Engineers finds weapon caches along Euphrates

24 Feb 2007 | Staff Sgt. Tracie G. Kessler

Combat engineers attached to the Camp Pendleton-based Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion,4th Marine Regiment, cleared a small village, known as Wadi Sakron, near Camp Bastard in western Iraq.

The clearing operation uncovered several small caches that were intended to be used against coalition forces operating in the area.

According to Gunnery Sgt. Timothy Etheridge, combat engineer chief, this was the first time Marines have operated in this particular area in quite some time.

The 17-year veteran explained that his Marines were tasked with sweeping through the village to find any weapons and caches due to its possible connection to a nearby terrorist training camp.

“We went down there to see the area because Wadi Sakron used to be a terrorist training camp. Because of the activity going on in Ramadi, the insurgents are starting to surge north toward Barwanah. With that in mind, we wanted to get down there and find any kind of caches that could be used as (improvised explosive devices) or taken across the Euphrates River,” said Etheridge.

During the 12-kilometer sweep, three caches were found along the river’s edge, consisting of several types of munitions that could be used against Marines operating in the area.

“We found a 105mm howitzer round, three 57mm anti-aircraft rounds and four rocket-propelled grenades,” said Etheridge.

Etheridge further explained how insurgents try to keep their presence unknown to locals in the villages, which could account for the caches’ close proximity to the river’s edge.

“All three caches were found right along the river’s edge and all of them within some kind of tree line,” he said.

Though the number of caches found may seem like a small number when compared to others found in the Haditha Triad, any weapons found are weapons that will be kept out of the hands of anti-Iraqi forces, he said.

“I think any cache we find that pulls the weapons out of the enemy’s hands is positive. Nobody got injured (finding them) so that’s even better,” Etheridge said.

“I’ll admit that I expected to find a lot more, especially if we were the first unit down there.If the Iraqi Police cadre working down there are doing well, then that is helping us out, too,” he explained.

Scheduled to take at least three days, Etheridge and his Marines cleared the area in just a day. This is attributed to the experience of the combat engineers and their expertise at finding buried weapons.

“As combat engineers, we tend to know what to look for, what’s more likely to be an obvious area. Instead of having to look at everything, we’re able to go through and specifically pick out the most likely,” he explained.

Sgt. Nicholas Cole, a 22- year-old combat engineer with BLT 2/4, was one of the Marines responsible for sweeping through the village looking for weapons caches.

A large amount of preparation went into the planning for the mission, said Cole. With a wake-up call well before daybreak, the combat engineers were in their trucks, on their way out before sunrise and back after dark, he explained.

According to Cole, the weapons could have been used for multiple purposes but more than likely, the weapons were to be used against coalition forces operating in the area.

“The real threat is the (improvised explosive devices), obviously,” said Cole, a Weaverville, Calif., native. “If those weapons fell into the wrong hands,which they already were to begin with,they could be used for multiple purposes.

Cole said the explosives alone aren’t the most dangerous thing. It is once someone with an ingenious mind ties them with blasting caps and rigs them to hit a coalition convoy that’s the danger.

Finding a weapons cache is like looking for a needle in a haystack, said Cole. However, he and his fellow Marines rely on their experience to better equip themselves.

Several of the Marines have deployed to Iraq before and others are simply good at finding the caches, he said. Regardless, the skill of the combat engineers is what keeps them successful, said Cole.

“Most of the classes we get for finding and exploiting weapons caches rely solely upon the experiences and ideas that the engineers themselves have. We haven’t received any formal training.  It’s strictly platoon based and based off the experiences of the Marines who have done it on a prior deployment,” said Cole.

“It’s the Marines that are on the ground training the new Marines. It’s the Marines on the ground being vigilant and finding key indicators, that looks like a marked spot or dug up dirt,” said Cole. “It’s those guys who make these finds possible.”

The operation was significant and produced the results they were looking for, said Etheridge.  He would not be surprised to see Marines there again.

BLT 2/4 is currently deployed to Iraq with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and has operated from Camp Bastard since late November 2006.