BARWANA, Iraq -- Marines with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion uncovered a cache of weapons after receiving a tip on the site’s approximate location.
Marines, sailors and soldiers from Regimental Combat Team-2 and from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team received the tip while conducting Operation River Gate in the town of Barwana and surrounding areas. Their mission for the operation was to eliminate insurgents, disrupt lines of communication and prevent interference with the Constitutional Referendum.
At the suspected cache site, Marines from Weapons Company and combat engineers from 1st Combat Engineer Battalion attached to 1st LAR discovered man-made dirt mounds, heavy equipment tracks and an area which appeared to have something buried underneath it.
“The area was larger than we had anticipated and it was quickly getting dark out,” said 1st Lt. James P. Donovan, a 29-year-old combat engineer. “We decided to come back at first light with mine sweeping and metal detecting devices.”
Weapons Company Marines posted security to prevent anyone from tampering with the site that night and returned in the morning ready to begin searching.
Pfc. Michael D. O’Neill, 21, and Donovan were conducting sweeps of the area when O’Neill’s metal detector began to sound.
“I had been picking up signals before and they turned out to be trash, but the length of this detection made me think,” O’Neill, a combat engineer and Amissville, Va., native commented. "I outlined the area, which was about 10 feet long, and the Marines began to dig.”
After a few minutes of digging, they discovered the outside of a structure and soon after, they uncovered the roof and a door.
“We pried the door open and I looked inside,” Donovan, East Point, Ga., native said. “The first thing I saw was 120 mm mortars and I began looking for booby traps before going in and exploring the site.”
As he looked around inside the bunker, he found bags of clothes, anti-Iraqi propaganda, improvised explosive material, ammunition, magazines and dozens of mortars.
He began handing the bags up so they could be investigated, while O’Neill entered and began to help Donovan move the ordnance.
“We search so many times and find nothing,” said O’Neill, who is on his third deployment in Iraq. “Finding this makes this deployment worthwhile.”
“We had experience with destroying caches this size when we worked at ASP Wolf and Dulab, so I decided to use the same methods,” stated Donovan, a 1995 graduate of Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga. “But this is the biggest find since we worked here.”
The Marines worked for over two hours counting the mortars and preparing to destroy them. Soaked with sweat while working in the hot and musky basement, they never complained.
“We know that by taking these explosives from them that could mean one less Marine that could be hurt or killed,” O’Neill said. “Every time we find caches like these we are taking ground away from the insurgents and it pulls us closer to their homes.”
“It’s great to find this, but it would be even better to find the guys who put it there," said Donovan, a 1999 University of Georgia graduate. “Still, we are cutting their supply lines and doing the best we can on our level.”
The final count total was 91 120 mm mortars and approximately 900 pounds of explosives in one 6-foot-by-4-foot bunker.
The Marines would later add the other explosive material and ammunition found at the site along with their own to bring the total to approximately 1,200 pounds of explosive material. Their plan was to destroy the bunker, all the weaponry and reduce the chance of shrapnel being expelled in one clean shot.
They “popped smoke” on the detonation cord and went to a protective position to watch their efforts come to fruition.
“It’s going to be a huge explosion and a great personal and professional accomplishment,” said O’Neill, who is a former instructor at the 1st CEB Sapper School at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. “This will definitely be one of the highlights of my career.”
The resulting explosion left a crater almost 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide.
“It’s an indescribable feeling returning to the site and seeing nothing left over,” said Donovan, grinning. “If we don’t find anything else I would still feel like we completed our mission successfully ... but it feels like we just destroyed everything they had.”