THAR THAR REGION, Iraq -- The hulking, metal juggernaut rumbles down the miles of stark wasteland. As the noonday sun blazes high overhead, one figure peers out from atop the armored beast to scan the surrounding desert fields for enemy activity.
Sergeant Steven Phillips and his Assault Amphibian Vehicle crew are on a mission.
From June 18 to 22, the AAV crew chief with Company B, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion; fellow AAV crew members, Iraqi Security Forces, and hundreds of Marines, sailors and soldiers participated in Operation Khanjar (Dagger). Their mission was to sweep through the desert north of Fallujah searching out hidden weapons and explosives.
The 27-year-old Vidor, Texas native and his two crewmen manned one of several transports that freighted Marine infantrymen as they looked for these weapons caches.
“I hate driving out in the desert. You never know where some (old regime) Iraqi forces buried their stuff before they surrendered,” the 1996 Vidor High School graduate explained. “Land mines are our biggest fear out here.”
During the five-day long mission, Phillips and his crew members encountered no such threats, but supported the operation that netted 22 detainees and hundreds of explosive rounds that could have been used to make improvised explosive devices, currently one of the deadliest weapons insurgents use in Iraq.
However, Khanjar is only one operation the former Marine recruiter’s unit has performed throughout their nearly four months in country.
“We’ve mostly been providing security looking for IEDs,” Phillips stated.
He and his fellow AAV crew members, or ‘trackers,’ emplace their troop transports along the road that military convoys often pass through. In the past, insurgents have strewn IEDs along this path, so Phillips and his crew monitor the roads for suspicious activity from atop their vehicles.
“I spend the entire time in this turret, standing up the whole time. Your feet start hurting after awhile,” Phillips said, explaining how he mans the turret housing the AAV’s weapons systems, an automatic grenade launcher and a .50 caliber machine gun. “Up here in the turret, you’re also worried about IED blasts, because you’re exposed from the armpits up.”
Already, Phillips said his unit has suffered casualties when one of their vehicles struck a buried antitank mine toward the beginning of their deployment. They continue monitoring roadways and fields outside Fallujah to save fellow Marines from similar tragedy.
“We once found an IED and while we were waiting on EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) to come blow it up, two convoys came through that would’ve gotten hit if we hadn’t been there,” Phillips added.
Although they continue saving lives with their constant vigilance, route observation is only one task these trackers perform. An old Marine Corps saying states, “Every Marine is a rifleman first and foremost,” and Phillips’ crew proves the adage day by day.
Company B personnel support missions throughout all of Fallujah and hundreds of square kilometers around the city. For several operations, Phillips’ crewmen have already put their basic infantry knowledge to the test.
“We’re kind of jacks of all trades, bouncing all over the place and doing whatever missions come up,” Phillips said. “We’ve done hundreds of snap VCPs all over the Al Anbar province.”
During these hasty vehicle check points, Phillips’ AAV crew stop traffic and dismount from their vehicle to search randomly selected automobiles for weapons and explosives. This helps counter insurgent attempts to smuggle arms and IED-making materials into Fallujah.
The trackers also patrol on foot when searching areas with no infantry support. During one previous mission, Company B elements unearthed what Marine officials called “possibly the largest series of insurgent weapons caches found this year in the Al Anbar province.” The site was found near Karmah, a small city north of Fallujah, and was a 558- by 902-foot site in an abandoned quarry insurgents used as an underground lair.
“The regimental colonel came down and talked to us, telling us what an awesome job we were doing,” Phillips stated.
Despite this success, the AAV crewmen’s primary mission remains to support the infantrymen in accomplishing their raids and patrols.
“Our AAVs provide cover for the grunts (infantrymen) whenever they go into houses,” Phillips stated, explaining how the transports set up a defensive perimeter around the target. “You’re always looking around and communicating with one another. You have to know what’s going on around you and employ your weapons at a moment’s notice.”
Even when not performing these counter-insurgency operations, Phillips’ trackers keep busy by keeping their AAVs in top working order.
“The dust around here really messes up the track’s breathing system, so they’re always fighting for air,” Phillips explained. “They also take a beating because of all the rocks and rough terrain we take them through. We also do a lot of basic and preventive maintenance ourselves, and help the mechanics with the more advanced maintenance.”
Phillips and his fellow trackers continue deterring terrorist activity here with their gear in good working order. Although these men are in constant danger from buried explosive threats, the crew shoulders these responsibilities to keep tracking forward.
“So far, I think we’ve had tremendous success by deterring the insurgents from putting out IEDs and finding so many weapons caches,” Phillips stated. “I’d say we’ve definitely put a dent in their plans.”