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Rat Patrol in Iraq: Air Wing Marines Fill Infantry Role (VIDEO)Tim King Salem-News.com
Salem-News.com's Tim King rejoins his former Marine Corps aviation group to see Marines in Iraq performing a role normally filled by infantry units.
(Al Asad, IRAQ) - Marines at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq are on a constant vigil, with combat patrols in their area of operation going around the clock.
The unique part is that most of these Marines- doing the work of infantry platoons, have actually been pulled from other jobs in the Marine Air Wing that are related to aircraft and air support. The thing that separates Marines from the other military services is that even those with highly technical training and qualifications, are always able to take the Corps' most basic and often most important role, that of the infantryman, or 'grunt'.
Lance Corporal Dallas Carter explained some of the changes. "Everybody is a rifleman at first, then you go into your specialty. We ain't supposed to be grunts, but everybody isn't doing their MOS."
"My gunner's MOS is avionics," he continued. "But he learned to be a gunner, so he's actually a badass gunner now. And I know I'm doing my MOS now, I'm a driver, we're filling out a grunt billet, which is security for the base; patrols, towers and making sure everything is good. So technically yes, we are grunts, but technically no."
They perform their jobs without complaining, in spite of the 120 degree temperatures, heavy Kevlar vests, and six-hour combat patrols. If you take the time to ask them, they're honest about how they view this job; a modern day rat patrol in one of the hottest, dirtiest and sometimes most dangerous environments on the planet.
When asked 'how it's going out there', Corporal Brandon Arvin answered that nearing the end of their combat tour adds balance to the picture in his mind, "Aw it sucks pretty bad, but we're going home in like two weeks, so it's all good."
One thing that challenges these Marines is the desert environment itself. As we would see throughout the patrol, the land here grinds away at the lifespan of the Marines' HUMVEEs, laden with armor that they were never intended to carry.
As a HUMVEE driver, Carter has to think about it frequently, "The main thing is you think its just a lot of desert, but it's really hilly, it's really bad. We've broken a lot of half shafts on our trucks and had to replace them."
Corporal Arvin says the vehicles are poorly suited for the work here, "We've totaled quite a few, they all go to DERMO, they're broken, they're old. These HUMVEE's aren't supposed to have the armor on them, so, we're still waiting to get the new HUMVEE's."
Lance Corporal Hank Finnell is the HUMVEE's turret gunner. He explains how his unit has found success getting around in the Iraqi desert, "We get stuck pretty frequently, but we have a pretty easy time pulling ourselves, we've had one of the better records of not calling the wreckers out. I know my squad hasn't called the wrecker out at all. It certainly can be tough terrain. It was harder in the beginning because we didn't know the terrain very well and we didn't know the way around. Like some of these wadi's, we've figured out easy ways to get through them and easy ways to get around them, so it's gotten easier as the deployment has gone on."
Along with modified military jobs, the small number of Marines performing these roles are seeing other changes. One of these is the role of the strategic corporal. These non commissioned officers are performing a job normally held by Lieutenants. Brandon Arvin is a strategic corporal.
"Well right now being a Corporal, being a patrol leader, it's an NCO's war, NCO's are being asked to take care of a lot more than they were asked to take care of in the past. So you look around you are seeing NCO's and lance corporals starting to take billets, you are seeing lance corporals in charge where they probably wouldn't be in charge in other places, but lack of Marines, you're got lance corporals stepping up, corporals stepping up, and sergeants starting to fill the roles of staff sergeants and gunnery sergeants," Arvin said.
Another change in the Marine Corps is the emergence of the female Marine in combat, a concept still new in the U.S. military. One Marine this role is 20-year old Private first class Danielle Young. She has been in the Marine Corps for less than a year, and already has spent a significant amount of time as a .50 caliber machine gunner in a HUMVEE turret.
"It's a new experience, a lot different than I thought it would be. It's just something new to learn, it's actually kind of fun," she said.
I asked her if she believes it is inspirational to other women who learn that she is here doing this. "Yeah definitely, it's a good time, I think it's the place to be when we go out on patrols, even though it's not much, you get to see everything Iraq is about when you go in the desert and everything." When I asked how these guys are to work with, she said, "They're fun, we have our moments."
