Face of Defense: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operator Guides Peers

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan, Sept. 21, 2011 — Marine Corps Sgt. Chad John spends 12 hours a day with an aer­i­al view of Afghanistan, but he rarely leaves the ground.

Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan
Marine Corps Sgt. Chad John, deployed to Camp Leath­er­neck, Afghanistan, has oper­at­ed unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles for more than sev­en years.
U.S. Marine Corps pho­to by Cpl. Justin M. Bol­ing
Click to enlarge

John, a native of Shiprock, N.M., is an unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cle oper­a­tor with Marine Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cle Squadron 3. The Marine Corps uses small, light­weight unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles, such as the RQ-7B Shad­ow, to pro­vide aer­i­al sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance for Marines and their coali­tion part­ners in Afghanistan. 

“We under­stand the impor­tance of pro­vid­ing the best view to those who are plan­ning to go into an area so they can avoid being in a bad sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “I always know that if I do not get the best view, I could be putting lives at risk.” 

While air­borne, the RQ-7B Shad­ow UAV is an exten­sion of two Marines work­ing on the ground. A vehi­cle oper­a­tor con­trols the speed, direc­tion and ele­va­tion of the air­craft, while a pay­load oper­a­tor con­trols a cam­era that looks out for the safe­ty of ground troops. 

The evo­lu­tion and use of unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles in the Marine Corps has been ongo­ing for the last two decades. John said he has seen the force of oper­a­tors more than triple in size dur­ing his time in the service. 

“Near­ly sev­en years and sev­en deploy­ments lat­er, I take pride in see­ing how far we have come,” John said. 

In Afghanistan, the Marine Corps unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles sup­port 2nd Marine Air­craft Wing, the air com­bat ele­ment of the south­west­ern region­al com­mand of NATO’s Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force. 

The work of the Marine unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cle oper­a­tors leaves lit­tle room for error. Pro­vid­ing an accu­rate aer­i­al view of the bat­tle­field helps keep ser­vice mem­bers alive, so the UAV oper­a­tors must stay alert. 

“Work­ing so close­ly with a small group of guys allows you to learn everyone’s weak­ness­es and strengths,” John said. “This allows you not only to become like broth­ers, but also to help each oth­er to become the best oper­a­tors we can.” 

John said he hopes to become an instruc­tor in Ari­zona after this deploy­ment so he can teach a new gen­er­a­tion of Marine Corps UAV operators. 

“I want to stay close to this job field and the great group peo­ple that I have met,” he said. “I have a lot of deploy­ment expe­ri­ence that I could bring to new oper­a­tors as they come into this cut­ting-edge field.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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