CAMP RAMADI, AR RAMADI, Iraq -- Insurgents have Cpl. Nicholas H. Cole and other combat engineers with 4th Platoon, Company A, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, to blame when they revisit their weapons cache sites and find them empty or destroyed.
“Finding bombs is what we do,” said the 20-year-old Cole from Weaverville, Calif., during a recent weapons cache sweep through farmland on the southern edge of the Al Anbar capital city. “It’s our job.”
Cole and his comrades – a team of Marines skilled in finding hidden munitions -- are deployed here working alongside 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Cole said the combat engineers’ mission is simple: Find weapons and destroy them.
The Marines – commonly referred to as “Blast Masters” in the Corps because they routinely blow up enemy munitions with plastic explosives – accomplish their mission by conducting weapon cache sweeps. Often they take to the urban battlefield with infantrymen, and other times they go at it alone.
Armed with metal detectors, shovels and a keen sense for how the enemy thinks, Cole and his Marines, working in teams of two, scour the terrain for buried bombs, improvised explosives, mortars, artillery shells and other munitions.
“Everything we pull out of the ground,” explained the 2003 Trinity High School graduate, “helps save lives. The more we find, the less they have to blow us up with.”
The Marines have uncovered and destroyed hundreds of buried weapons caches in and around the city during the past six months they’ve been deployed, Cole said. The result, he said, is fewer weapons in enemy hands.
“I’ve noticed that after finding large caches,” he explained, “the mortar attacks have gone down and almost stopped.”
Cole has developed his own strategy for finding caches.
“I just think like the enemy and look in the place where they might hide the weapons,” he said. “We often find caches doing that.”
The Marines dealt the insurgency a blow to their weapons arsenal, Aug. 15, when they uncovered and destroyed more than 300 artillery shells and approximately 2000 rounds of rifle ammunition. What Cole labeled “a significant find” took place in several acres of fields located on the southern outskirts of the city.
“We were doing our standard sweep formation, covering the area along the rows,” recalled Cole of the mission. “The metal detector picked something up, and I went after it with my shovel.”
Cole’s partner, Cpl. Nicklas E. Schmitter, was operating the metal detector.
“Judging by the shape patterns the metal detector was giving off,” said 21-year-old Schmitter form Stockport, Iowa, “I knew something big was buried. But I had no idea the cache would be as large as it was.”
Cole didn’t have to dig very deep before he found what was buried. Two feet down he uncovered a cache that, after two hours of digging, netted more than 200 mortars. Cole and Schmitter took turns digging up the ordnance because of the size.
“I was digging the mortars out and they just kept coming,” said Schmitter. “It was like there was a never-ending supply.”
The Marines excavated the site, recorded the amount of munitions they found and destroyed the cache with a controlled detonation. After the mission Cole reflected on the day’s events.
“This was a good find,” he said. “Any find, though, is good because we’re taking weapons out of the bad guys’ hands and possibly saving Marines.”