EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- For most members of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122, coming to Alaska is a unique and exciting adventure they have never experienced before. It is home to the tallest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley, as well as being the only state within the Arctic Circle, both of which are within a day trip of Eielson Air Force Base. Alaska has more than three million lakes and three thousand rivers. It boasts diverse wildlife like moose, caribou and bears.
There is one Marine with VMFA-122 who knows these facts all too well. Sgt. Steven Johnson lived in and was recruited from Alaska. His hometown of Fairbanks is less than an hour drive from Eielson AFB. This is his first time being back in “The Last Frontier State” with a Marine squadron.
“The best part of being back in Alaska is seeing family,” said Johnson, who has been in the Marine Corps for 9 years. “Beyond that, the best part is going to Chena Hot Springs, which is probably my favorite place on earth.”
Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122, nicknamed the “Werewolves,” is in Alaska for Exercise Distant Frontier, where they are conducting unit level training and flying with squadrons from the United States Air Force to enhance interoperability between services.
Johnson has been with VMFA-122 for two years, first as an aircraft communications/navigation/weapons systems technician for the F/A-18 Hornet, his primary military occupational specialty, and now as a quality assurance representative for the squadron. There are only seven QARs in the squadron and they are all from different shops.
According to Johnson, the QAR has many jobs, to include ensuring all the maintenance is being done correctly and safely and auditing and inspecting all the shops and programs. While a QAR is an expert in their own MOS, they have to cross train and learn the squadron’s other MOSs as well.
“There are certain attributes and traits that are required in order for someone to be a quality assurance representative,” said Capt. Cody Buras, VMFA-122 Quality Assurance Officer. “First and foremost is credibility and knowledge in your specific field. It requires dedication and a willingness to learn while stepping outside your comfort zone. It requires a vigilant eye to be the final safeguard for the actions of others.”
During the past six months, VMFA-122 has been part of the unit deployment program, attached to Marine Aircraft Group 12, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, and has been all over the Western Pacific area. The Marines and sailors of VMFA-122 have worked in all types of conditions as they travelled from South Carolina to Japan, Korea, Hawaii and Alaska. Each location offered unique conditions for keeping the jets ready to fly.
“It causes some challenges on the maintenance side because, due to all these movements, you often don’t have the entire maintenance department in the same physical location,” said Buras. “That requires the ability to operate autonomously and have independent folks who can get the job done without a great deal of supervision and Sgt. Johnson has definitely been an asset in that regard.”
While there were challenges during this UDP, the Marines and sailors of VMFA-122 have overcome them all.
“I think we have learned to come together more than we have in the past. The shops are communicating better with each other and with higher headquarters,” said Johnson. “It has brought us together, made us stronger and given us better morale. Also, our mission accomplishment is better; we fly more often than I have ever seen.”
It has not been all work during the squadron’s travels throughout the Pacific; there have been ample opportunities for liberty and leave as well and according to Johnson, there is no better place to take leave than Alaska.
“You can hike a mountain, climb on a glacier, enjoy the hot springs and hunt a moose with a bow and arrow, all in one weekend; where else can you do that?”