MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER, TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- It is hard to imagine what it would feel like to be standing next to a lightning strike, to feel the energy flow through your body, and then suffer through the deafening roar of the thunder as it ripped through the air. Hard to imagine for most people, but not a heavy machine-gunner, like Pvt. Sam A. Miller, who is used to having the firepower of a M2 .50-caliber machine gun in his hands.
Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, went back to the basics with their heavy machine guns on a .50-caliber machine gun range during their pre-deployment Mojave Viper training in the California desert, which it is named after.
“Ranges like this help us get more proficient with the heavy guns,” explained 1st Lt. William H. Strom, the mobile assault platoon, or MAP, commander. “With the heavy firepower and longer range of these weapons we can establish fire superiority and suppress the enemy.”
The .50-caliber isn’t the only big gun the Marines use; the collection also includes the Mk-19 grenade launcher, the 240G machine gun and the Squad Automatic Weapon, or SAW.
“We use these weapons on convoys, and patrols and such,” said Miller, a Hoover, Ala., native. “The added firepower makes us a big asset in securing the safety of the convoys we go with.”
The training wasn’t just for Weapons Company Marines, it was for every heavy machine-gunner in the battalion to refresh their skills with the weapons they will be using on their upcoming deployment in March. The Marines from the battalion’s companies, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, will go back to their units with the additional knowledge they have learned and teach the rest of the Marines in their company the basics of heavy machine-gunnery.
“You never know when something might happen and you will be manning a .50-cal or Mk-19, so everyone should know this stuff,” Miller said.
“This type of live-fire range really helps the younger guys get familiar with the machine guns and it builds muscle memory for those who may not use them too often,” said Lance Cpl. Zachary M. Apel, machine gunner and positional safety officer, or PSO, for MAP on the range.
The Marines brought three .50-caliber machine guns and lined them up on a small hill, facing a large open area in front of one of the desert’s numerous mountains. Periodically blue life-size cutouts of trucks or other vehicles would pop up at various distances, and be fired upon by the Marines. Their accuracy is deadly.
“We focus on the younger guys so they can react and get on target quicker,” said Lance Cpl. Joshua R. Godfrey, who is also a machine gunner and PSO for the range. “We definitely have an advantage in Iraq because we are more proficient on a weapon with more firepower than our enemy.”
The Marines worked in two man teams, one manned the weapon while the other sat nearby, spotted his shots, gave helpful advice on adjustments, and helped load, clear, and unload the weapon.
“The range helps get every Marine more familiar with the larger weapons, just in case they have to get into the turret of a HMMWV someday,” said Apel, a Memphis, Tenn., native, and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.
After a few short bursts, five to eight rounds, each Marine was told to practice their immediate and remedial action drills. They continuously cycled between firing, loading, unloading, and clearing their weapons before they switched places and started over from the beginning.
“As machine-gunners it is our responsibility to know all four of the heavy guns, and practice makes perfect,” explained Godfrey, an Aurora, Ohio, native, and also an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. “This stuff definitely applies in Iraq and whether they know it or not, Marines nowadays get a lot better preparation than when we first started deploying (to Iraq).”
Late afternoon sets in as the Marines continue to bring their thunder and lightning to bear on the blue targets set in the distance. Each gun has had several barrel changes by the end of the day, and there is a pile of empty shells and links over a foot tall, nearly as large as a gun itself, under and around each weapon. As the lightning flashes from the barrels, the thunder created by the muzzle blast makes shock waves in the sand under each barrel.
Then it just stops.
The quiet desert seems to echo a warning off the mountains and into the falling sun: The machine-gunners are ready, and on their way.