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1/7 Marines keep a thermal eye on hidden threats

17 Oct 2004 | Cpl. Randy Bernard

One of the biggest threats facing service members in Iraq are the hidden ones. Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are timed or remotely detonated explosives buried or concealed along roads commonly used by Marines. First Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 7, is now testing and using thermal camera technology to locate these lethal obstacles.The military has used thermal video cameras in the past to detect hidden compartments and weapons at vehicle checkpoints. Chief Warrant Officer Peter O. Parker, the battalion gunner, thought the cameras could serve another valuable purpose. "I brought the camera down to the IED lane, where drivers can practice spotting IEDs, to see if the rounds gave off heat, and they did," said Parker, 38, a native of Woodson, Texas. The cameras are effective tools in allowing Marines to recognize IEDs, which can potentially save lives for Marines performing patrols. However, initial IED blasts aren't the only threat. Marines must be wary of getting hit by secondary blasts after dismounting their vehicles to search for insurgents or other explosives."Before they get out, the gunner will scan the immediate area with the thermal camera to make sure that they don't get out on top of another IED," said Parker.Explosive devices made by Anti-Iraqi Forces aren't the only items picked up by the camera. Anti-vehicle or anti-personnel mines also have their own pattern through the viewfinder of the camera. The only way that Marines will be successful in detecting IEDs before they detonate will be through familiarization with the equipment, according to Parker."The better training programs we build to train people, the better off we will be," said Parker. Although the darkness of night has been removed with night vision technology, the thermal vision gives the user a more in depth picture."Our night vision goggles rely on ambient light," said Staff Sgt. John B. Jones, a platoon sergeant for Company C, 1/7, RCT-7. "There might not always be light, but there will always be a heat source. "With NVGs you have to see something totally out of place, or something that is moving. With the thermal cameras, you can see everything." With thermal vision, there isn't the problem of getting washed out images, according to Jones, 27, a native of Edmond, Okla. This considerably helps drivers during nighttime operations."It definitely opens up your options for off road movement," said Cpl. Michael D. Tilus, 22, a native of Chico, Calif., and the vehicle commander for Combined Anti-Armor Team White, Weapons Company, 1/7, RCT-7. "Everything that is new in the ground stands out on that thing. If someone was there 24 hours before you got there, you'd see it."The biggest drawback to the technology is its hefty price tag. The cost of one thermal camera is around $14,000. Funding to fully equip the Marines is not available, but the battalion will continue to use the gear they have on hand and will hopefully get more in the future."Every time we find (an IED), I can justify every squad getting a thermal camera," said Parker. "Ultimately if it saves one life, it is worth the effort and the price."