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Scouts demonstrate that patient, persistent presence is key in Iraq

13 Mar 2006 | 1st Lt. Nathan Braden

Not every day is a “jackpot day” in Iraq, but one unit proves that a patient and persistent approach to counter-insurgency operations can be very effective. 

Some days, Marines turn up huge weapons finds.  Hundreds of mortars and thousands of small-arms rounds are commonly pulled from buried sites.  Some days, though, yield much less.  It’s called hitting a “dry hole.”

Marines from Scout Platoon, 1st Tank Battalion, currently assigned to Company A, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion experienced this recently during a series of company operations north of Fallujah.  The Marines from Scout Platoon are on duty in Iraq with Regimental Combat Team 5.

“The scouts are a good platoon.  They take the right approach to what they are doing here,” said Capt. William J. Gibbons, Jr., 32, Company A’s commanding officer from Toms River, N.J. 

The first day of the operation started off when the platoon punched out of the company’s assembly area shortly after sunrise in a dusty column of armored humvees.

Their first mission called for them to search a rural area suspected of insurgent activity.  They bounced over sparsely vegetated fields and around irrigation ditches for a couple of hours.  It was the first of a series of dry holes.  The Marines discovered nothing suspicious and headed for their next objective.

“It’s hard to catch people red handed,” said 1st Lt. Troy M. Sayler, the 32-year-old Scout Platoon commander from Sidney, Neb.

The work can be frustrating.  Marines headed into the mission with gusto, expecting the intelligence to deliver.  But sometimes, it doesn’t match up.  It was a pattern that followed throughout the day. 

A tip from an informant suggested a local gas station may be involved in insurgent activity.

“We got some intel from a guy we talked to and Lieutenant Sayler decided to check it out,” said Cpl. Andrew Yu, 21, a TOW gunner from Orange County, Calif. on his third deployment to Iraq.  “It’s a good idea to check out all the tips because you never know what you might get.” 

The platoon rolled directly up to the gas station compound and encircled it, preventing anyone from leaving or entering while they prepared to search the area.  Half of the Marines manned the perimeter while the others entered the compound.

“The gas station was suspected of being frequented by an HVI (high value individual) and also being used as storage for stolen goods by commercial highjackers,” Sayler explained. 

The Marines discovered several industrial-size generators suspected of being stolen goods, but did not have enough evidence to detain anyone or seize the property. 

While Marines searched inside the compound, Marines on the cordon stayed busy outside. 

“We had to ensure the trucks were in the proper place to cover our sectors,” said Lance Cpl. Matthew D. Partridge, 19, a TOW gunner from Charlotte, N.C., who was one of the Marines on the cordon.

“We controlled traffic on the road, but at the same time we were looking for certain vehicles we were told about,” he added.  “We stopped a few trucks and searched them and the people, as the interpreter interviewed them.” 

“The op went well, we quickly gained control of the site, searched all the buildings, questioned the five individuals inside and got some information,” Sayler said after their search was complete. 

Still, nothing turned up they could act on.  Dry hole number two.

The platoon mounted back on their vehicles and continued to search the area before stopping at a local restaurant to talk to locals and ask about insurgent activity in the area. 

Their diligence paid off this time.

They collected several tips when the Marines used one of their more rewarding tactics, treating people with respect.

“People open up and just tell them stuff,’ Gibbons said.  “That leads to them developing a trust and confidence with the people at the same time getting bad guys off the street.

“They reserve the heavy hand for those guys who really need it,” he added.  “Lieutenant Sayler knows how to butter people up.  His section leaders are the same way.”

Although the platoon did not detain any suspected insurgents or locate any improvised explosive devices this day, they made several significant contributions during their deployment.

“We’ve probably done at least 50 cordon and searches,” Sayler said.  “But, where the platoon has really shined is finding IEDs.  We’ve found close to 30 of them here.” 

The Marines know that dry holes are part of the job in Iraq.  They understand that not every tip leads to a weapons cache.  Still, they leave nothing to chance. 

“The hardest thing for a Marine to do is sit and wait for something to happen,” Partridge said.  “It’s not in the Marine nature to sit around and wait.”

The one tip they don’t act upon, might be the one that gets hundred of roadside bombs off the street or catches the insurgent making them.

“It’s a good feeling when we catch a guy because I know it helps out our fellow Marines out here, plus it helps the civilians,” Yu said.  “Sometimes civilians are scared to give us information and it feels good when we take someone off the street who’s scaring that guy.” 

Sayler said he understood the frustrations of days like these, when things don’t turn out like they planned.  Still, he said these are successes, and his platoon continues to push ahead because of strong leadership among his noncommissioned officers.

“I’m very luck to have a platoon with intelligent and professional Marines and strong NCOs,” Sayler said.  “The vast majority of the missions are lead by the section leaders, a sergeant and a senior corporal.  Both have led over 100 patrols.” 

The Marines has developed their tactics into methods that work for them.

“We did good today, we’ve defiantly developed since we’ve been out here,” said Sgt. Christopher J. Fortin, 22, 1st section leader from Lakeland, Fla.  “We are at our peak performance after six months of refining our operations out here.  We are as good as we are going to get without becoming supernatural.”

Scout Platoon is comprised of TOW gunners, Marines trained to fire wire-guided anti-tank missile systems.  The platoons are typically assigned to tank battalions and employed as forward and flank protection for tank formations.