FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Like armored floats bristling with automatic weaponry on parade, six humvees slowly rolled down the city's streets and alleyways. The gleeful screams of a multitude of children greeted them, as curious adults watched them rumble by. A few helmeted heads looked out from the top of the trucks, eyes scanning the rooftops as they waved to the cheering throngs of people below. And as Lance Cpl. Tim "Chip" Montgomery tossed baggies of candy and peanuts to the Iraqi kids from his vehicle's gun turret, he knew all eyes were on him.
"It's really cool to be the vehicle's gunner, because you're out in the open and you get to see everything that's going on," stated the 19-year-old Williamsport, Penn. native. "The gunners are who everybody looks at while we're out in the city."
As a vehicle gunner with 1st Combined Anti-Armor Team, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Montgomery can rest assured that many curious stares from the local citizens will often follow him.
Since mid-March, CAAT Marines like this 2004 Williamsport Area High School graduate have been assisting the foot-mobile infantrymen in their battalion comb the streets of Fallujah to root out the ever-present insurgency. As a member of one of four CAAT teams, Montgomery and his 23 fellow men roll through Fallujah aboard their armored vehicles several times a day and into the night.
"We'll do all-day long patrols starting out in the morning to hit up sectors all around Northern Fallujah," he said. "We look for people emplacing IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the road or watching our convoys and acting suspicious."
As "Bronco” rolls through the city, some of the team's Marines often dismount their trucks to walk alongside the vehicles. The Marines use their time pounding the ground to interact with the community and hand out goodies to the kids.
"Passing out candy and winning the hearts and minds of the people is probably one of the best parts of these patrols," Montgomery stated. "It's fun to see the kids run out and enjoy themselves when they see us passing by."
Even after sunset, the Marines remain vigilant and continue riding through the city streets. They know terrorists often use the cover of darkness and nighttime's cooler temperatures to move about. The battle to remain awake and alert begins for gunners like Montgomery, who have endured the blistering summer sunlight since the morning hours.
"Even though it's been pretty slow around here lately, you still have to deal with the heat, and that takes a big toll on you," Montgomery stated.
Nevertheless, the Marines realize the importance of their patrolling missions. First CAAT has already been hit by roadside bombs several times since their arrival here, and have had one member of their unit killed in action in one blast this past April.
Lately, insurgents' use of vehicle-borne IEDs have also kept the gunners on their toes, as they know they are the first to see and respond to the potential threat a vehicle following or cutting into their convoy could pose.
Marines here use signs, colored flags, and even stun grenades to warn local drivers to keep their distance from military convoys for everyone's safety. Gunners must be able to differentiate an inattentive driver from a potential VBIED.
"What goes on in the truck revolves around the gunner, in a way. We're the first ones to respond to contact because everyone else still has to wait for the vehicle to stop to be able to get out," Montgomery said.
The safety of their six-vehicle convoy and choosing whether or not to shoot at tailing vehicles rests on gunners like him, but Montgomery remains humble and dutiful. He is simply one player serving as part of a cohesive team, according to Montgomery.
"The whole platoon has to click in order for the missions to be successful, and I think we've done a pretty good job of it so far," he added. "I'll feel satisfied when we leave here, knowing that we did our part to make Fallujah a safer place."