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Soldiers aid Marines in hunt for illegal weapons

4 Jun 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

Marines are getting some help from soldiers in uncovering enemy weapons in their zone.

Army Spc. David J. Sieben can't count how many weapons cache searches he's been on since arriving here in September.

The Carson City, Nev., soldier said a large part of his battalion's responsibilities include the retrieval and destruction of illegal weapons that could be used against Coalition forces or Iraqi citizens.

"In the past nine months, we've probably done well over one hundred weapons cache searches," Sieben said. "It's become part of our daily lives."

Sieben is a combat engineer with 1st Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.  The battalion is based out of Camp Ramadi but operates throughout the Al Anbar Province in support of the 1st Marine Division.

To date, the battalion has recovered "literally tons" of rifles, pistols, machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, mortar tubes, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, improvised explosive devices, grenades, ammunition and other assorted heavy and small-arms fire paraphernalia.

Army Staff Sgt. Johnny C. Carnley, squad leader, said his soldiers have worked as far east as Fallujah, 35 miles from here and as far west as Al Asad, about 75 miles away.

"We can operate pretty much anywhere we're needed," he added.

Lately, the soldiers have been searching the area around Ar Ramadi, where thousands of American servicemembers are based.

The soldiers wake up before sunrise each morning to inspect the readiness of their gear, weapons and vehicles. After rehearsals and a quick brief about the mission, they load into their M-113A3 "tracks" and prepare to move to their sector for the day.

"Some of our missions can last up to eight hours and some are less," Sieben said. "Others seem to go on forever."

The soldiers cover miles of area at a time during the searches, climbing over walls; trudging through muddy farmland and jumping across streams of filthy water.

"We went on this one search that lasted all day," said Carnley, of Weatherford, Texas. "We hiked over twenty kilometers."

The soldiers are on the lookout for anything that looks out of place. Most illegal stashes are hidden out of sight, so the soldiers carry metal detectors and shovels.

"Usually, we find caches buried between one to two feet underground near a house or in a field," Sieben explained. "They're usually wrapped inside a burlap sack and greased up so they don't rust."

If the weapons can be linked to a nearby home, the occupants are detained and questioned about the find. More often that not, the accused are less than cooperative.

"Most people pretend like they don't know anything about the weapons," said 2nd Lt. Richard Knox, platoon leader. "Some people have excuses that are very hard to believe."

Knox, of Dexter, Mich., added if the soldiers are unable to prove who is responsible for the weapons, no one is arrested. The weapons are collected and later destroyed.

According to Sieben, uncovering large caches makes the time go by faster, but he also enjoys interacting with the local people while conducting sweeps.

"I can't speak Arabic, but it's still fun talking to them and joking around with them," he said. "They're usually pretty friendly to us."

As the day wears on, the soldiers are occasionally required to go inside residents' homes if deemed necessary.

"The people are usually understanding and welcome us in," Knox explained. "They offer us food and drinks and are very helpful for the most part."

The lack of Arabic speakers within the unit sometimes creates a rift between the Americans and Iraqis, but Knox said that's easy enough to get around through hand gestures and other body language.

"We want them to know that we're out there trying to make Iraq safer," Sieben added. "We may not be able to find the people who hide the weapons, but if we can find the weapons, then they can't be used on troops or Iraqis."