Squadron back at Cherry Point after final deployment
As families and friends waited in a hangar for the return of 120 Marines from Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 4, its commanding officer stood off alone on the darkened flight line.
“My goal is to accomplish the mission, but I’m leaving with all these Marines and I’m bringing them all home. That was the goal,” said Lt. Col. Paul K. Johnson. “They go away for six months and with little connectivity with their families, all to culminate with this event here.”
Johnson led the squadron to Turkey for what will likely be its last ever operational deployment.
VMAQ-4 is scheduled to deactivate in June, the second EA-6B Prowler squadron to do so, part of a planned deactivation of all electronic warfare squadrons at Cherry Point over the next four years.
“This is the last operational deployment for VMAQ-4, the last time we’ll go out the door for six months and support a combatant commander in combat,” said Johnson.
The squadron was called up on short notice to head to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to support operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“It was a short notice deployment, so we got out the door fast,” said Johnson. “We went to a new location the Prowlers hadn’t been to in a while so there were a lot of unknown with this deployment. We knocked it out of the park. We had a great deployment. We did a lot of good things for CENTCOM to counter ISIS operations, so to come back after a hugely successful deployment and see all the families ready for their Marines, it’s fantastic.”
One of those families waiting was that of Lance Cpl. Dean Bertelli, an ejection seat mechanic for the Prowlers.
“They are heroes to me,” said the Marine’s mother, Karrin Bertelli, of Layfayette, Ind. “My dad was a Marine and stationed here at Cherry Point as well. My brother was a Marine stationed here at Cherry Point. It’s been a long standing family history. My husband was also stationed here as a Marine, so we’re keeping the tradition going and supporting all the heroes that give us our freedom every day.”
The family was well aware of the significance of the squadron’s final deployment.
“It’s kind of sad, seeing these old birds finally going away. It is an end to an era,” said Rodney Bertelli, father of the returning Marine. “Every day in the Marine Corps is a day of history for us.”
Sgt. Michael Ham, an intelligence/mission planning specialist who was on the advance party returning from Turkey, was there to greet the other members of the squadron.
“It is kind of astounding that we were able to bring the Prowler back into the CENTCOM region for actual operational missions,” said Ham. “Even though we’re sundowning, we showed the commanders that the Prowler can still play even though we’re shutting down soon.”
Lt. Zach Schwartz, of Cedar Point, waited with flowers for fiancé Lt. Jackie Fisher, an intel officer. Schwartz is with Marine Battalion Landing Team 2/6 with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“This is her first deployment,” said Schwartz. “It was a little bit different for us because I got home from my last deployment and we were together three weeks and then she deployed off to Incirlik, so it was a quick turnaround. Both of our units were operational in the same area so it was kind of funny. We sort of slapped hands back here in the states and she went over and took over where I left off.”
He knows the importance of the deployment.
“They have got a pretty good legacy as a squadron and it’s a pretty high note to end on,” said Schwartz. “I heard they did some pretty amazing stuff over there supporting some operations that are going to change the world, and that’s what Jackie’s all about, so I’m proud of her for being a part of it.”
While the squadron was on deployment, notable was an attempted coup of the Turkish government on July 15.
“It was very strange actually because my boss gave me a call that evening when it started and said ‘Hey what’s going on in Insirlik?’ And I said ‘Nothing’s going on in Insirlik.’ It was business as usual,” Johnson said. “Then all the sudden the power went out and it didn’t come back on for a week. We didn’t really know what was going on. There was a lot of speculation and Turkish officers that we saw we no longer saw and the Turks are flying F-16s over there and all of the sudden those F-16s stopped flying so it was very surreal. We were a little bit captive on what should be a joint base between the Turks and the U.S. Air Force. We kind of became trapped on that base without a lot of recourse there, so it was very strange for about a week.”
For the Marines in VMAQ-4, it meant no power and no air conditioning for a week, but like Marines, they adapted and overcame.
“As a Prowler squadron, we actually don’t have any organic equipment like that so we brought a collapsible, portable shelter with us that required this generator and A/C unit and we pulled some extra people from MWSS-274 down the street and so we brought these people who are not part of VMAQ-4 but are there specifically to do this generator maintenance and all the sudden when the coups happened, that became our refuge,” said Johnson. “That was the only place that still had power and still had air conditioning. We still had computers, so we could talk to people. I actually sent out a message to the families from that shelter to give them as much information as I could on what was going on with their Marines. That became our lifeline out there in Turkey whereas everywhere else was without power and air conditioning so we came up with some unique solutions. That generator, we brought a primary and a backup and they kind of became our lifelines for at least a week. We thought ourselves very smart for bringing them and very thankful that we brought the Marines to fix them.”
Cpl. Brandon Anderson, an aviation ordnance specialist, said being without power was rough but the Marines built morale.
“We were all out there grilling some steaks up,” he said. “I met a lot of new people that I had never talked to. The A/C was rough, but we got used to it.”
Cpl. Cole Smith, a generator mechanic, was among those vital to the squadron when the power went out.
“Obviously everyone was frustrated but he played a role in making sure that everyone had the power that they needed in the end just because of what his MOS is,” said girlfriend Sam Foster, who came out to greet Smith.
“Those guys were key for us surviving during the coups when the power got shut off,” said Ham. “Generators powered everything during that week there. They powered everything we needed. They were very key to our continuing operations out there because even though the coup in Turkey was going on, we were still supporting operations. We still had to do the Marine thing and suck it up and keep fighting.”
For Sgt. Mason Hernandez, an aircraft maintenance support equipment electronics technician, coming home was extra special, as he got to hold his 3-month old son Cohen for the first time.
“It is the most amazing feeling to be able to hold my child for the first time and after seeing him born on deployment, to actually hold him in person just means the world to me,” said Hernandez. “Just to be able to finally see him after six months of being gone and missing the first three months of his life, it’s definitely a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. It feels absolutely amazing. It is the best feeling in the world. It is indescribable.”