COMBAT OUTPOST RAWAH, Iraq --
Zeus, according to Greek mythology, was the king of the gods and could be called upon in times of need to strike down the enemy with lightning from the sky. Phyxius, literally translated as, “to put to flight,” was known as the god of flight and was sometimes used as a surname of Zeus. Today, the two of them can still be found raining lightning and destruction across the western Euphrates River valley, in the form of two M198 Howitzer artillery cannons.
Second Platoon, Battery R, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, attached to Task Force Highlander, Regimental Combat Team 2, has been providing artillery support for 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion since the start of their deployment to Iraq in March earlier this year. On August 1, 2007, the platoon held a direct-fire training mission, followed by an illumination mission in support of the battalion.
“Artillery is a huge piece of combat,” said Cpl. Miguel A. MedranoMedina, a section chief with the platoon. “Arty provides a key tool for protecting yourself and eliminating large enemy threats. For instance, direct fire can take out a tank, with indirect fire we can take out a sniper in a building that the guys on the ground might not be able to see, and with illumination rounds we can provide light for the grunts out in the city, so they can see at any time.”
Staff Sgt. Bryan R. Hunter, a platoon sergeant with the battery, said he and his Marines enjoy their position in support of the battalion and the task force.
“Task Force Highlander enjoys employing all their weapons systems, and makes sure everyone is constantly getting good training on their specific weapon system. It’s great for our guys here who may not get the gun time if they were somewhere else. It shows this unit is ready to use whatever assets it may have to rid the area of insurgency and protect the local citizens,” said Hunter, a Spokane, Wash., native.
“Artillery affects the minds of the enemy. You can hear these cannons all the way on the far side of the city when we use them,” said Lance Cpl. Christian F. Giraldo, the platoon’s ammunition technician. “They do massive damage, and are a huge show of force. We don’t even have to be close to our target to provide support for the ground guys; we can engage targets from over 10 miles away.”
“Our guns together provide better coverage and intersecting fire,” said Medrano, a Salinas, Calif., native. “When used together multiple cannons can keep constant fire suppression on the target.”
The cyclic rate for a cannon going non-stop with a crew pushing themselves to the edge of exhaustion is about one round every 15 seconds, and is decreased exponentially for every cannon added to the team.
The artillery ammunition is split into four parts, Giraldo explained. The first is the round, the actual projectile that hits the target. The second is the fuse, which is attached to the round and can be set to go off on impact, before impact, or on a timer. The third is the powder, which comes in many different sizes and is color coded for easy recognition on the battlefield. Lastly, the primer goes on, and is the final link in the chain that sends the round downrange.
“I love my job,” said Giraldo, a Miami native. “I’m a true powder monkey; I love the sound of the gun, watching the impact, and everything. It’s great; the only downside is that each round weighs about 90 pounds.”
During the training, and later the illumination mission, the cannon crews could be seen doing their job like clockwork. A group of Marines would load a round, another would load the powder charge, two would adjust the sights, and finally one would pull the lanyard and start the process all over again.
“The amazing thing is about half the section aren’t even in artillery MOSs (military occupational specialties),” said Medrano, who is serving on his second tour in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Any training they get like this is great because they have to learn a second job, and they don’t get the luxury of going to school first. So far they have done a great job, and I’m proud.”
Hunter said he agreed the Marines’ performance was excellent, but he expected no less from them.
“This is how I explain it to them: our school is about five weeks long. They have been here for over four months doing cannon-crewman jobs. So they better be good,” Hunter laughed. “And on their off time I still expect them to perform their regular duties in their primary MOS.”
In addition to this, the Marines also control one of the task force’s traffic control points, and stand guard in shifts throughout the day.
“My crew knew before they got here they would have to be two Marines, and do two jobs; sometimes three. They are all outstanding guys that I’m honored to lead, and words can’t express the level of work they have accomplished since we got here,” Hunter said.
The Marines said they liked the rare opportunity to do a job they would otherwise not get to enjoy.
“You don’t hear much about cannons being used in Iraq anymore, and I guess that’s a good thing. Early in the war we were used quite a bit and the cannons were throwing their thunder all the time, but that isn’t in anyone’s best interests anymore,” said Giraldo. “It doesn’t do any good to level a city block or a city nowadays, not like the past when you would see entire villages of insurgents. I believe it is good, and it shows we are affecting this country in a positive way. Hopefully it continues to improve like it has in the past, but until we leave we will always be practicing and preparing for the worst.”
Not unlike the Greeks who worshipped Zeus and Phyxius of old, the Marines continue to live by an ancient proverb, “Sweat now prevents bloodshed later.”