Firing 50 rounds a second with the GAU-17 Gatling gun, as the door-gunner for a UH-1Y “Venom” helicopter (Huey), is undoubtedly something that very few people on this planet will ever experience.
US Marine Door-gunners are the only users of that weapon system in an offensive capability, although other variants of it have been used since Vietnam. These attack helicopters are armed to the teeth and typically fly alongside an AH-1Z “Viper” attack helicopter (Cobra), as part of a team of six Marines — two Cobra pilots, two Huey pilots, and two-door gunners — commanding tremendous firepower in battle.
There is an entire buffet of offensive and defensive capabilities between the two aircraft, making the Marines capabilities in battle, tremendously lethal.
Gunnery Sgt. Fitzgerald is a seasoned crew chief with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing’s “Gunrunners” (HMLA-269) who has served for 12 years. On September 14, 2012, the North Carolina native was brushing his teeth before bed when small arms fire raked his building and explosions shook the ground at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan .
Fitzgerald rushed outside into what he describes as his “most intense combat experience ever”. “It was chaos. Taliban insurgents disguised in Army fatigues had infiltrated the base. The fuel pits had erupted in flames, and the enemy was pouring fire of all kinds onto the base, everything from bullets to rocket-propelled grenades.”
“My unit was under a ferocious attack,” Fitzgerald recalled. “We actually had to submit a request for air support on ourselves for ourselves.”
While he fought with Marines on the ground, embracing the concept that every Marine is a rifleman, others from his unit took to the sky in a few of the undamaged helicopters. “When our helicopters started attacking and suppressing the Taliban infiltrators by providing close air support, those of us on the ground started cheering,” Fitzgerald said.
The Taliban attack on Camp Bastion in the fall of 2012 was stopped after a brutal four-hour firefight, but not before two Marines were killed, 17 British and US personnel were wounded, and nine aircraft were damaged or destroyed.
For Fitzgerald, being both a helicopter crew chief and door-gunner who normally wages war above the battlefield, his fighting that night on the down below forever changed his understanding of his service. “That was the first time I was ever actually on the ground seeing the impact that my unit has downrange.
“There was a saying among the Taliban leadership that got back to us,” Fitzgerald said. “They would say, ‘Fight the Americans. Fight the infidels. Fight them hard, but if you ever see their tiny gray helicopters, don’t shoot them. They will kill you.'”