CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq -- Some trains don’t need tracks.
Marines of Combat Transportation Platoon, known as the “Combat Trains” of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, have traveled nearly 10,000 miles of road over the course of the battalion’s third deployment to Iraq.
That’s more than three times the distance from New York to Los Angeles, driving a convoy of humvees and seven-ton trucks with night vision goggles and constant threat of improvised explosive devices.
Their mission includes detainee runs, logistical re-supply and providing escorts for every company, platoon, section or attachment in the battalion task force throughout the Darkhorse area of operations.
“By the time the deployment closes out we’ll be at 200 combat missions,” said Gunnery Sgt. Adam Sandercock, the platoon commander.
That’s not counting the time before January 20, while the battalion was taking over battle space from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.
The platoon’s workload recently wound down as they began a left-seat, right-seat schedule with their replacements as the battalion prepares to hand over its battle space to the “Betio Bastards” of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment.
“That’s our focus right now, setting 3/2 up for success, passing along to them what we have learned, the mistakes made, lessons learned, what we’ve seen out there,” said Sandercock, a 32-year-old from Salem, Ore.
During the first five months of the deployment, the platoon convoyed daily over Main Supply Routes Boston and Iron, which were labeled the second and third most improvised explosive device-laden roads in western Iraq.
Luckily, they’ve made it nearly seven months without a serious injury.
“We’ve been blessed,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Alfredo Medina, who has been the platoon’s hospital corpsman since January. “We drive the same routes as everybody else in the battalion and we’re always on the road. We’ve taken casualties two times, but nothing big, just normal concussions.”
The 21-year-old from San Juan, Puerto Rico spent two and a half years at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton delivering babies before his first deployment to Iraq. He said the past six months were “tough, but fun.”
“It’s been pretty intense,” he said, “especially at the beginning of the deployment when I was the only corpsman, doing runs back and forth escorting people and doing re-supply.”
Sandercock said their safety record is a result constant awareness on the road and old-fashioned luck.
“You’ve got to fight the complacency,” he said. “When you get to this point in the deployment, you’ve got to fight that urge to sprint to the finish and just take each mission one at a time. We’re really thankful for our luck, but we take each mission very seriously because we cover every square inch of the battalion’s battle space.”
Faced with an unorthodox mission and regimental-sized area of operations, the Combat Trains roster was assembled to accommodate the changing needs of an infantry battalion.
“Mounted vehicle operations were huge,” Sandercock said. “A lot of the missions we do were normally tasked out to a Mechanized Assault Platoon, but due to the sheer volume of the AO, those guys were tasked out with providing these missions beyond call.”
Based on the rough idea of the mission, Sandercock put together a wish-list for personnel and equipment prior to the deployment.
“When we got here I had to take a deep breath because I pretty much knew there would be some bumps on the road,” Sandercock said. “We trained hard, rehearsed hard and the Marines have melded together as a cohesive unit.”
The platoon includes a Marine from each of the battalion’s rifle companies, drivers, radio operators, Navy corpsmen, and two small-arms repair technicians.
“We have people from all over the battalion,” Medina said. “Grunts, Motor T, supply guys, armorers, and we get along pretty well with each other.”
In addition to their constant time on the road, Marines to the lowest ranks can spin stories about how the hours spent between convoys weren’t always relaxing.
“Working parties, working parties, working parties,” said Lance Cpl. Hugo Frausto, a motor transport operator and turret machine gunner.
The 21-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., said when they weren’t cleaning their weapons or humvees, they cleaned out every bay in the motor pool and performed extensive landscaping duties for camp beautification.
“I’m thinking maybe on the inside they were happy, but on the outside I didn’t look too happy,” he said.
“Besides our basic mission was some of the less sexy, behind-the-scenes dirty work,” Sandercock said, “like cleaning up, carrying out, packing up, unpacking, going outside their MOS and helping out the mechanics, just anything to get the mission done.”
Frausto said the results of their labor in the sun are obvious at a glance.
“It looks stupendous,” he said. “If you looked at it before we got here, you’d say it’s gorgeous and immaculate now.”
Going outside their usual military occupational specialty is nothing new for the Trains Platoon, where flexibility is a job requirement.
“It’s a lot different from a lot of the other units, because we’ve got a pretty big task and everybody cross-trains to do everybody else’s jobs,” Frausto said.
Cpl. Fidel Lucero is a motor transport mechanic by trade. He’s spent the entire deployment working as a team leader and vehicle commander, which he said has taught him how to deal with more responsibility than he expected.
“As a VC, you’ve got to make sure before you go out that the guns are mounted properly, that everybody is doing what they need to be doing for the convoy,” said the 21-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. “You need to make sure the drivers are alert, gunners are alert, pretty much just make sure the tasks at hand for the mission get completed.”
He said although he’s still a mechanic, he’s glad to get the extra experience being an all-around Marine outside the wire. The same can be said for the rest of the platoon.
“They have a lot of pride in the job they do and the unit they’re with,” Sandercock said. “They’ve done extremely well.”