CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Being an artillery Marine means staying in the firing line on call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, regardless of the time waiting for fire missions to be requested.
Marines with India Battery, 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, take the idea of being a Marine 24/7 literally. Mention “downtime” to these cannon-cocking leathernecks and you’re liable to get laughed at.
“Fire missions can come at any time of the day or night,” explained Sgt. William A. Castellanos, a 25-year-old crew cannoneer section chief. “It doesn’t matter what time it is: We stay close to our Howitzers in case someone needs our support.”
They are routinely woken up in the early hours of the morning to the sound a voice on a radio notifying them about a fire mission. Within seconds of the call, Marines are bounding across the gravel toward the gigantic cannon, ready to load and fire.
“The normal amount of Marines per gun is 10,” explained Castellanos, a Los Angeles native. “Every Marine plays an important role during the fire mission. Some Marines load the round; some maneuver the 30,000-meter ‘sniper rifle’ into position and some aim.”
Characterizing the Howitzer as an overstuffed sniper rifle is an understatement of epic proportions. The gun can sling a high-explosive round a hair-scorching 23 kilometers. Throw a rocket-assisted projectile, or RAP round, into the lineup and you gain an additional 9km of range.
Not every round out of the barrel goes “boom.” The guns are also capable of putting out 1,000,000-candlepower illumination rounds to turn even the darkest night into pseudo-daylight for Marines in contact with the enemy. The light is an eerie pale-orange, tethered to a parachute. The flammable material extinguishes itself long before it hits ground.
Whether the call comes for explosions or bright lights, the situation on the ground can change in an instant.
“There are more fire missions called off than carried out,” said Castellanos. “Sometimes Marines need artillery support, sometimes they don’t, but we are always ready.”
Because artillery fire can be called upon at any time, the artillerymen have to stay close to their Howitzer. When they are standing by they need to find to pass the time.
“During the day most of the Marines find time to exercise in between fire missions,” explained Cpl. Osler Vincent, a 26-year-old assistant section chief. “Even though we can’t leave to go the gym we have to stay in shape. We made our own gym with some weights we had.”
Besides lifting, Marines also pass the time with a game of dominos, Monopoly, or card games.
Whatever the Marines do to pass the time in between missions, everything halts when they hear the voice on the radio asking for help from their long arm.
“Well be sitting there playing dominos and we’ll get a call for artillery support,” explained Vincent, a Delray Beach, Fla. native. “Everyone stops what they are doing and rushes to the Howitzer.”
Once the fire mission is conducted or called off, the Marines place the cannon into position and go back to doing whatever they were doing.
Although not all fire missions are carried out, when the Marines get the chance to fire the Howitzer they know they are making a difference.
“The Marines’ morale definitely gets a boost when we are finally able to fire,” explained Vincent. “It especially makes the Marines feel good when we find out if we hit our target. It lets us know we are helping the Marines out there patrolling.”
Although the artillerymen are woken up numerous times at night and have to allow there meals to get cold when there is mission, they know what they’re doing for regiment is an important job and they take it seriously. The Marines joke with each other and play games in between missions, however, when they are called upon for a fire mission the jokes fade quickly and they rush into action.
Working on the firing line means these Marines have to give up going to the dinning facility or to a nice gym with lots of equipment, but the artillerymen are dedicated to their job and they stand firm waiting for the next fire mission to be called for.