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Support Marines brave Iraq’s roads daily in western Al Anbar province

17 Jun 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

In order for the battalion commander to move throughout his area of operations, he must be able to count on the security of a special team of Marines.

For Lt. Col. Nicholas F. Marano, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, that team is his personal security detachment, a Combined Anti-Armor Team called “CAAT Black” for short.

Anti-Armor means the squad of humvees has the weaponry and capabilities of eliminating an enemy’s armored units, such as tanks.

But these Marines aren’t out hunting tanks – they’re job is to provide maximum security for the battalion’s top brass.

The security team is responsible for providing Marano flexibility to move throughout his entire area of operations near the Iraq-Syria border.

Every day is a different experience for these Marine guards, according to Cpl. Michael T. Wier, the platoon’s first section leader.

“This job allows me to get out there and see the different towns, talk to different people through an interpreter and shake hands with little kids who swarm us every time we get out of our trucks,” said the 22-year-old from Scottsdale, Ariz. “The people are very friendly out here, especially the kids.”

Part of the Marines’ job is collecting information from the citizens through an interpreter. This means the Marines are out in the villages talking with and shaking hands with the locals. The information is used by Marano to get an idea of how the Iraqis are responding to the Marines’ and Iraqi Security Force presence. It also allows him a chance to address any issues with the locals.

Despite Iraqis’ warm reception to the Marines, the insurgency is still prevalent in this area with recent attacks on civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and the Marines.

On a recent mission, Wier recalled having to assist an Iraqi family with the deaths of family members killed by an improvised explosive device. Since the team was in close proximity to the site of the blast, they were first to respond at the scene of the explosion.

“We had to go to the family’s home and explain to the family what happened,” said Wier. “The family was not mad at us. They understand that it’s the insurgents who are planting the IEDs.”

Wier, an avid golfer back home, admits that there is some level of fear every time he goes out on a mission but feels comfort from a picture he carries with him everywhere he goes – it’s a picture of him holding his girlfriend during a sunset.

On every mission he tapes the snapshot onto the humvee’s radio.

“It reminds me of better times and gets my mind off of all the things I see out here that don’t make sense,” said Wier.

While most personal security teams are composed of Marines from the infantry military occupational specialties, Marano’s personal security team is mainly comprised of Marines with backgrounds in non-infantry-related fields.

For infantry Marines, or ‘grunts,” their job is providing security and weeding out insurgents by conducting security patrols both on foot and in armored vehicles. The Marines with support-related jobs like mechanics, warehouse clerks and cooks are responsible for providing the necessary tools and supplies to the grunts.

While every Marine is a rifleman, most Marines in the support-related fields perform their duties “inside the wire” of a base, leaving the task of performing security patrols and operations to the infantry Marines.

“This team allows the Marines of non-infantry-related military occupational specialties to learn the job of the infantry and perform like an infantryman on a daily basis,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew W. Marks, the team’s platoon sergeant and a native of Rumson, N.J.

The team travels in a handful of armored vehicles, outfitted with a variety of infantry weapons mounted on revolving turrets atop the vehicle’s roof. The guns can turn in every direction, providing each vehicle 360 degrees of visual security.

The Marines learn the job of the infantrymen and they go through the same training packages as their ‘grunt’ counterparts, according to the 28-year-old Marks. The platoon commander feels his men are just as qualified as a bonafide infantryman, to perform the job.

In Iraq’s Al Anbar province, improvised explosive devices are the number one killer of Coalition Forces and are arguably the greatest threat Marines encounter most on their daily patrols through cities like Husaybah and Ubaydi near the Iraq-Syria border.

The security team has been able to spot IEDs along the roadways before they are detonated.

The IEDs are just one example of how insurgents in the area are trying to disrupt the Marines’ job of training and mentoring the Iraqi Security Forces, according to Marano.

“You need to be prepared to face anything ‘outside the wire,’” said Marks. “Whether it’s receiving small-arms fire from the enemy or setting up a vehicle checkpoint on-the-spot, you have to be ready to respond.”

Nearly six months ago, Marines cleared the area of insurgents during Operation Steel Curtain. Since then the battalion has seen a drastic decrease in enemy activity thanks to the combined efforts of daily security patrols alongside Iraqi Security Forces, according to the Marines.

As dangerous as their job is, the members of the security team feel the perks of the job outweigh the hazards they may face.

“The positive thing is that you’re personally selected to represent the colonel and be a part of his security team, which goes everywhere and anywhere he goes,” said Cpl. Mario Morales, a Brawley, Calif., native who has deployed twice with the battalion. “You get to see the entire area of operations and do something different everyday.”

Besides visiting the numerous outposts along the Euphrates River or interacting with locals in towns and villages, Morales feels that being part of the team has enabled him to experience Iraq differently than if he were doing the job he was originally trained to do – working on computers.

Morales, who traded his desk job in his communications shop for a seat behind the wheel of a humvee, says he is not scared about encountering insurgents. He takes pride in being able to meet local Iraqis and hand out candy to children whenever he gets the chance.

“I’ve done very little of the job I was originally trained for during my time in the Marines,” said Morales, who is trained to work on Marine Corps computer network systems. “I would rather be driving to different places in the area of operations and seeing new faces, eating the local food and just interacting with Iraqis than sitting behind a computer screen.”

There are also a handful of infantry Marines in the team. Marines like Lance Cpl. Jason M. Parkhurst were selected by their superior non-commissioned-officers to bring their infantry knowledge to the group.

Parkhurst, from Sacramento, Calif., was an infantry squad leader in another battalion before joining the team and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II and III.

The 21-year-old recalled the initial push through the city of Fallujah where he cleared rooms of insurgents in house-to-house fighting. He is thankful that things have ‘settled down a bit,’ in this area of operations and does not miss the days of getting shot at on a daily basis.

The combat experience from two previous deployments left Parkhurst eager to complete a third deployment before leaving the Marines in 2006 – a personal goal he set for himself before leaving the Marine Corps.

“I want to be able to say that I completed three tours in Iraq,” said Parkhurst.

The 21-year-old is anxious to get back home to Twentynine Palms, Calif., and start spending some time with his wife. He carries her picture with him at all times.

“I want to get back home to get my life started and have the white picket fence,” said Parkhurst. “I just want to sit down and have a nice dinner with my wife.”

The Marines in the security team spend a great deal of time together even when ‘off the job.’ When they’re not performing mission-essential training like sharpening their shooting skills, they’re working out at the gym together or eating at the chow hall as a group.

“We’re like a large extended family,” said Cpl. Christopher J. Scott, a 21-year-old vehicle commander from Lumberton, Texas. “There are squabbles and arguments just like in any other family.”

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil