AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (NNS) -- Navy air traffic controllers (AC) with Marine Air Control Squadron (MACS) 1 joined a small group of air traffic controllers Sept. 2 when the squadron's commanding officer presented the Sailors with their Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Warfare Specialist badges.
Of the more than 2,500 Navy ACs, only about 15 percent have FMF badges, according to Master Chief Petty Officer Jeff Brown, who works at the Navy Personnel Command and manages assignments for Navy air traffic controllers. Navy ACs rarely find themselves attached to Marine units.
"When I first saw my deployment orders, I was nervous because I had no idea what 'MAG' was short for," said Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Joanne Saalfrank, an FMF badge recipient from Westfield, Mass.
The six Sailors, whose squadron falls under 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Fwd), completed a four-month course that taught basic Marine Corps knowledge. During the course, Saalfrank and her fellow Sailors not only learned that MAG stands for Marine Aircraft Group, but also gained in-depth knowledge of Marine Corps structure, missions and combat skills.
The Sailors had to take their sea legs to the dusty hills of al-Asad to complete a land navigation course, pass the Marine Corps physical fitness test and complete a 150-question comprehensive course exam.
The instructors, primarily Marine non-commissioned officers (NCO) and Navy petty officers who've earned the badge, challenged the Sailors with an intense physical training program and provided hands-on lessons in combat life saving and weapons handling skills.
Sgt. Emilio Luna, an armorer with Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd MAW (Fwd), led the Sailors through basic weapons handling classes. The classes taught the Sailors how to identify weapons conditions, breakdown various weapons for maintenance and cleaning and basic weapons handling.
"They all had a hunger for the knowledge and were eager to get hands-on with the weapons, which motivates me to teach them everything I can," said Luna.
As the Sailors progressed through the condensed curriculum - stateside Sailors have up to 18 months to complete the self-paced curriculum - they continued to perform their regular duties.
"The hardest part was balancing demanding work schedules with the course schedule," said Air Traffic Controller 2nd Class Shannon Boddie, a badge recipient from Atlanta, Ga.
Sailors do not have to earn the FMF badge to serve with Marine units. The MACS 1 Sailors saw earning the badge as an opportunity for professional development that they couldn't pass up.
"It's something we wanted to do," said Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Jose Diaz, a badge recipient from Chicago. "By demonstrating our knowledge of the Marine Corps structure, we become even bigger assets to our commands."
Once the Sailors complete their tour with MACS 1, they will return to their duty stations, ready to pass their knowledge and experience to other ACs.
For more news from the fleet, visit www.navy.mil.