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Arty 'runs-n-guns' in Iraqi training

9 Jun 2004 | Cpl. Macario P. Mora Jr.

The lieutenant bared a wide, Texas grin that would make his hometown of Winters proud.  This was the sort of mission he trained for and when the call came in he braced himself for action.

1st Lt. Charles L. Brown, executive officer with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment's Battery E searched for a flat area to set up four of the biggest cannons he could tow.  This wasn't a bunch of good-old boys running around in pick-up trucks with shotguns back in the town located in almost the dead center of the Lone Star State.

Brown and his Marines packed 18,000-pound, M-198 howitzers on an exercise in the empty deserts of Iraq.  There's no "plinking" tin targets here.  Instead, they disappear in a thunderous roar and cloud of smoke. 

It's called a hip shoot to the artillery Marines, when they jerk the seven-ton trucks off the side of the road and set up their giant cannons within minutes of getting a call-for-fire.  It's the sort if mission the cannon-cockers practiced June 9, to be ready to respond to Marines in need. 

"Basically a hip shoot is when you're traveling from Point A to Point B, and in the middle of the convoy you're on. Someone needs instant assistance," Brown explained.  "So we drop what we're doing and get fire down range as quick as possible, though accuracy is always more important than speed."

Hip shoots test the artillerymen for their speed and accuracy in launching a barrage of fire toward enemy forces.  It was the sort of mission they were called upon to repeat time and again during the invasion of Iraq last year.  It's a skill they continue to practice to be sharp.

Cpl. Alex S. Vargas, a section leader from Sunnyside, Wash., was a member of a battery that performed such a mission last year and knows how important the skill is to infantry under fire.

"We did a hip shoot a few times last year," Vargas said.  "It was very effective and accurate.  I know some of those guys from 5th Marines really like us."

The battery went through two days of dry fire exercises to prepare for their live-fire routine.

Lance Cpl. Harold C. Lett, a motor transportation driver from Mobile, Ala., said the Marines race each other to see which gun crew can be ready first.

"These guys are really competitive," Lett said.  "Each gun wants to be the best."

Friendly competition was evident while gun chiefs and their crews vied for the chance to fire their guns first.  Every Marine that was part of the seven-man gun crews had a designated task, performing loading and firing techniques.

The day began with a dry fire run before letting rounds go downrange.  Unlike runs they practice in the United States, there weren't restrictions on firing in the empty Iraqi deserts and the Marines let the howitzers belch their payload.

"This is what we live for," Vargas said.  "We only do this twice a month, but this is what we like.  We're artillery. We're not happy unless things go boom."

Running through various scenarios, the battery traveled an unpaved road and waited to receive instructions from an advanced party sent to observe the impacts.

"It's good getting the Marines out here," Brown said.  "These guys are some of the best there are.  This stuff is second nature to us."

According to Vargas, Marines don't get the full experience unless you see something being blown up in the distance.

"When you see those clouds of smoke, you know someone isn't feeling good," Vargas said.  "But we are.  It lets us know if everything is going correctly - from the moment the gun is loaded to the impact."

The day ended as all four guns unleashed 24 rounds, all hitting one after another in a range miles away.

"When you have that many rounds hit in one spot the cloud can get pretty big, making it seem as though the rounds are getting closer," Lett explained.  "These howitzers can hit you from 18 miles away with great accuracy."