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RCT-5’s IED hunters prowl for roadside bombs

30 Sep 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

These are the Marines who purposely seek out what most others hope to avoid.  Marines of Scout Platoon, Regimental Combat Team 5 are Fallujah’s improvised explosive device hunters.

“We have one purpose and that’s to find IEDs,” said 1st Lt. Bryan J. Altieri, the 25-year-old platoon commander. 

But it’s not just looking for roadside bombs these days for the Marine attached to the regiment’s Team Gator, a combination of Marines in amphibious assault vehicles and a TOW Platoon.  Scout Platoon, from 2nd Tank Battalion, rounds out the team.

They take turns with the rest of Team Gator’s Marines to rove the main highways surrounding Camp Fallujah to keep insurgents from lacing the roads with bombs.

“We’re out there to keep (the highways) open,” said Sgt. Zachary E. Rubert, a 22-year-old section leader from Greentown, Pa.  “Those roads need to stay open so the stuff that needs to come to Camp Fallujah gets here.”

That’s nearly everything Marines here rely upon, from fuel to food, ammunition to a letter from home.

Keeping those roads open is more difficult than it sounds.  Marines of Scout Platoon head out on the road nearly every day.  One recent patrol was fairly routine, but they aren’t always that way.

Marines gathered around their humvees before dawn, milling about in the glow of the headlights.  They checked weapons, gave their gun trucks a once-over and briefed the mission.  They loaded up, just as the sun peeked over the horizon, rolling down the road on their daily hunt.

Marines stopped early into the patrol.  There was a boxed aluminum can along the side of the road.  The patrol stopped while the lead vehicle crept closer to get a better look.

“Our lead gunners find about 90-95 percent of our IEDs,” Altieri explained.  “They’re always found by our lead truck and generally found by the gunner.”

Despite all the technology, improved detection devices and whiz-bang gizmos, the most effective tool Marines have to find roadside bombs are the eyes of gunner in the turret of the lead truck.

That’s why Scout Platoon put their best Marines up front.

“It’s essential to have the best two gunners in the lead sections,” Rubert explained.

Those are Marines like Lance Cpl. Charles S. Hayes, a 20-year-old from Iva, S.C.  He rides in the turret, scanning the same roads day-after-day, looking for the tell-tale signs of the deadly explosives.  It’s a role he relishes.

“You have a better point of view up there,” Hayes explained.  “There’s a different sense of alertness.  Up there, you can direct the truck better.”

The aluminum box turned out to be nothing.  Still, it was enough to raise hairs on the back of the neck for the veteran crew.  They’ve totaled 25 IED discoveries and another vehicle-borne IED.  They’ve endured 13 IED attacks directed at their patrols and one suicide vehicle-borne IED.  They’ve suffered 19 injured, 11 of those earning Marines Purple Hearts.  Three Marines were killed in action during this deployment.

It takes a toll on this small platoon.

“We’ve had some close calls,” Rubert said.  “They’re close calls pretty much every time we find one.  The insurgents have gotten smarter and better.  In the beginning they were mostly surface-laid.  Now they’re more hidden.  We’re constantly trying to adapt as they change their tactics.”

The tensest moments of the patrol come once Marines stop at a suspected IED location.  Marines in the lead vehicle are the ones who have to confirm what they’ve found.

“Nothing gives you more of an adrenaline rush,” Rubert said.  “Your heart jumps in your throat.”

“You’re going to end up in the dead zone,” said Justin E. Faifer, a 26-year-old from Chicago.  “The speed you travel dictates how close you’re going to be.”

That’s why Marines from Scout Platoon crept along the wide six-lane highways.  They took their time, passing the same sections of road time and time again.  Over the past seven months, they’ve gotten pretty good.

Rubert said his Marines have gotten to the point where they can pretty much identify the type of IED they discover before explosive ordnance disposal technicians move in to remove the hazard.

“We start taking bets at to what they will be,” he explained.  “We’re pretty damned accurate.  We’re usually on with the initiation devices and components.”

Getting the bombs off the road is more than mission accomplishment, but also satisfying to the men of Scout Platoon.  They know their efforts are keeping Marines, soldiers and civilians alive.  They’ve seen what the bombs can do, even to their own.

