ABOARD USS PELELIU -- It's been a busy year for Maj. Barry Dowell and some of his comrades.
In October 2002, Dowell, a Harrier pilot by trade, was doing refresher training at VMAT-203, a training squadron at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., after serving as a flight instructor in Texas for two years.
Fast forward to three weeks ago, and Dowell had completed more than a dozen combat missions, most of them north of Baghdad.
"It's pretty wild," said the 34-year-old Lexington, Ky., native, call sign 'Smooth.'
During October and early November, AV-8B Harriers from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163(Reinforced), the Aviation Combat Element of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), flew more than 150 sorties and 230 hours in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
According to Maj. John 'Bull' Rahe, the officer in charge of the Harrier detachment from VMA-513, MCAS Yuma, day missions flown were largely for reconnaissance, keeping an eye on oil pipelines up north while the rest of the MEU was on the al-Faw peninsula conducting Operation Sweeney. Surveillance and reconnaissance information was passed directly to MEU forward air controllers on the ground, who passed the information to ground forces to act upon.
"Missions at night were more varsity," said Rahe, who flew combat missions over southern Iraq during Operation Southern Watch in 1998.
"We went deeper into the country and performed close air support for Army ground units executing ground sweeps and raids."
Rahe was the operations officer at VMAT-203 last October. He and Maj. Jeff Fails, also with the 13th MEU, were getting ready to transfer to Yuma after completing tours as instructor pilots at 203.
Three other Harrier pilots currently on the 13th MEU, Capt. John Rountree, Capt. Chris Bergrud and Capt. Jeff Ward, also checked in to VMA-513 around the same time. Dowell was the last to receive his orders.
"They halted all moves after I left, I was the last one out," Dowell said. "Even when I left, my squadron assignment wasn't certain. I spoke to my monitor by cell phone as I was driving west, and my orders changed twice before I got to Yuma."
In the end, he was assigned to the Flying Nightmares - which had been his first squadron after completing flight training - and deployed with the 13th MEU(SOC) in August.
Other Harrier night missions included reconnaissance and show of force, and nearly all included aerial refueling on multiple types of tankers. Rahe said bringing instructor pilots right back to a deploying fleet squadron hasn't been a problem at all, and noted that their experience and instincts in the air has made his job as the senior pilot easier. He also said that the success of the air missions over Iraq was not just due to the pilots.
"We only had one mission cancellation in five weeks of OIF - we lost 2 sorties out of 162 flown. That percentage is a tribute to the incredible hard work and dedication each and every Marine and Sailor provided. The Marines in our detachment performed brilliantly, but much success has to be contributed also to the entire ACE as well as the Peleliu's air department. It was a total team effort."