The terrain here is stifling, dry desert with an occasional oasis of water, grass and trees. In spite of the harshness, people still manage to hammer out a living through agriculture.
One of the first stops on this patrol was a remote Iraqi home where one woman stood outside awaiting our arrival. An Iraqi female interpreter traveling with this platoon translated the conversation between the Marine Corporal and this local national.
As in nearly every encounter with Iraqi's, the conversation between the women began with, "Asalam Alikum", which means "peace be with you."
The Marine's main question was whether any males were in the area, and he also asked if anything unusual had taken place in recent days. The woman spoke through the Iraqi interpreter and did not seem surprised or uncooperative with the questions. In the end, the Marines simply took her word. The corporal also asked if the woman had sufficient water.
The story in Iraq today is unexpected for many Americans. The country was technically at peace prior to the U.S. occupation, but it was ruled by the unflinching and egotistical mind of Saddam Hussein and his ruling party that exercised little in the way of humanity or fairness toward its average citizen.
Lance Corporal Dallas Carter says he has been surprised by what he has learned about the people here."Actually I was talking to an Iraqi the other day, its our interpreter, and he said that, I asked him if they all want us to get out of here, because a lot of Americans think that we need to pull out. He was telling me that a lot of the Iraqi people, even in Baghdad, they don't want the Americans out because they say that with the Americans, 'we're safe'.
"I wanted to get out of here 'cause I hate this place, I hate Iraq, but he was telling us that everything is better and it changed my opinion a little bit like maybe we don't need to get out of here. So I don't know, its just a difficult situation I reckon."
For our HUMVEE's gunner Hank Finnell, the job of manning the machine gun carries many variables, and he remains ready for unforseen dangers here in this desert environment.
"Basically what we want to look for is anybody displaying any hostile act, hostile intent, being like pointing a weapon at you, that would be hostile intent, a hostile act would be actually shooting or placing an IED or something. Basically I'm also the the driver's other set of eyes, looking for any rough terrain, like helping him find ways around it, ways through it, basically without damaging your truck or getting anybody inside hurt. Also, looking for any telltale signs of IED's and where they might be placed at."
The next stop was another Iraqi home, where there were several males. A pet dog sounded the alarm of our arrival, and seemed too busy trying to stay cool in a puddle of muddy water to care too much. Along with the adult men in this home were several women and children. They showed no unfriendliness and once again with the help of the platoon's interpreter, they answered several questions.
Corporal Arvin had some concerns over a weapon that was found at this home the last time this platoon of Marines passed through, but they explained that a platoon of Iraqi Army soldiers had passed through recently and confiscated the family's single AK-47 rifle, one of which is legal for them to possess.
The senior man of this household was a man of stature in this part of the world. His red scarf indicated that he was a haji, a Muslim who in his lifetime, had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is a title these Islamic people hold in high regard.
All of the men were quick and willing to show their identification, and they answered the questions the Marine corporal asked without hesitation.
The Marines have always been known as the service that performs the hardest duty with the most minimal equipment. And it wasn't long before another HUMVEE gave up the ghost, requiring these troops to secure another tow rope and haul another one of these several ton beasts out of the sandtrap, and onto more secure ground.
The vehicle is due to be replaced in the future with an improved version that is similar, but has better protection and a v-shaped bottom that will help greatly in deflecting the deadly blasts incurred when an IED, an improvised explosive device, detonates beneath them.
This patrol ended when one of the platoon's HUMVEE's snapped a half shaft in its driveline. A seven-ton wrecker truck was dispatched to haul the broken combat vehicle back to Al Asad. It meant that a six-hour patrol would turn into a nine-hour patrol. It wasn't glamorous, but still a good day in the life example of the U.S. Marines mission in the blazing summer heat of the Iraqi desert.
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Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Silver Spoke Award by the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (2011), Excellence in Journalism Award by the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (2010), Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), First-place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Tim has several years of experience in network affiliate news TV stations, having worked as a reporter and photographer at NBC, ABC and FOX stations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tim was a member of the National Press Photographer's Association for several years and is a current member of the Orange County Press Club.
Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. As News Editor, Tim among other things, is responsible for publishing the original content of 82 Salem-News.com writers. He reminds viewers that emails are easily missed and urges those trying to reach him, to please send a second email if the first goes unanswered. You can write to Tim at this address: email@example.com
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