For air station Marines, mission in Iraq accomplished

After more than six years of tearful good-byes and homecomings, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort's mission in Iraq is over.

Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force turned over control of the Al Anbar province-- Iraq's largest ßand a former Al- Qaeda stronghold -- last week to the Army's 1st Armored Division, signaling an end to the Corps' mission in Iraq and the end of combat deployments from MCAS Beaufort to the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.

None of the air station's seven F/A-18 Hornet squadrons are deployed or plan to deploy to Iraq, said Sgt. Brian Kester, air station spokesman.

"Our mission in Iraq is complete," Kester said.

All of the air station's F-18 squadrons have deployed to Iraq since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, including Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122's August 2008 tour of duty, which was the unit's first combat deployment since Vietnam. The Werewolves returned to the air station in March 2009 and was the last Beaufort squadron to deploy to Iraq.

Brig. Gen. Robert Walsh, Assistant Wing Commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, said the work of air station Marines helped protect lives on the ground and promote stability and freedom in Iraq.

"During the early years of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a deployment to Iraq was characterized by intense combat operations," Walsh said in an e-mail. "The Marines of the aircraft wings supported our warriors on the ground ... by providing much-needed close air support, medical evacuations, assault support for moving Marines and equipment, as well as aerial reconnaissance. By bringing the wing's assets to bear, we saved countless lives on the ground by enabling and protecting our fellow Marines and soldiers engaged with the enemy."

The 2nd Aircraft Wing, headquartered at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., commands Marine Aircraft Group 31, which oversees the day-to-day operations of MCAS Beaufort's F-18 squadrons and Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 31.

Since the start of the Iraqi campaign, thousands of Beaufort Marines were deployed to Iraq, including Cpl. Christopher Zahn, who now works in the air station's public affairs office.

Zahn was deployed twice to Iraq as a combat correspondent, attached to two infantry battalions from the 2nd Marine Division.

"I think I will always have a place in my heart for places like Fallujah, Habbaniyah and Baghdad," Zahn said. "It was there that I witnessed for the first time a foreign culture, the courage of my fellow Marines, who continually stared down danger and above all, the compassion of the human race. I will always remember the Iraqi people as well, the smiles of the children, the kind offerings of chai tea and bread."