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Snipers keep eye on Operation Industrial Revolution

17 Feb 2006 | Lance Cpl. Christopher J. Zahn

Cpl. Justin V. Novi summed up the mission with a simple statement.

“It’s a huge building to clear.”  

Novi’s small team of Marines was just one part of Operation Industrial Revolution, a sweep performed by Marines from 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.  The battalion, under command of Regimental Combat Team 8, finished up the operation in mid-February.  It was designed to disrupt insurgent activity in Fallujah’s industrial area.

Novi, from Pittsburgh, Pa., had his work cut out for him.  While regular infantry Marines work in squads, platoon and companies, Novi and his sniper team, assigned to Headquarters and Service Company, work on a smaller scale.  Their work keeps them hidden in the shadows.  Their mission during the operation was daunting.  They were to infiltrate a factory, one of the larger buildings in the area, and set up an overwatch for a nearby cordon.

Under an inky black sky, the Marines moved silently.  Their first obstacle was encountered in minutes – a locked gate that could only be opened from the inside.

Novi took the lead, climbing hand over hand.  He grasped at small irregularities in the cinder-block wall, pulling himself up until he lay flat on top of an abandoned guard shack.  Below, Cpl. Jason Elder, a 22-year-old Marlboro, Mass. Marine passed up his rifle before following.

One-by-one, each Marine in the team passed over.  They scurried off, entering the building.  They ducked into shadowy rooms, their steps stuttered and quick and voices low over their personal radios.  Methodically, painstakingly, they cleared the factory, room-by-room.  The only inhabitants are a small crew of night workers rounded up and led to an empty floor where they could be easily observed.

“That was pretty exciting,” said Cpl. Darren R. Smykowski, a 21-year-old from Mentor, Ohio. “It could have gone bad real quick if any of these guys had tried anything, but it went smooth, which is good.”

Given a little more time to reflect on the small team’s mission, he put it into a different perspective.

“That was crazy, clearing a building like this... That’s a job for a platoon, or even a company,” he said.

The work for the sniper team, though, had just begun.  With only a few hours of darkness remaining, they had to choose an observation site, one that wouldn’t give away their position, but command a superior viewing, and possibly shooting platform.

“Before the sun comes up, I want to have the hide fully set up,” Smykowski said. “There’s an Iraqi Army observation post that can see this roof and I don’t want them to shoot me thinking I’m an insurgent.”

He moved out across the roof, low-crawling to stay hidden. Even now, his progress was frustratingly slow and deliberate.  He made several trips to get all the gear in the hide.

The night sky by now was giving way to pinks and oranges, dawn breaking over the city.  And new concerns arose.

Iraqi factory workers were beginning to drift in for the morning shift.  It’s disconcerting for Marines who crave secrecy in everything they do, but in a sense, reassuring that their mission has, so far, gone off without a hitch.

“The good thing about that is that if they are showing up for work, that means they don’t know we’re here,” Novi explained. “Hopefully that continues for the rest of the day.”

Still, Elder and Novi take no chances.  They meet each worker after they come through the gate and search them, leading them inside.  There, Cpl. Stephen B. Lutze, a 22-year-old from Interlachen, Fla., stood watch.

Despite being in the presence of armed Marines, the Iraqis were welcoming.  They offered the Marines cigarettes and tried teaching them Arabic phrases. The Marines in turn joked with them and offered food and water from their own personal supplies.

While Marines below kept the factory workers at ease, Smykowski was riveted to his binoculars and rifle.  It’s deadly serious work that could require split-second decision and a spot-on accuracy.  His mission was one of watching and waiting.

“For the last five months this is all I have done, sit behind a rifle and wait for someone to cross my sights with a weapon so I can shoot them,” he said.

Still, he doesn’t romanticize his job.  It’s not a role that lends itself to great feats of adventure or moments of daring, but cool nerves of steel and long stretches of demanding concentration.

“It’s nothing like the movies or even in the stories you hear,” Smykowski explained.  “I like it though. Doing things like we did this morning … that’s what makes this job fun.”

As the sun rose in the sky, more Iraqis showed up for work, only to be met by Elder and Novi.  The Iraqis joined their co-workers under the observant gaze of Lutz. The operation began and the battalion’s infantry set their cordon, clearing houses.  They milled about with Smykowski above, who kept his eyes drilled into the city below, looking for any sign of a threat.

The sweep took several hours, with a weapons cache unearthed.  Confiscated were numerous small arms, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and launchers.

The battalion’s Marines collapsed the cordon and the sniper team was once again alone.  Smykowski called for their extraction. A Combined Anti-Armor Team arrived shortly afterward and the snipers slipped from their positions to the vehicles, taking all their gear with them and leaving as quickly as they came.

“That mission went real smooth today,” Elder added. “Everything went exactly they way we planned it and everybody did their job. That’s all you can ask for.”