This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.
By Jeanne McKinney
In late summer 2010, American aircraft in Pakistan’s skies were a welcome sight when monsoon rains caused torrential flooding covering nearly one-fifth of the country. Property, livelihoods and infrastructure were destroyed, affecting 20 million people. The United States Marine Corps’ 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) was nearby and sent to help people cut off from everything in the grossly swollen Indus River basin. Captain Matthew J. Wesenberg, a pilot, was one of the Marines helping to save Pakistani lives.
Wesenberg was once an unlikely candidate for such a rescue mission.
“If you were to look at me in high school, and talk to my friends, not a single person would have expected me to join the military...let alone the Marines.”
Wesenberg was a kid who didn’t exude that “Oorah” personality. He grew up in Bloomington, Minn., with two brothers Danny and Alex, mom Mary and dad John (who recently died of brain cancer). His grandfather was a Navy pilot who crashed after the Korean War due to a plane malfunction and was buried the day his mother was born.
“I don’t really know why I joined [the military],” Wesenberg said. “It seemed like the right thing to do and I wanted to fly.”
Wesenberg went to the University of Arizona on a Navy ROTC scholarship, but after a year switched to the Marines ROTC.
“I decided I wanted to fly helicopters. The Marines had many more options for that.” He was also drawn to Marine Corps leadership styles and close-knit group ties. He graduated college in the spring of 2005, was commissioned and put his package in to get an aviation contract.
With his contract in hand, Wesenberg was off to The Basic School (Quantico), followed by Navy Flight School (Pensacola) in 2007. The Navy and Marines work together training pilots.
“We all start out fixed wing first,” Wesenberg said. “They send us to Introductory Flight School (IFS) and we do about 20-25 hours of civilian flying. They do that first to make sure it’s what you really want to do.”
Wesenberg estimates the whole civilian flight school program was equal, cost-wise, to one flight in Navy Flight School.
Wesenberg said his math degree didn’t really help, stating “The Navy is really good at structuring flight school so it doesn’t matter what your background is.”
After more training and flying, he received his wings in 2009, launching his career in the cockpit of a CH-46 tandem rotor helicopter.
Pakistan offered Wesenberg the Hindu Kush operation and, “The most amazing flying I’ve ever done…20,000-foot mountain peaks, glaciers...flying through the Swat Valley, which was, at the time, one of the most dangerous places in the world [a Taliban battleground].”
During the floods, “You’d land on a road half washed out with rushing water everywhere. The 46 can get into some pretty tight zones. You’d find an area [and say], ‘Hey, that looks flat and open, so you land it.”
They’d take the bare minimum fuel and fill up with as many Pakistanis as possible and bring them out. If they couldn’t be evacuated, they’d hover over a house and drop food.
Wesenberg now pilots the MV-22B Osprey, a revolutionary tilt rotor aircraft – not a plane or a helicopter, but can perform like either. He explained that the CH-46 has 1960s Vietnam-era technology. Everything is steam gauges with direct input from mechanical components that give readings to control temperature, pressure, airspeed, altitude, etc…a pilot has to know what numbers are in and out of limits.
“With the Osprey everything is glass cockpit.” They have Multi-Function Displays on each side and one large Central Display Unit (CDU) Engine Indications Crew Alerting System (EICAS). “The computers do a lot, telling you when something is wrong,” Wesenberg said. The newer digital technology is more exact with less guesswork.
“You’re never done learning,” states Wesenberg. “You’re constantly trying to get more qualifications, more designations (squadron duties and accomplishments). It’s a lot of work always.” He believes in, “Setting the example,” with those who work for him. “They see everything you do, even if you don’t think they do. You have to act how you want them to act.”
A strength he’s recognized in himself is being approachable. “I feel like the Marines respect me as someone who they can go to with any issue — any advice — any question in life or the Marine Corps.”
What a U.S. Marine is taught is to become “invincible.” Wesenberg blocks out anything scary, saying, “You trust the training.”
Trust was his companion on deployment with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) to Afghanistan, 2012-13. He was on an Individual Augment (IA) acting as Helicopter Landing Zone Manager – where troops, cargo and gear come and go. “I was the middle man at Headquarters making everything happen at the zones.”
Since Ospreys were there, he was able to fly some. On a mission is where the threats are, Wesenberg said. “We were dropping off some Marines and Afghanis into a zone to go through some towns [looking for terrorists]. Coming into that was nerve-wracking, but I was with another experienced pilot and we had a good plan. We knew exactly what we were doing and had helo support from Cobras.”
An Osprey flies high enough to stay out of range of enemy small arms and RPGs. Loading and unloading ground troops in a kinetic zone are the most tense and uncertain times.
“Lucky” is what Wesenberg calls himself, having never been shot at (that he knows of) and only dealing with minor flight emergencies. Landing on a boat is one of the most stressful things he does.
“It’s moving, pitching and rolling. We have crew chiefs in the back telling us our altitude above the deck or to come right or left or forward or back. Our Osprey nacelle (engine housing) can be hanging off the ship.”
Wesenberg opens up about being gay in a warrior culture, saying, “It has altered the way I interact in a positive way. I’m able to talk freely about my personal life and relationships like they always have. It has made me closer to my squadron and even more like family than before.”
He adds, “I am a Marine, I am judged as a Marine, and I prove myself by the quality of work I do. Marine brotherhood is above all that.”
Some things change. Fly zones of Pakistan are not as welcoming. Wesenberg hopes the people they helped during the flood don’t forget what they saw and that they know “We aren’t just a war-fighting machine. We are also out there doing a lot of other things – a lot of good.”
Some things don’t change as Wesenberg sets the example: “A Marine is a Marine first.”