This Marine Has One of the ‘Best Jobs’ in the Corps, and It Sometimes Involves Firing 3,000 Rounds a Minute Out of a Helicopter

 In Air
  • Several Marines have told Insider that heli­copter door gun­ners have one of the Corps’ best jobs, so we asked one about his job.
  • Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Fitzgerald’s job involves han­dling heavy weapon­ry, includ­ing a mini­gun that can fire 50 rounds a second. But, there’s more to it than just the big guns.
  • “We are kind of like a SWAT Team, a police force, fire­fight­ers, EMTs, and car mechan­ics all wrapped into one, and we are able to take that any­where in the world,” he told Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Daniel Fitzgerald was brush­ing his teeth before bed when small arms fire raked his build­ing and explo­sions shook the ground at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan on September 14, 2012.

The North Carolina native rushed out­side into what he describes as his most intense combat expe­ri­ence. 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 attack,” Fitzgerald, who is assigned to heli­copters, 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 heli­copters. “When the heli­copters start­ed attack­ing enemy tar­gets, or at least sup­press­ing, we were all 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, a heli­copter crew chief and door gunner who nor­mal­ly wages war above the bat­tle­field, the fight­ing that night 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 down range,” he told Insider.

‘Don’t shoot them. They will kill you’

Gunny Sgt. Daniel Fitzgerald

Gunny Sgt. Daniel Fitzgerald.
Courtesy photo

Gunnery Sgt. Fitzgerald is a sea­soned crew chief with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing’s “Gunrunners” (HMLA-269) who has served for 12 years, and he has what a number of Marines say, in part because of some of the perks, is “one of the best jobs” in the Corps.

Fighting from a UH-1Y “Venom” heli­copter (Huey) and flying along­side an AH-1Z “Viper” attack heli­copter (Cobra), he is typ­i­cal­ly part of a team of six Marines — two Cobra pilots, two Huey pilots, and two door gun­ners — com­mand­ing tremen­dous fire­pow­er in battle.

“We have an entire buffet of offen­sive and defen­sive capa­bil­i­ties between the two air­craft,” Fitzgerald said.

As a door gunner, Fitzgerald is trained to oper­ate the GAU-21 .50-cal­iber weapon system and the M240D machine gun, but there’s one weapon most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with his job: a mini­gun that fires over 3,000 rounds a minute.

“We’re the only users of that weapon system in an offen­sive capa­bil­i­ty,” he told Insider of the GAU-17 Gatling gun, vari­ants of which have been used since Vietnam. The heli­copters are, as Fitzgerald explained, “armed to the teeth.”

“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 the tiny gray heli­copters, don’t shoot them. They will kill you.’ ”

For all of their power, the big guns do come with their share of chal­lenges though.

For exam­ple, the Marines who wield them have to be able to take them apart — includ­ing the Gatling gun’s more than 100 parts — in the rain, in the dark, under fire, and in other decid­ed­ly dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions, and they have to be able to do it while wear­ing 60 to 70 pounds of gear in the back of a moving heli­copter.

“We train to deal with the most bizarre stuff in the air­craft,” Fitzgerald said, explain­ing that the crew also has to be able to handle heli­copter repair work and pro­vide tac­ti­cal combat casu­al­ty care, among other things.

‘They know they are going to sleep well’

Fitzgerald aboard a helicopter

Fitzgerald aboard a helicopter.
Courtesy photo

The Marines in the heli­copters carry out a wide vari­ety of mis­sions, every­thing from the deliv­ery of beans, bul­lets, and band-aids to fire sup­port to casu­al­ty evac­u­a­tions.

“We are kind of like a SWAT Team, a police force, fire­fight­ers, EMTs, and car mechan­ics all wrapped into one,” Fitzgerald said, “and we are able to take that any­where in the world and do the nation’s bid­ding.”

“If [Marines] need to be pulled out or put in, if they need to be resup­plied, or if they are in a bad part of town and get­ting shot at, they can call us any­time,” Fitzgerald said. “We will be there in the over­head, pro­vid­ing offen­sive or defen­sive sup­port by fire.”

Helicopter crews often refer to ground troops as “cus­tomers,” Fitzgerald said. “Out there, the guy that I’m work­ing for, my cus­tomer, is often living in the hard­est envi­ron­ment imag­in­able,” living in the dirt, eating almost noth­ing, and going long stretch­es with­out a shower.

“They need us,” he said. “Whenever Marines have Cobras and Hueys in the over­head, they know they are going to sleep well that night.”

‘Not just one person with a cool job’

Helo

Two Marines working on a helicopter.
Courtesy photo

Fitzgerald empha­sized that while he is trained to bring a lot of capa­bil­i­ties to the bat­tle­field, it takes more than one person to exe­cute mis­sions effec­tive­ly.

It’s “not just one person with a cool job,” he said. “When we’re fight­ing, it’s those six indi­vid­u­als in that [heli­copter] ele­ment keep­ing their heads on a swivel and trying to look out for each other and cover each oth­er’s sixes.”

“There’s a beau­ti­ful cadence of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that goes on as well,” he con­tin­ued. “I know that when I say, ‘Tracers, trac­ers, break left, break left, RPG, two o’clock,’ the pilots are going to maneu­ver the air­craft accord­ing­ly.” Marines in the air also com­mu­ni­cate reg­u­lar­ly with troops on the ground.

He said that because you have people count­ing on you, it’s crit­i­cal that Marines avoid “going inter­nal,” let­ting other things out­side of the moment weigh on you in a fight.

“The tough­est part of the job is to not get inside your head,” Fitzgerald, who has plenty to think about with a wife, a 2‑year-old kid, and anoth­er child on the way, said, explain­ing that the last thing you want to do is “go inter­nal when peo­ple’s lives are on the line… We never want to let our broth­er or our sister down.”

‘Would do it all over again’

A view from the cabin of a helicopter during a training exercise

A view from the cabin of a helicopter during a training exercise.
Courtesy photo

While Marines have told Insider that door gun­ners have one of the best jobs in the Corps, Fitzgerald actu­al­ly planned on join­ing the infantry, but his broth­er, also a Marine, tricked him into this route when he joined.

“My broth­er knew that if I had gone through with my orig­i­nal plan to be an infantry­man, my life would be much more at risk,” he said. “He tricked me into this job. He told me that I would be a grunt, but I would be attached to heli­copters.”

He said his broth­er told him that he would “always have a hot meal at the end of the day, a bed off the ground, and air con­di­tion­ing, for the most part.”

Taking his broth­er’s advice, he entered one of the longer non-spe­cial-oper­a­tions train­ing pipelines, attend­ing every­thing from boot camp to a course on going down behind enemy lines to door gunner school.

Over the years, Fitzgerald has con­duct­ed oper­a­tions all over the world, includ­ing the Pacific, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, among other places.

And, he told Insider that he “would do it all over again” if he could, “with­out a doubt.”

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