Local reservist returns home safely after duty in Afghanistan

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Malibu resident Rick Mullen recently returned from a seven-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Heather O'Quinn / TMT

A major advocate of the Marine Corps Reserve program, Rick Mullen says sometimes you are called to “put down the plow and pick up the sword.”

By Ryan O’Quinn/Special to The Malibu Times

Following the tragedies of Sept. 11, America found a new respect for two professions in particular. One is the firefighter who puts his or her life in harm’s way to save and protect others. The other is the soldier whose job description is about the same. Malibu resident Rick Mullen is both.

In his civilian life, Mullen is a firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department at Station 71, near Point Dume. Mullen is also a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves and dedicates eight to 10 days a month to commanding a helicopter squadron. Mullen returned recently from active duty where he was able to put all the training into practice during a seven-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“When 9/11 happened, we figured we have to get ready,” Mullen said in a recent interview at his Malibu home. “Once Afghanistan kicked off, we had something to study.”

Mullen’s wife, Jenny, looked after their children, Marshall, 11, and Tatiana, 3, while he was gone. “I just wanted to keep the kids happy and busy and not let them dwell on where he was,” Jenny said of Rick’s time away. “My focus was getting him home safely.”

Mullen is a member of reserve squadron HMH (Heavy Marine Helicopter) 769 based at Edw ards Air Force Base. His unit is one of two reserve squadrons in the country with this type of aircraft. Many of its training missions involve desert landings, night missions and high altitude exercises. Mullen said he assumed they would get called to active duty once troops were deployed to Afghanistan because of the similar terrain and the helicopters that were designed for such a mission.

“As we went to Afghanistan I would say our training was at a very high state of readiness,” Mullen said. “The thing about a reserve squadron is you have a lot of pilots who have a lot of experience. The guys I was with have been flying with for 12 years, so we had great unit cohesion.”

Mullen’s unit was activated the first time in January 2002, but did not leave the country. He described the time as extremely demoralizing because his team was prepared for the mission and ready to go. The unit was activated again in January this year, and Mullen called a meeting of his squadron and their families in hopes of allaying fears about the war.

“My biggest priority was safety,” Mullen said. “I wanted to bring everybody home that we took over there. I told [the families], you are probably in more danger driving on the freeway here than we are over there because we know what we’re doing, we trained for it and we’re ready. “

The squadron’s primary objective in Afghanistan was to fly supply missions to restore Forward Operating Bases around the country. Mullen was stationed about 40 miles north of Kabul and for much of the deployment his unit was also called to ready the country for the election of a president.

Mullen recounted several missions where the aircraft was not equipped with weapons, but instead was more like a flying cargo truck. Among their tasks was flying food and ammunition to various locations, supporting and transporting the American ambassador and carrying Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mullen’s squadron was also instrumental in several lifesaving rescues during its operations, oftentimes happening just in the nick of time. On one occasion, they rescued United Nations workers who were trapped in a dangerous part of the country. He was also in the right place at the right time when a Dutch Apache helicopter crashed and they picked up the pilots. One of the most poignant missions was the rescue of a 12-year-old Afghan boy who was shot; Mullen’s squadron flew h im to the hospital and saved his life.

Mullen said he would like to see the media depict more human-interest stories regarding Afghanistan. He said it was a very historic time in the life of the country that had an already rich history. Mullen suggested some stories should be about the fact that women in Afghanistan are now able to vote, and about the many civilian contractors and military personnel from around the world working to put the country back together. “Our directives on dealing with journalists were to give them all the support they wanted,” Mullen said. “If he’s an embedded journalist, he gets to see everything. Knowing that and knowing the immense capabilities of the media, I’m always surprised that there’s very little depiction of what’s actually going on over there. You never really see the people, the buildings or the countryside.”

Mullen credited modern technology as a major advantage to making wartime a bit more bearable. He said the real battle was fought by the families of soldiers.

“With the families back home, that’s where the stress was,” Mullen said. “My wife had to take care of twice as much stuff with half the help. We were able to call home very often. Being at war nowadays, there’s a lot more support. We had kids from around the country sending us things. It was great.”

“Being able to talk to him was great. We had e-mail and phone conversations,” Jenny said. “I have been through several other deployments where it took two or three weeks or more to get a letter through. It was a tremendous help to be able to talk every day and we were able to talk about school and share day-to-day events.”

Mullen said overall he believes things are going very well in Afghanistan. He said many people are working hard together to rebuild the nation. “You’re getting a good return on your tax dollar in Afghanistan,” Mullen said. “Overall, [Afghanis] like what’s going on. They have a natural distrust of foreigners, but I’m optimistic that in the future it will be a very cool place to visit.”

Mullen said it was difficult to be away from his family, but he is a major advocate of the Reserve program saying sometimes you are called to “put down the plow and pick up the sword.”