“With everything that’s happened, one IED destroyed, that’s a huge relief,” said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan G. Daley, a 21-year-old hospital corpsman from Athens, Texas.  “It keeps my guys safe.  That’s a big relief on my part.”

Daley’s credited with treating about 30 Marines from his own platoon and other units during his deployment for wounds suffered in attacks and another seven Iraqi civilians.

It’s not just IED hunting the Scouts find themselves working toward these days.  They’ve become a rolling quick-reaction force for nearby units too.  They carry an immense amount of firepower, already mounted and in close proximity, and their reaction to attacks have put insurgents in the ground and kept Marines alive.

One instance was when Marines at Observation Post Viking in Saqlawiyah were attacked July 29 by a suicide vehicle bomber, small arms and mortars.  Marines from Scout Platoon were nearby conducting their own operation when the attack began.

“We saw it off in the distance and we knew there were going to be casualties,” Altieri explained.  “We were mounted up and just a few minutes away.”

Altieri said they could see the smoke rising from where the suicide bomber detonated his car bomb at the entrance to the outpost.  His Marines turned their attention to reinforcing Marines there.

“Our positioning was almost perfect,” Faifer explained.  “We cut off their egress route.”

In fact, their positioning was almost too perfect.  Insurgents apparently planned to attack Marines reacting to the attack, but didn’t count on Scouts rolling up so soon.  Scout Platoon Marines sped toward the attackers in their armored humvees when another suicide car bomber exploded his car in the middle of the Scout Platoon patrol.

“We were ambushed ourselves and it split our section in half,” Altieri said.  “Then we were engaged by small-arms fire.  It was a pretty hairy situation.  We overcame it with firepower.”

Marines from Scout Platoon ran into insurgents who hadn’t yet set their ambushes.  Altieri said aside from the second car bomb, his Marines witnessed another vehicle fleeing the area, loaded with insurgents in masks carrying weapons.  Still more were hiding in a nearby reed line.  He estimated they came upon an ambush force of 15-20 insurgent attackers.
Faifer was manning his MK-19 automatic grenade launcher that day and unloaded on the attackers, sending high-explosive grenades at the fleeing vehicle and into the reeds.  He was credited with killing at least two of the attackers, one with a shot to the attackers’ head.

“We were fixated on these guys,” Altieri said.  “We could see them frantically jumping out of the car.”

“There was so much going on – it was difficult to hear,” Hayes added.  “I heard the explosion and saw a vehicle burning.  I thought it was one of our guys.”

Hayes immediately shot into the reed line from where insurgents were firing.

“The whole thing lasted about 15 minutes,” Altieri said.  “The last ten minutes, it was just our rounds.”

Since then, Scout Marines responded to another attack on a checkpoint outpost that was hit by another suicide car bomber.  Rubert said when they arrived, most of the senior leadership was injured, that unit’s lieutenant only able to man the radio to direct assistance.  One corporal was organizing the outpost’s defense. 

“The place was on fire,” Rubert said.  “There was this one corporal running the show.”

Rubert ran inside the burning structures to ensure every Marine was accounted for and evacuated for treatment.

The IED-hunting role – along with performing as a rolling reaction force – has taken these Marines not just outside their traditional role, but expanded their adopted one.  By definition, these Marines are normally forward reconnaissance for Marine tanks, selecting routes, identifying obstacles and fixing enemy tank forces so M-1A1 Main Battle Tank crews can destroy enemy forces. 

“What we’re doing out here goes beyond any mission that is normally associated with forward reconnaissance for tanks,” Rubert said. 

“This is definitely what we trained for, but we’ve adopted this new outlook on what we were going to do,” Altieri said.  “You have to expect the unexpected.  This is a tight-knit group of guys.”

“This is a completely new challenge to me,” Rubert said.  “I would not want to have experienced this without the guys I’m with.”

Just four days after this patrol, Marines from Scout Platoon found themselves again in the thick of the fight after receiving word that TOW Platoon, 2nd Tank Battalion, also assigned to Team Gator, was attacked by small-arms and machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.  Marines from Scout Platoons, along with a section of amphibious assault vehicles for D Company, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion responded to the attacks.  Marines accounted for five insurgents killed, two insurgent vehicles destroyed and several insurgent weapons captured.