Regimental Combat Team 7, and plenty of innovation and creativity, VMU-3 got on its feet quickly and provided support to every Marine Battalion in the Helmand province during numerous operations, including Operation Cobra’s Anger in Now Zad and Operation Moshtarak in Marjeh, Mendez said.
Frey and Mendez credited the success of the deployment, not only to the hard work and dedication of those who went overseas, but also to those who stayed as the Remain Behind Element.
“The Phantoms also left behind a small detachment of Marines to support expanding VMU operations in Southern Afghanistan. These Marines will be joining the rest of the squadron in Twentynine Palms upon the completion of their mission,” said 1st Lt. John M. Mahler, intelligence officer, from Fort Worth, Texas.
“The Marines did a fantastic job, given the environment we were in. I think it goes to show, if you put Marines in any scenario they’re going to shine,” Mendez said. “These boys and girls shined.”