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Tuesday, April 1

Helicopter base takes shape in Iraqi desert

By Gordon Lubold | Marine Corps Times

WITH MARINE ATTACK SQUADRON 214, Iraq - It's the beginning of a war here, or at least it feels like it, as Marines arrive from ships in the Persian Gulf to build a new forward operating base on this remote piece of desert.

There was nothing here less than two weeks ago, when Cobra helicopter pilots touched down to get a night's sleep during the hectic first days of operations against Iraq. It's now a bustling base, as Marines arrive on helicopters that ferried them from various ships in the Gulf.

Tents are going up. Electricians are wiring the base. Showers were added, and hot food is expected within days.

The base already is serving as a forward area refueling point, but it also will be home to helicopter maintenance crews, who will be better positioned to fix the birds that are now under a constant barrage of dust.

Helicopter squadrons had been based on ships in the Gulf, but it was taking too long for some of them to deliver troops and supplies to the fighting. Moving closer in also will cut down on fuel consumption.

``If you're working that far away from the fight, you'd basically have to get gas right away,'' said Lt. Col. David Coffman, operations officer for Marine Aircraft Group 16, said on the Boxer amphibious assault ship days before his unit moved ashore.

``I just can't support from here,'' said Coffman, whose group is based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, Calif. ``At some point, we just have to move ashore.''

Marine commanders decided to move their base of operations into Iraq, where the refueling point already was established. Dozens of other forward refueling points are in the area, and Corps officials haven't ruled out moving some of the operations here farther north, if necessary.

The Marine Light Helicopter Attack Squadron 269, based at New River Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina, also is operating out of the new base. The unit is targeting pockets of Iraqi resistance and monitoring the roads that lead north to ensure no Iraqis ambush supply lines.