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Afghanistan Defines Marine Pilot’s Career

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Jay M. Holtermann, commanding officer of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), arrives at Camp Rhino, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 7, 2012. Holtermann still gets the opportunity to fly thanks to his advanced skills and considers this deployment the most significant in his career.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Keonaona C. Paulo)

Before 9/11, Lt. Col. Jay Holtermann was unsure whether he would continue his military career.

Now, Holtermann is serving on his sixth deployment, this one as the commanding officer for Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) in Afghanistan.

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“9/11 changed the way I look at everything in the Marine Corps,” said Holtermann, from Green Bay, Wis. “I didn’t think I was going to stay in. All I had seen was training and that’s all we ever did, but there was never really the enemy. After 9/11, though, everything changed. We had an actual enemy. It’s the reason why a lot of people came in and why a lot of people stayed in, and it’s definitely the reason that I stayed in.”

Since getting commissioned, Holtermann has enjoyed his time as a Marine and the opportunities it has provided him.

“Being a Marine has been the primary source of my motivation for the last 18 years and has provided me with countless opportunities to live the life I’ve wanted to,” Holtermann said. “The Marine Corps has given me far more than I have been able to give back, and I couldn’t be happier about my choice to become a Marine.”

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Jay M. Holtermann, commanding officer, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), flies a CH-53E Super Stallion over Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 7, 2012. Holtermann is currently on his sixth deployment and his second to Afghanistan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Keonaona C. Paulo)

For Holtermann, this deployment marks his first time returning to Afghanistan since the start of the war. He first came here as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, which had previously been conducting training exercises with various countries.

“I was with the 15th MEU. We were in Darwin, Australia, during 9/11 when we got recalled to the ship after the aircraft had struck the second tower,” Holtermann said. “We first went to the North Arabian Sea and parked out there for a little time. Initially we were just running missions into Pakistan. At a certain point though, we became a quick reaction force for one of the first assaults that was going to be done by the special operations forces. I landed the first conventional force United States Marine Corps helicopter here in Afghanistan at Camp Rhino.”

While Holtermann’s first deployment to Afghanistan was significant, he counts his current deployment as the most fulfilling of his career.

“This deployment has far exceeded any in the past, largely because I am filling a command billet of a combat deployed flying squadron,” Holtermann said. “I count myself very fortunate to be surrounded by motivated young Marines who want to fix and fly aircraft. My deployment in 2001 was immensely rewarding, but in a different way. I was a young captain, and I was part of an overall effort that was transformational for all of us who participated. We executed Operational Maneuver From the Sea, and we did when it counted.

The vast majority of my peers in 2001 are now squadron commanding officers, which is a testament to the overall level of quality that we had as part of that MEU (Aviation Combat Element). I have found my other deployments to be rewarding as well, but this one and the 2001 stand out.”

Between Afghanistan deployments, Holtermann has had the opportunity to deploy twice to Iraq and acted as the presidents’ pilot for four years. Holtermann noted the drastic change that has occurred in Afghanistan since he was last here.

“Afghanistan is tremendously different. When we first got here, there were no (forward operating bases), there was no infrastructure and there was no direct air support set up,” Holtermann said. “Quite frankly, when we first got here the flights were so long that only the CH-53E Super Stallion could fly them. We didn’t have escorts, we felt a lot more out and on the fringe and alone as a section of aircraft flying around Afghanistan then. Now, we have a real foothold. It doesn’t look like the same country at all.”

Flying helicopters in Afghanistan is a dream come true for Holtermann who has wanted to be a pilot since he was a kid.

“I grew up in that Top Gun generation where being a pilot was about the coolest thing in any movie at the time,” Holtermann said. “So I bought into it hook, line and sinker. The Marine Corps had an opportunity. It was just complete dumb luck on my part that I walked in at the right time, and they had a spot for me as a pilot.”

During his current deployment, Holtermann tries to stay in touch with his loved ones as much as possible.

“I am married with two young children,” Holtermann said. “Like many deployed Marines, I am able to take advantage of the significant advancements in connectivity with the homefront. I think we all deal with it in our own way. I prefer to stay very positive in all communication with home.”

While deployed, Holtermann will continue to conduct flights while also taking on the responsibilities associated with being a squadron commander.

“Thankfully, I get to fly as much as any of our pilots,” Holtermann said. “I hold several advanced designations that still make me a good fit to fly on any given day. If I can wrestle flight time away from my young captains, you can bet I’ll be flying.”

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