SAQLAWIYAH, Iraq --
It was late morning when Pfc. Andrew D. Bear noticed the lone cinderblock in the middle of a field. There were no houses, no cement facilities, and no structures of any kind for hundreds of feet. It was just dirt, mud, weeds and the Marines of Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, accompanied by local Iraqi policemen. To the Yorba-Linda, Calif., native, the cinderblock, sitting in the sun-baked mud, stuck out like a cockroach in a spoonful of oatmeal.
“Now, tell me why a cinderblock would be just sitting in the middle of this field, all by itself,” implored the smirking 22-year-old fire team leader, to no one in particular. “Like we wouldn’t notice these things.”
In the distance, away from the two Marines who accompanied Bear, were IPs, who had brought the Marines to the location. The IPs made their way alongside the Marines through dust and 100-degree-plus heat, as they meticulously scanned the area for weapons caches.
Bear and his fellow Marine, Pfc. Cesar R. Burgos, approached with a metal detector, sweeping back and forth, low to the ground. Suddenly, the device made a sharp beeping sound, signaling the presence of metal.
“Let’s dig,” said Bear, a 2003 El Dorado High School graduate.
The digging continued for a few minutes until Burgos struck something solid with the tip of his shovel.
The Marine unsheathed his knife, carefully brushed the dirt aside and removed an empty and corroded ammunition shell. With rows of corn as a backdrop to the scene, the Marines bent down and inspected the shell. There must be more, they thought.
The Marines dug deeper. Just a couple of inches away from the initial spot and a few inches deeper, they found what looked like a cluster of green plastic capsules. Opening one of the specimens, the Marines revealed a 37mm high-explosive anti-aircraft round.
“That thing is in perfect condition,” said Bear, facing the green splotches of the far-off thickets of reeds and the nearer mounds of dirt. “Just perfect to be detonated or fired.”
The hole the Marines had created only measured two feet wide and no more than five inches deep. Already, they had discovered six of these dangerous rounds.
The Marines carefully excavated wider and deeper, uncovering more and more rounds. Bear spoke to the small group of Marines saying, “Although insurgents don’t really use anti-aircraft weapons, these can be used to make IEDs that would do some damage if put together properly.”
In a short time, Bear and Burgos uncovered several hundred rounds. They were carefully stacked in numerous quantities, and the rest of the Marines and IPs had been called to the excavation site.
“It makes you feel good to find a cache like this,” said Lance Cpl. Jesse Aguilar, a 22-year-old, Los Angeles native and fire team leader. “Because it means they are off the street and can’t be used by insurgents anymore.”
The cache the Marines had found in field today was a heavy load, with a final count of more than 350 rounds of various calibers.
“It was a good time,” said Aguilar. “Most of the time, (when) we go looking for caches, we are just looking for suspicious spots and guessing. This time we had a general direction, which was given to us by the Iraqi Police, but Bear had the sense to see something that didn’t belong and found a cache.”
“I couldn’t wait to go out today,” exclaimed Bear. “This is what I like doing, this right here.”
The Marines finished digging. Sweat-stained and exhausted, they had finally extracted all the deadly rounds from the warm soil. It was now time to get them to Explosive Ordinance Disposal Marines, who would make sure the rounds would never be used against friendly forces. EOD would blow up the rounds, forever removing them from an insurgent’s agenda.
“The more weapons caches we find, the less can be used against coalition and Iraqi forces,” said 2nd Lt. Stephen P. Kelly, the commander of 1st platoon. “Both the Iraqi policemen and the Marines did a great job of finding the cache. The training these Marines have received was top notch, but the skills of individual Marines, who are able to pick out the small but important details, says a lot about their personal abilities.”
“Every day we patrol for weapons and we are trying to make this area safer,” said Maj. Ali Hussein Usef, the local Iraqi Police station executive officer. “American forces and Iraqi Forces have one thing in common, we both want to stop the bad guys.”