Small Craft Company fills niche on Iraq's rivers

22 May 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

Their mission is anything but a "small craft."

Marines of Small Craft Company, a Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based unit, are here providing boat support to the 1st Marine Division.

"Small Craft has only been around for 12 or 13 years, so this is the first time in the unit's history that it's been deployed for riverine combat operations," said Maj. Bennett W. Walsh, company commander.

As the only specialized boat company in the Marine Corps, the unit is tasked with providing riverine capability to I Marine Expeditionary Force in order to deny enemy access to waterways in Iraq. This allows I MEF units to use the rivers and lakes in the country as an alternate route of transportation.

"We give any commander added flexibility," added Walsh, of Springfield, Mass. "They tell us what they need as far as riverine operations and we accommodate with what we have."

Small Craft Marines have already worked with almost every unit in the Al Anbar Province since arriving here with 1st Marine Division three months ago. They have patrolled all but a small portion of the waterways in the division's area of operations.

"We've done every kind of military mission on the water you can thing of," Walsh said.

According to 1st Lt. Art G. Decotiis, 2nd Platoon Commander, the company's Marines, who are all trained infantrymen, have taken part in waterborne reconnaissance and combat patrols, search and recovery missions and island raids along the rivers.

Another facet of their mission is to provide security to important positions along waterways.

Half of the company is operating from Hadithah Dam in the western reaches of the province.

"It's a high-value target that is not only an important energy source to the citizens of Iraq but also the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is here to help rebuild the country," Walsh added.

He said the Marines are in their boats patrolling the area around the dam 24-hours-a-day.

"If a member of the anti-Iraqi forces tried to use the water around the dam to transport equipment or troops," he said, "they would be highly disappointed when they see our boats and know they can't get through."

Another detachment from Small Craft Company is supporting operations for Marines in the eastern region of Al Anbar Province.

"We recently finished helping 1st Reconnaissance Battalion do some island clearing," explained Decotiis, of Asheville, N.C. "We used our boats to insert the ground combat element so they could clear buildings and things like that."

Every mission requires different assets. Once a unit identifies what equipment is needed, the Marines of Small Craft Company decide which of their boats would be best suited for the job.

"We take our Riverine Assault Craft for patrolling missions," Decotiis said. Rigid Raiding Crafts are used to insert ground troops, and we also have Zodiacs, or combat reconnaissance rubber crafts."

The RACs, Raiders and Zodiacs were split up between the company's two halves.

"We can tailor our boats to whatever mission a unit is tasked with," Decotiis added.

Still, it's not the boats that make missions run smoothly. According to both Walsh and Decotiis, it's the professionalism and expertise of the company's Marines.

"This is the first time some of these guys have ever deployed," Walsh said. "Many of our Marines are young lance corporals and privates first class. They've really stepped up to the plate out here. I've been very impressed with their abilities so far."

Lance Cpl. Pablo Ochoa, coxswain from Bergenfield, N.J., has been with the company for more than two years and said he "never pictured Small Craft in Iraq."

"Normally, we go to South America and do training and things like that down there," he said. "I never thought we'd end up in the desert, but we're definitely an asset here because if there's no one to patrol the rivers and waterways, then the enemy could use them to transport weapons and troops. We're just here to block that."