Iraq War Heroes
Major Michael Martino – KIA 2 November 2005
Michael David Martino was born on January 31st, 1973, on the island of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands (a U.S. Trust Territory) where his parents Robert and Sybil were employed by U.S. Government contractors working on the Ballistic Missile Defense System at the Kwajalein Missile Range. Mike was the youngest of three children with a brother Robert and sister Lauri. As a young child Michael already knew he wanted to be a pilot.
Mike and his family lived on Kwajalein until he was 8, when they moved to Irvine, California, where he grew up and fell in love with Southern California. As a teenager in Irvine, at first light Michael would ride his bike to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to attend the military air shows. He would be the first to arrive and the last to leave. He spent hours talking to the pilots and exploring the planes.
In 1996, Mike graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.A. in Economics and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. In the summer of 1998, he graduated from The Basic School (TBS) as a 1stLt and reported to Pensacola, Florida, for flight training where he excelled in the flight syllabus. With his grades, he could have flown anything he wanted, but Mike wanted to fly helicopters. In January of 1999, he checked into a helicopter training squadron. Since Cobra Helicopter slots were very hard to come by, he made sure he was number one to guarantee himself a slot on the West Coast. Captain Martino was winged in July of 2000 and headed home to Southern California. He was later deployed to Okinawa for 13 months where he stewed over not being involved in the battle in Iraq.
When he returned from Okinawa, Capt Martino volunteered for a Forward Air Controller (FAC) tour with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines at Camp Pendleton, CA. From February to September 2004 his battalion was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their formidable task was to rid the city of Fallujah of insurgents. Fallujah was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. During this first tour, Michael (call sign “Oprah”) served not in the air, but on the ground as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) and was responsible for calling in air strikes on enemy positions. During this tour he earned the Combat Action Ribbon and the Bronze Star with Valor for his heroic actions which resulted in the saving of many American lives and in the deaths of numerous insurgents. “Oprah” is mentioned in a book entitled, "No True Glory" written by Bing West and based on a frontline account of this battle in Fallujah.
In December 2004 after returning from Iraq, Michael (new call sign “Martini”) got his wish and joined the World Famous Gunfighters HMLA-369 squadron (a light attack helicopter squadron) out of Camp Pendleton, California. While he came up to speed on flying again, he was assigned as the Squadron's Administration Officer. He was doing so well - both on the ground and in the air, that his commanding officer "rewarded" him with a job change - down into the Maintenance Department, in charge of 63 Marines in the Airframes division (the second largest shop in the Squadron). He loved being around the Marines, and this was his opportunity to put his leadership skills to the test. His Marines loved him almost as much as he loved them. He flew AH-1 W Super Cobra helicopters with this Squadron for almost a year and considered the Gunfighters his family.
In August 2005, HMLA-369 was deployed to Iraq’s Anbar Province, one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. On 2 November 2005, while flying in support of security operations near Ar Ramadi, Iraq, Michael’s helicopter was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SA 16). Both Michael and his fellow pilot Gerald Bloomfield were killed. At the time of his death Michael was a Captain, but was soon thereafter posthumously promoted to Major as paperwork had already been submitted prior to his death. In addition to a Purple Heart, Michael earned an Air Medal for Valor for heroic actions on previous missions during this second tour in Iraq. Maj. Martino is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
After returning from Iraq in May 2006, Michael’s Marine unit HMLA-369 dedicated plaques at Mt. Soledad in LaJolla, California, for Michael and his fellow pilot. Over 300 fellow Marines and families attended the hour-long ceremony. After the ceremony, attendees stood in line for over three hours to meet Michael and Gerry’s family. Even when told the buses that had brought the Marines to Mt. Soledad had to leave and they needed to board them immediately, the Marines remained in line. It was that important for them to express their condolences and share their stories with Mike and Gerry’s families. This was a very emotional experience for Mike’s family, one they will never forget.
