SIGONELLA, Italy -- Sixteen Marines, ranging from radio operators to pilots, were honored late last month for assisting with an investigation into the deaths of four soldiers killed by Islamic militants in Niger in October.
The medals received by the Marines provided a rare glimpse into the secretive mission in Africa, demonstrating the capabilities and flexibility of the Marines' crisis response unit for Africa, some of the recipients told Military.com.
In all, five Marines earned Joint Service Commendation Medals and 11 earned Joint Service Achievement Medals for providing security, facilitating flights, and ensuring effective communications for the investigative team as it entered the region.
All the Marines who participated in the mission were assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, based here and in Moron, Spain.
The Marines received their medals from Commandant Gen. Robert Neller at a special Christmas Day ceremony during his brief visit to Naval Air Station Sigonella.
Those recognized from the air combat element included Staff Sgt. Brian Mays, Capt. Jarod Bryant and Maj. Bradley Stadelmeier, who received Joint Commendation Medals; and Capt. Keith Murphy, Capt. Gregory Zingler, Staff Sgt. Jason Lipnick, Sgt. Zachary Yoder, Cpl. Tray Lange, Sgt. William Hepler, Lance Cpl. Mitchell Leis, Capt. Anthony Peters, Capt. William Huckeba, Master Sgt. Brent Greenberg, and Gunnery Sgt. Jason Humphrey, who received Joint Service Achievement Medals.
From the ground combat element, Gunnery Sgt. Patrick O'Brien and Sgt. David Farmer received Joint Service Commendation Medals.
Mission Juniper Aegis, as it was called, required a tight planning cycle and precise execution.
"We basically traveled across the United States twice in 48 hours to set up for this mission," said Huckeba, a KC-130J pilot attached to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, illustrating the massive distances the mission required them to cover. The distance from Moron to Niger one way is more than 1,500 miles.
While such a mission might take weeks of preparation, Marines said they had less than two days to plan out how they were going to insert and extract the investigation team.
"When we do a movement from the East Coast out to training in [Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms, California], that's a big, involved movement," said Murphy, an Osprey pilot. "It takes sometimes weeks or months of ahead planning to make sure that everything's lined up. And we did that in a very condensed time window and successfully, without missing a beat."
The reliable Hercules filled a variety of roles. In addition to transporting personnel and equipment, the aircraft were used for Osprey aerial refueling and to provide a forward command-and-control and communications platform while personnel were on the ground in Niger.
Farmer, a radio chief, said the Marines used a hatch-mounted satellite antenna system, or HMSAS, with the C-130 to create a satellite link back to Moron for effective communication.
The compressed timeline forced him to rely on close coordination with his team to ensure everything was working for the investigation, he said.
Ultimately, the operation went smoothly. A 46-Marine infantry team provided security, and the aircraft completed their missions without incident, even in sometimes dusty and obscured landing zones.
"I think what we were excited about is to show what the special purpose [Marine air-ground task force] can do," Murphy said. "We are a force that's always on an alert position, so we're waiting for the call. We were happy to know that we could do it without anybody messing it up."
The results of the investigation, into an attack in which Army Staff Sgts. Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, and Dustin Wright and Sgt. La David Johnson were killed, have not yet been made public. The Green Beret-led team had been training Nigerien forces at the time of the ambush.