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Reserve Marines help Santa visit isolated Arizona tribe in Grand Canyon

By Gunnery Sgt. Bill Lisbon | | December 16, 2009

For the 14th straight year, Marine aviators brought Christmas to an isolated Native American tribe living within the Grand Canyon.

Flying three CH-46 Sea Knights through the canyon, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 764 carried donated food and toys into the village of Supai, Ariz., on Dec. 15, 2009.

The next day, they returned carrying Santa Claus with an escort of Phoenix-based reserve Marines in dress blues to deliver gifts to the more than 100 children of the Havasupai tribe.

“The reason we do this is for the kids,” said Dick McCallum, event coordinator.

The airlift was part the Toys for Tots program and was necessary due to the village’s remoteness, nestled in a tributary canyon off the Grand Canyon’s southern edge. Besides helicopter, the only other way in is via an eight-mile foot trail.

So, holiday shopping for Havasupai parents translates to a difficult and expensive multiday trek, said Matthew Putesoy Sr., vice chairman of the tribal council.

“This is a blessing for them,” said Putesoy.

Before launching from the Grand Canyon airport, Marines and civilian volunteers loaded tons of toys, backpacks of school supplies and ingredients for holiday feasts into the helicopters.

Since no Marine reserve units call northern Arizona home, most of the toys are amassed by the Marine Corps League detachment in Flagstaff, as well as by countless other volunteers. Since the first airlift in 1996, several other civilian charities have joined the effort, bringing food and other supplies.

For the squadron, the operation was not just reindeer games. Working in freezing temperatures, flying at higher altitudes and navigating through the tight canyons challenged the squadron’s Marines and proved to be invaluable training, said Lt. Col. Marcus E. Malais, squadron commanding officer.

Twenty-two Marines from the reserve squadron, based at Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles, participated in the event.

“It’s a reward for everybody,” said Malais.

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