FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The smell of sweat and gun powder mixes with the odor of burning diesel fuel as the convoy rumbles down the deserted road.
Like sardines in a can, Marines line the benches in the back of their seven-ton vehicles. They face outboard, rifles and machine guns at the alert, eyes scanning the horizon.
A burst of automatic weapons fire pierces the air, soon followed by the thundering clap of .50 caliber machine guns.
The warriors let out battle cries as their rounds accurately strike the targets, their enemies going down as silently and quickly as they came up.
Ceasing their fire and assessing the surrounding terrain, the riflemen continue along their 15 mile-per-hour trek through hostile land.
This was the scene at Fort Bragg’s range 63, where Marines of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine regiment conducted live fire convoy operations Sept. 1 to 3.
The Marines trained in scenarios involving emergency reaction drills to roadside improvised explosive devices, practiced combat casualty evacuation, and fired at long-range targets from aboard moving tactical vehicles in preparation for their deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005.
“These scenarios are very similar to what Marines can expect to face in Iraq,” stated Chief Warrant Officer-2 Jonathan R. Rabert, the battalion’s gunner. “Range 63 is the premiere range for live fire convoy training on the east coast. The Army builds ranges very well, and this one affords us with better movement capabilities and the ability to conduct realistic training.”
The Clinton, MS native proceeded to explain the convoy ops course of fire.
After crossing the line of departure, the Marines dismount to face an ambush, during which long-range targets present themselves.
After defeating the pop-up insurgents, the convoy encounters a makeshift wire obstacle. To proceed, the platoon must navigate the course utilizing attached personnel from 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, who will deploy with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine regiment to Iraq.
Following the breach of the obstacle, the convoy presses forward until a simulated improvised explosive device disables one vehicle.
Here, the Marines assess the situation and work alongside their corpsmen to evacuate casualties and recover the vehicle.
Before reaching their final objective, an air medical evacuation site named Landing Zone New York, the convoy drives by two sets of targets while the Marines fire from inside the tactical vehicles.
Thus far, the war on terror in Iraq has claimed the lives of over 1,000 Americans, hundreds of which have been caused by roadside bombs and insurgent attacks on convoys. In September alone, IEDs have claimed the lives of five Americans, and insurgent attacks on motorized patrols have killed 11. To prevent further deaths overseas, the Marines emphasized these scenarios as having the utmost importance.
“In addition to having the infantrymen go through this course, it’s also important that we train our supporting personnel; the engineers, corpsmen and (motor transportation Marines,)” Rabert explained. “It’s real easy to get focused on the people that are actually in the convoy as infantry, but we have to think ahead and train everybody.”
Administration clerks, supply clerks, and personnel from the headquarters elements of units with traditionally non-combative roles are finding themselves standing guard posts, searching vehicles and conducting foot patrols in Iraq. So it’s imperative that as many people as possible train for battle, Rabert added.
Accordingly, all three of the battalion’s rifle companies and attached supporting personnel received the training. Marines with Company K claimed that their three days here have been immensely beneficial.
“It’s very good training, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this,” stated Lance Cpl. Matthew Vanfleet, SAW gunner with 3rd platoon and native of Scranton, PA. “It really helps us prep for convoy ops and possible ambushes in Iraq.”
The former Old Forge High School football player stated that he feels his unit is doing everything possible to prep the Marines to fight the War on Terror and make it back home alive.
Cpl. Anthony R. Ursone, a squad leader with 3rd platoon, agreed with Vanfleet.
“Its good to work out all the standard operating procedures and problems ahead of time, before we’re involved in combat,” stated the Baltimore, MD native. “If you don’t learn how to be proficient in war, you might stumble through and possibly end your own or somebody else’s life.”
He also said everyone in the unit, especially the newer Marines, benefit from training derived from others’ experiences overseas, such as this course of fire.
“Hopefully, fellow (noncommissioned officers) come back from deployment and teach the other Marines what they’ve learned,” Ursone continued as he explained his reasoning for extending his service contract to deploy with his unit to Iraq. “I want to make sure my Marines get home alive. We’ve got to pass on the knowledge, because it helps them out in the long run.”
This passage of knowledge is a long process for which the NCOs must work hard to carry out. In the meantime, the junior Marines and their mentors continue to train.
“For now, the Marines are at the infancy of their (live fire convoy training,) but they’re making leaps and bounds in the short time they get to spend here,” Rabert said. “Paying attention here and conducting this training will help them accomplish the mission and make it back home alright.”
As the noonday heat set in, the vehicles laden with sweaty, exhausted Marines round the final bend in the road, kicking up clouds of dust.
After spending more than an hour on the road, the fatigued Marines dismount as the vehicles roll to a stop and make their way toward the main encampment. Once there, they begin breaking down their rifles to clean them, and discuss convoy operation tactics with their squad leaders and platoon commanders.
Today, the threat was nonexistent, the targets merely pop-ups, but, in a matter of months, these Marines will rely on this training to save their own lives and that of their brothers and sisters-in-arms.