A Welcome Sight in Eyes of Afghans

Add this to the ironies of war: The very Marine Corps helicopters that some Southern California homeowners blame for shattering their peace are being praised by Afghan villagers for helping rout the oppressive Taliban.

Pilots of CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters say villagers often wave in appreciation as they swoop low to provide supplies to Marines searching for Al Qaeda leaders and Taliban soldiers.

Back in San Diego, a homeowners group near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar has complained for years about noise from the same helicopters' giant engines. The Marines have changed flight patterns and training hours, but the controversy has persisted.

"They like us more in Afghanistan than in Del Mar," one senior pilot said.

Helicopters from Miramar and nearby Camp Pendleton have played a major role in the Afghan campaign.

They have helped ferry personnel and supplies to Camp Rhino, a southern outpost so named by the Marines who seized it Nov. 26.

As U.S. forces have pushed north toward the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, the aircraft have brought supplies to Marines in Humvees who are trying to seize weapons from enemy fighters and block the retreat of Al Qaeda and Taliban loyalists.

And Monday, a dozen of the Miramar and Camp Pendleton helicopters helped establish a staging area closer to Kandahar.

Pilots said the Afghans' positive reaction to the helicopters mirrors that of residents in East Timor when the Marine Corps was part of a humanitarian mission in that war-torn area two years ago.

The warm reception is "a very sharp contrast" to what the pilots sometimes receive in the U.S., said Capt. Jay Holtermann, a CH-53 pilot from Green Bay, Wis. "It saddens me a bit, the attitude people have at home sometimes. Maybe people only appreciate us when we're needed."

Along with resupply missions, Holtermann's CH-53 was involved in the recovery of an Army Black Hawk helicopter that crashed in Pakistan, and the destruction of a suspected enemy armored column moving toward Camp Rhino after the Marines landed.

Although wars have a tendency to change domestic politics, it is unclear whether this one will alter the battle in San Diego over the helicopters.

The disputes about noise began even before the Marine Corps took over the Miramar base from the Navy in 1997 and replaced the F-14 Tomcats and Top Gun school with helicopter squadrons.

The Marine Corps has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new facilities at the base, even while under legal and political attack over the noise issue.

The homeowners group that has pushed for the Marines to shift the helicopters away from Miramar, possibly to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, halted its protests after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Still, local officials and military brass expect the fight to resume after the initial phase of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism is complete. Marine Corps officials insist that Miramar is ideal for helicopter squadrons because of its proximity to the San Diego-based fleet and desert training areas in Twentynine Palms, El Centro and Yuma, Ariz. Miramar pilots here agree.

"We simply could not do this mission if we could not train both over water and on the desert," said one CH-46 pilot, Capt. Mike Boorstein, 29, of Boston. "It's a trade-off. Helicopters make noise, but we need someplace to train and for our families to live."

Enjoying a day off Wednesday, the pilots perused reading material from home, including a magazine whose lead article was a plea for the Marine Corps to leave Miramar so that it can become an international airport. The magazine was published just before Sept. 11.

Meanwhile, Afghan villagers have welcomed the Marines, and their response to the helicopters isn't the only indication.

One Marine team reported that villagers helped troops get their light armored vehicle across the Arghandab River by throwing rocks into the water to make a rough bridge.

In appreciation, the Marines requested that 17,200 food packets be dropped near the village by an Air Force C-130.