To quote his friends and fellow Marines: “Mike Martino was not one of those guys who would monopolize dinner conversations nor would be first to sing karaoke at the bar. He was a quiet, reserved guy who could light up a room with his smile. Once you got to know him, he was a loyal, trusting and dedicated friend. Mike was always best in smaller or one-on-one situations. He was thoughtful and honest and a very good listener hence the call sign “Oprah”. Mike was intense in everything he did. He studied constantly and was always striving to be the best. He was competitive with himself and eagerly absorbed knowledge in an effort to better his skills as a pilot and as an Officer of Marines. He wasn’t the kind of guy that ever wanted to be the center of attention, but he genuinely enjoyed being part of the group. When you harassed him about his call sign “Oprah” or some other point, he would shrug it off with a quick story, never really getting into it because he just didn’t want the spotlight. To those closest to him, Mike Martino wore his heart on his sleeve. He wasn’t a big talker about feelings, but his actions spoke volumes about his dedication to his friends and family. He loved his brother Robert and his sister Lauri and never missed an opportunity to talk about his nieces Devyn and Sydney. He was sarcastic and funny…a friend we could trust to not think less of us because of our antics and a person who forgave everyone for their faults including those who had done him wrong. It took time to get to know Mike Martino. He was not self-absorbed, but shy… not arrogant, but constantly striving to be better at everything he was: brother, son, friend and Marine. We were fortunate because we did know him. He was a Gunfighter and he was our friend and brother.”
Michael Martino displayed courage and dedication most fully, his family said, in his career as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot. He was a true patriot. He loved his country, the Marine Corps and flying. He believed fully in what the American military were doing in Iraq, and he was proud to be a part of it.
The following was written by Michael’s superior officer to his parents two days after he was killed: “I will try to explain what Mike was like as a Marine Officer, subordinate, and friend. What made Mike different from many of his peers was the fact that he looked at himself as a Marine Officer and leader of Marines first, and as a pilot second. That quality is what impressed me the most. Often many of the pilots get wrapped up in being a pilot. They sometimes lose sight of the fact that their commission says nothing about flying. The Commission and Oath of Office mandates us to support and defend the Constitution. We happen to carry out our nation's defense in the air but the prior statement is tantamount in all our decisions and actions as leaders. Mike understood this concept better than any other of the Captains (not trying to put down the other pilots. They are all fine men and warriors, but few had the same grasp of the big picture as Mike). I often wondered why some pilots seem to grasp this concept better than others, my best guess it has to be a factor of their upbringing and life experiences. As his parents, you must have set a fine example for Mike. Your son was the very definition of selfless. He understood the concept of being a member of a team. He would do anything to help out his peers and subordinates, plus he would never ask for anything in return. Whenever his Marines did something above and beyond, Mike would be standing at my door with recommended awards for his Marines. Mike was a warrior.
I 1st met Mike when he joined HMLA-367 during the end of my tour there (I think it was 2000/2001). I was a very senior Captain at the time. Mike was one of the "nugget" lieutenants who just checked in. I flew a bunch of his early flights as his instructor. Mike was always prepared and motivated. I recognized that despite his quiet demeanor the kid had a fire inside him. He was one of those diamonds in the rough who you knew would do great things when given the opportunity. He never was one of the "fraternity house" boys. Mike would always be off to the side listening and observing, but he never was one to try to be the center of attention. But he was also not a wallflower. It seemed to me that he was always assessing the other pilots trying to determine which ones were worth listening to and which ones were full of BS. Because of that Mike picked his friends carefully. The guys he befriended had a common theme: strong moral values, the type of guys who would defend a friend to the death. You can tell a lot about someone by the friends they had. Mike would not put up with clowns; however, he would not talk bad about them or put them down. He would simply ignore them. Very admirable trait, but you all know that.
