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GRAND CANYON, Ariz. -- A CH-46E Sea Knight is a helicopter used to provide all-weather, day-or-night assault transport of Marines, supplies and equipment. On Tues., Dec. 4, it served another purpose. It was Santa’s sleigh.
As the helicopter stirred up dust; then touched down on the Grand Canyon floor, the children of the small Havasupai tribe could not be contained. They ran out to greet the helicopter before the red cloud of soil settled. They have waited for this day all year.
To Marines, this day is known as Operation Havasupai. Their mission is to provide a Christmas party for children of the Havasupai tribe in the remote Supai village. The challenge for visiting this party, though, typically requires an eight hour hike down a steep, narrow path., To best support this event – the Marines arrived by air.
“Having this operation, with Toys for Tots coming to the most isolated village in America, is an extreme honor and a blessing,” said Mark S. Baez, the local school psychologist. “Our children look forward to it all year long.”
When the large, jolly man finally stepped out of his rotor-equipped, Marine Corps sleigh, he was almost knocked to the ground by all of the kids scrambling for a hug. But Santa wasn’t the only one the kids were waiting for.
Santa’s not-so-little helpers this year were the Marines of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 764, along with members of the Flagstaff Marine League Charities, Flagstaff Toys for Tots, St. Mary’s food bank and The Friends from Utah charity organization.
“Today I saw little kids run past Santa to see the Marines in uniform,” said Sgt. Joel Wright. “It seems like a lot of people here look up to us.”
There are more than 700 tribal members, and many of the young men and women expressed their aspirations to become U.S. Marines.
Mr. Kringle, escorted by two Marines in their dress blue uniforms, passed out toys to more than 175 Havasupai children.
“Every year we come down, it’s just a great feeling… I get to be a kid again because I’m walking around with Santa, so I know exactly how these kids feel,” said Staff Sgt. Dan Iversen, Santa’s escort and an emergency response team leader with Environmental Services Division. “It’s just a good time.”
Other than having a good time, this operation provided the Marines of HMM-764 a unique training opportunity.
Pilots have to maneuver between narrow canyons and land in a confined area to deliver their cargo – in this case, toys. Wright said the aircraft reacts differently when flying in the canyon, which is also at a higher altitude. So the training and delivery allows the pilots to experience flying in a different environment.
“It gives us the opportunity to work together and get everyone down there safely,” he said.
This is the 17th year that the Marines of HMM-764 have played a role in this operation, and it is also their last.
In January of 2013 the squadron will transition into a V-22 Osprey squadron, and that aircraft presents some difficulties when flying under these conditions.
“I understand they flew a V-22 in as a test and knocked over an outhouse,” said Ricky Roberts, a director of Marine League Charities and volunteer with the Flagstaff Toys for Tots. Absent the capabilities of the CH-46, the community and charities hope to continue this same opportunity with another Marine Corps unit in the future.
As for the Marines of HMM-764, they too, hope to see the operation continue on even though they will not be participating.
“I know this is our squadron’s last one and they don’t really have anything planned for next year, but it’d be cool if the Marine Corps kept this going,” said Wright. “It’s kind of our thing, and they definitely want us out here.”
Roberts said they plan to start over and establish a connection with another Reserve unit that will be able to assist with next year’s operation.
“This annual operation is a fantastic community effort to assist those who are less fortunate and who have little or no access to the real world,” said Christine McGee, the one responsible for arranging the operation. “It could not otherwise be accomplished, but for the Marines.”