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Face of Defense: Firefighting Creates New Life for Marine

By Marine Corps Cpl. Nicole Zurbrugg Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan, Aug. 15, 2016 — Looking for some excitement and a job that meant something more to him, Michael Barton left the monotony of Texas oil fields work at the age of 20 and followed in the footsteps of his family and friends by joining the Marine Corps.

“Most of my friends had joined the military by then,” Barton said. “My father served in the Corps as [intelligence], and my Great Uncle Eddie fought in Korea alongside Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller. I feel like I’m carrying on a family tradition, and I hope someday my kids will too.”

Choosing the air operations military occupational specialty, Barton headed off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in 2013 to become one of the few and the proud, and then onto military occupational specialty school, where he trained to be a firefighter.

“I love my job,” he said. “I feel like it’s one of the best jobs in the Marine Corps. Knowing that somebody is having a bad day, and we’re able to alleviate that by saving a life or an aircraft definitely gives you a good feeling. They get to go home at night because of something we did.”

Today, the Houston native is an aircraft rescue firefighter specialist with Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 here.

Deployments, Opportunities

Living in Japan means Barton has had countless opportunities to travel around the Pacific region on deployments; first to Thailand, then to the Philippines, and, most recently, to Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal, Australia, for Exercise Pitch Black 2016.

While in Australia, Barton serves as the liaison between the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 17 Squadron Fire and Rescue team stationed at RAAF Tindal and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122.  

VMFA-122 is based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, and are temporarily assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 12 at MCAS Iwakuni through the Unit Deployment Program.

“As a liaison, I assist the No. 17 firefighters in emergencies involving the Marine F/A-18C Hornets,” said Barton. “Our standard operating procedures are slightly different as well as our aircraft.” 

Barton said the Australian team instantly accepted him as one of their own. He does everything they do -- from cleaning to going out on calls -- but the Marine said he was surprised to find that both services basically operate and train the same way.

“The first day I was here, they put me on a truck, on crew, wet checks and maintenance,” he said. “I love being here, learning from them and being able to support our Marines and aircraft in case of an emergency.”

Despite almost parallel daily schedules, Barton has the vital task of ensuring VMFA-122’s pilots and aircraft are able to accomplish their mission successfully and safely.

“Having a Marine here to teach us what their procedures are makes our job easier during Pitch Black,” said Australian air force Cpl. Luke Van Den Heuvel, a firefighter with No. 17 Squadron. “Especially one like Corporal Barton -- he’s quiet, but is very knowledgeable about his job.”

Alarms, Camaraderie

Barton said he still gets excited every time the alarm rings; never knowing what possible emergency has arisen.

“Most of the alarms we’ve had so far are hot brake landings, when an aircraft lands and the brakes are held too long, making them overheat and possibly explode, causing a fire,” he said. “Another alarm is arrested landings. When an aircraft has any number of problems, it has to take the hook. The jets have tailhooks that drop and snag a cable running across the runway to stop an aircraft.”

After Pitch Black, Barton will return to MCAS Iwakuni, where he extended an extra year.

“I love the camaraderie in Iwakuni,” he said. “Back in the states after work, most people go their separate ways. Being stationed in Japan, everyone lives together on and off work, creating a family atmosphere.”

The discipline, awareness, certifications and qualifications Barton has earned through his job are preparing him for life as a firefighter after he leaves the military.

“Being a firefighter in the Marine Corps has set me up for life,” he said. “After retirement or getting out of the military, most of the qualifications [I have] earned during active duty will carry over for a smooth transition.”

Distribution channels: Military