When Mike told me that he was becoming a FAC for 2nd Bn/1st Marines, I was very pleased. I knew how important a quality FAC is for an infantry unit. I knew Mike would be the man to have with you during the chaos of ground combat. We both deployed last year to Iraq around the same time. I had a similar job as his but I worked for some other units and agencies, but the FAC community is small and we all kept tabs on each other. When the situation flared up in Fallujah last March Mike was smack dab in the middle of ground zero. The aircraft that usually supported me and my unit were working with Mike. They all knew "Oprah" and sang his praises. I had several conversations with AC-130 crewmembers who would ask me if I knew "Oprah". They were all very impressed with his composure while under fire. I told them that all Marine FACs were like that, but I knew that Mike was tougher than most. Fallujah and the corresponding battles really test the rock in which men are built on. You really get to know the true value of a man when bullets are flying and people are dying and you know your chances of getting killed are high. By all accounts Mike not only performed superbly, he constantly pushed his bosses to let him get out in to the fight. Any patrol that came up Mike volunteered to go out on. All Marines will push to get in to the fight initially; however, the true test is to push to get back in to the fight after you have felt it 1st hand. I know Mike must have been scared going out on those missions, however he would not let anyone down and felt it his moral obligation to support the young men who so desperately needed his skills as a FAC and a leader. Young Marines will do anything such as enter a fight and not show that they are scared. However, they are scared. By them seeing Capt Martino patrolling side by side with them with his radio and mind full of knowledge, they get a sense of security that if they get in to a bad situation Captain Martino would be the man to get the Cavalry on target to protect them. Just by being with them increases the combat effectiveness of the individual young Marine. They need to know that their big brother is there for them. (On many of his patrols no aircraft were overhead). Of course he did not let the young men know that. All they knew was that Captain Martino would protect them. Mike understood this, and did whatever he could to motivate and protect the sons of his nation.
Getting a bit long winded, my mind is full of numerous thoughts, but I don't want to drag on. What I can say about your son was that I was damn proud of him. I watched him mature over the past 5 years in to man who any family would be proud of. I miss him dearly. We were on the same shift out here so we even got to spend more time with each other. Mike was somewhat new to the squadron so many of the guys did not know him so well. However, over the past month the pilots on our shift got to know Mike. They would all say, "Hey sir, Martino is actually a funny guy", or "I did not know Mike did that in Fallujah, man has got some balls". As they got to know Mike, like I knew Mike, their opinion of him grew exponentially. His quiet professionalism shined through.
I'm sorry that I can't really express my personal feelings for Mike as clearly as I wish. I’m not too good at the touchy feely stuff. I am the youngest child in a family of 4, but I think of Mike like I think of how my brother thinks of me. I really feel like I lost my little brother. Don't know how/why I developed this bond with him. Perhaps it was the instructor/student thing, or the shared experiences of last year. I don't know. Mike and I talked to each other quite a bit about our experiences on the ground, but the things we told each other we did not tell the other members of the squadron. Not sure why, but I felt more comfortable telling him about how I felt about situation X. I knew he understood, and it was between us. The man was a good listener.”
The following are excerpts from a letter from Michael’s Commanding Officer to his parents a week after his death: “He was so excited to be here, doing what he loved to do, with the people he loved to do it with - his Gunfighter Family. He continued to perform above my expectations. He had engaged our enemies numerous times over the past month with great success, and I don't think his blood pressure rose a bit. He was the quiet professional. Calm, even keeled, level headed, never the one to draw attention to himself. He was always in the books, studying his aircraft, weapons systems and the enemy. One of the smartest pilots we have. You could always count on a well thought out come-back to any jab you gave him. He was intense, but you wouldn't know it by looking at him at first glance. However, if you watched him closely, you could see that everything he did was deliberate and with purpose, particularly in the air. He was always in position, and always got ordnance off on the first pass.
On 2 Nov, he was providing overhead security for a convoy traveling between bases, when his aircraft was engaged by the enemy near ArRamadi, Iraq. The attack caused a catastrophic loss of several main components of the aircraft, and it fell from the sky. An Army Second Lieutenant Mark Procopio was killed by an IED racing to Mike's aid, stating simply "they need our help, they are all alone" as he gathered his platoon and volunteered for the mission. We lost 3 great men that day - heroes each one of them. The sheer fact that we have men and women in our society today that are willing to volunteer to serve this great country of ours, defending freedom and liberty on a hostile foreign shore, continues to amaze me. Sacrifice, selfless service and uncommon valor are the staples of this generation of American Service members, to which Mike was a part. We miss him terribly. He will never be forgotten. Gunshot 66 ... We Will Never Forget”
Website dedicated to Michael: https://www.arlington.somloi.com/ which includes links to his Legacy.com Guestbook Page, Tribute From His Family, pictures Arlington Cemetery Ceremony, etc.
Submitted by Sybil E. Martino, proud mother of Michael.