COP TIMBERWOLF, Iraq --
Pepperoni or sausage? Regular or super-sized? Six-inch or foot-long? These are just some of the “tough” decisions Marines at Al Asad face on a daily basis. Currently the largest U.S. military installation in Al Anbar Province, this former Iraqi airbase is anything but rustic.
Al Asad boasts a variety of creature comforts, including: in-room cable TV and internet, multiple souvenir shops and an Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool. People don’t call it ‘Camp Cupcake’ for nothing.
For the Marines of Bravo Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, however, life is a little different. Contrary to popular belief, not all deployments are created equal.
Their home away from home is Command Outpost Timberwolf. Established a mere eight months ago, Timberwolf is nestled in a mountainous patch of terrain near the town of Baghdadi on the east side of the Euphrates River, opposite Al Asad.
“In the past, insurgents were using this high ground to launch indirect fire attacks on adjacent coalition bases,” said Capt. Max Stapp, the company commander for Bravo Company, 3rd LAR. “Our presence here has eliminated their ability to do so.”
At the same time, Timberwolf’s strategic location also brings with it a unique set of challenges. Though close in proximity, Al Asad might as well be clear ‘cross country.
“The nearby bridges aren’t sturdy enough to handle any military traffic,” Stapp said, “so all re-supply is done via helo.”
Laundry, mail, chow, spare LAV parts – you name it. And with birds coming in-and-out on a regular basis, the flightline can be “hectic as hell.”
“Unloading and distributing supplies from the flightline is a task in itself,” Stapp said. “I like to think of it as organized chaos; my guys know what they’re doing.”
Stapp is referring to the company’s Headquarters element. In addition to their normal duties, these Marines are responsible for the general upkeep of COP Timberwolf.
“Working parties are part of everyday life around here,” Stapp said. “For security reasons, continual improvement of the COP hasn’t stopped since we arrived. Laying new razor wire, upgrading overwatch positions, etc.”
They also handle the day-to-day stuff: collecting and consolidating trash in the burn pit, refueling the power generators, disposing of WAG bags (human waste) – things most people take for granted.
During combat operations, the job only gets harder.
“With so many Marines outside the wire, it only means that much more work for those who stay behind,” Stapp said. “We can’t just close up shop due to lack of personnel.”
Operation Rat Hunt, a 20-day evolution, was the most recent test of their collective resolve.
Approximately 181 Marines and sailors were part of the overall effort, including combat engineers and scout snipers from 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, military working dogs from Regimental Combat Team 2 and air support from 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.
“We wanted to take advantage of our additional forces and use them to surge the [area of operation],” Stapp said. “Not only does it disrupt the enemy’s ability to operate, it shows the local populace our resolve to keep security, which is critical in the counterinsurgency effort.”
The operation was broken up into three phases: Phase One – Interdiction and census operations; Phase Two – Cache sweeps and reconnaissance; and Phase Three – Exploitation.
“Intel points to a number of [high-value individuals] who call this area home,” Stapp said. “They’re constantly on the move, using family connections to hide out and operate in the surrounding villages. Our AO is so large, it can be difficult to cover at times.”
At 565 sq. miles, Bravo Company’s battlespace is more than twice the size of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“We try to stay out there as long as humanly possible,” said Staff Sgt. Mark F. Erhardt, the platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon, Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. “It’s all about keeping the enemy on their toes; making it harder for them to do business.”
An infantryman by trade, Erhardt’s second deployment to Iraq has proved considerably different than the first.
“This is the first time I’ve ever spent more than 24 hours outside the wire without returning to base,” Erhardt said. “Once we’re done for the day, we try and find an easily defendable spot to go firm for the night. It definitely adds a bit of realism to this deployment; there’s nowhere safe out there to lay our heads.”
As Bravo Company’s dismount element, Erhardt and his Marines have the best of both worlds.
“Working with the LAV’s has been nothing but positive,” Erhardt said. “As a mobile assault force, we can move two squads of Marines anywhere in our AO within a short amount of time.”
The biggest adjustment for Erhardt is dealing with the aptly-nicknamed “moon dust”, which surrounds the entire COP.
“At the end of the day, no matter what happens, weapons maintenance is a must,” Erhardt said.
This particular variety of Iraq’s finest seems to stick to anything and everything it touches.
“An instant sugar cookie,” Stapp said.
Unfortunately, Timberwolf’s shower system isn’t exactly state-of-the-art. Shielded from onlookers by the shell of an empty HESCO barrier, Marines hang up a bag of water and let gravity take care of the rest.
During the Summer months, it wouldn’t be all that bad. But with winter upon us and temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, Marines often go with plan B.
“Baby wipe showers it is,” Erhardt said. “I’d rather skip the whole pneumonia piece altogether.”
When all was said and done, Operation Rat Hunt yielded the detention of three individuals with direct ties to a HVI, multiple weapons cache finds and the discovery of three improvised explosive devices.
“The Marines out here are truly roughing it,” Stapp said. “[COP Timberwolf] is one of the last real ‘field’ environments left in this area. No offense to anyone at Al Asad, but when my Marines look back on this deployment, they’ll be glad they did."
Clearly, there’s more to life in Iraq than Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway.