HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
In the early morning hours, before the first roosters crow, Marines from Alpha Battery place their remaining rounds inside trucks and rig the last of their M777 Howitzers for towing. They ride to a nearby operating base and in a stir of sweat and sand recalibrate their cannons for the new location and are once again mission capable.
In a matter of minutes the Marines entrenched the Howitzers, prepared an assortment of shells for fire and draped camouflage across their newly formed gun line.
“Within last 24 hours we did a complete march order. This consists of breaking down the Howitzer, loading up the truck, you have to get all the fire essential gear up and get moving,” said Lance Cpl. Paul Adey, cannoneer, Alpha Battery, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion,6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, ISAF. “We just got here right now and we are fire capped, ready to fire, if need be.”
For the majority of the deployment the artillery battery was isolated on a plateau overlooking friendly positions, a large contrast from how these weapons and Marines are employed in Iraq.
“Other batteries, when they go to Iraq are usually in a FOB (forward operating base) like we are now, but we were outside the wire pretty much on our own. The main difference was being out there and not having any other security, out there in the middle of the desert providing everything for ourselves,” said Adey.
The Marines have a certain pride about their months in the desert, not just in the less-than luxurious living conditions, but also for their role in taking the insurgent-riddled city district of Garmsir.
“When we first got here, the first three weeks to a month we were putting rounds down range pretty heavily. We had fire missions all the time, we were working pretty hard, but as time went by, things calmed down. We got word that people were stopping fights because of artillery fire,” explains Adey.
Cpl. Cody Saunders, cannoneer, Alpha Battery, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF, an Iraq veteran after a tour with the battery, knows just how lucky these Marines are to make contributions to the battle from the gun line.
“My first one (deployment) I did military police work. I drove around and patrolled the area. This one is more fun, I am actually doing my job and I get to save lives. We have been really, really busy. These weapon systems are new; we just got them about a year ago. We have shot more rounds out of these guns then pretty much any other battery,” explains Saunders, second in command on his howitzer.
When he mentions saving lives, he says it so matter-of-factly, so modestly that it takes a second to realize the magnitude of his statement. As the cannoneer tasked with pulling the cord and ultimately sending shells into enemy positions, he is keenly aware of his impact on the battlefield.
“The grunts are down there getting into a firefight and need help, so we need to get rounds down range to help them out,” said the Texan.
According to the First Sgt. Fortunato Rubio, company first sergeant, Alpha Battery, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF, the Marines round expenditure was unprecedented.
“In a matter of 35-40 days the battery shot 1,200 rounds. It’s almost unheard of for artillery to fire that amount. If you compare to Iraq, mostly IED’s (improvised explosive devices), here it was actually no kidding a combined arms mission, infantry elements, air support and artillery. It was a classic combined arms operations, said Rubio.
First Lieutenant Daniel Brown executive officer, Alpha Battery, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF, puts the numbers into context.
“I can tell you for a fact that no one has shot this much arty (in 10th Marines) since the end of 2003,” said Brown.
When word reached 10th Marine Regiment headquarters, the battery’s parent command back in North Carolina, the regimental commander sent a congratulatory email to the men, said Brown.
While indirect fire missions are the prime mission and capability of artillery Marines, it is but one of a number of tasks they are trained to handle. Even before they moved into this forward base the Marines were in charge of the Civil Military Operations Center in Garmsir, a place for locals to receive payments for damages caused during the fight for the city. By moving they now have more manpower for their other tasks including operating two convoy units which provide security and logistics support.
“Every battery in the Marine Corps, because of the necessity for mobility and being able to move to a lot of things at one time, gives us the ability to do things that an infantry battalion can’t,” Brown said referring to their two convoy elements
“It’s definitely unique with what we bring to the fight because there is that flexibly with being able to do anything that can be required, provisional infantry, civil affairs, we are able to do a number of things and still in the end go back to fire artillery; what we are best at. I guess we are jacks of all trades, master of one.”
It has been weeks since the last exchanges of fire with insurgents, but the battery’s Marines still approach each day with the same vigilance as when operations began. Convoys come and go, villagers receive battle damage payments, and looming under a canopy the gun line stands watch. Shells sit patiently stacked in lines and columns, always just a lanyard-pull away from adding to the record setting number of fire missions, or as Saunders would think, one pull away from saving a fellow Marines’ life.