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Iraq-deployed Marines prepare for emergency rescues in Al Anbar province

6 Jun 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

Sipping on bottled water, rifle in hand and wearing a good 60 pounds of body armor on this sprawling U.S. military airbase, Lance Cpl. Emanuel Cantu says he doesn’t mind training for combat in Iraq’s blistering 110-plus degree temperature.

In fact, he says he loves it.

After all, four months of serving in Iraq as part of a quick-reaction force has helped the 31-year-old Marine lose more than 20 pounds, but more importantly, he says he’s found his niche in the Marine Corps: training to save lives.

“I feel like I’m doing something, like I’m training for something for a greater purpose,” said Cantu, a father of two who is an administrative clerk by trade.

Cantu is part of a platoon of Marines who may never actually do what they train for –tactical rescue of aircraft and personnel, or “TRAP,” as the U.S. military calls it.

The Marines haven’t been called upon to conduct a rescue mission since they deployed here four months ago.

Still, the platoon trains regularly for the mission:  jump in a helicopter, fly to the scene of a down aircraft, set up security, and help recover the pilots or salvage crucial equipment from the scene.

Time – a matter of life and death

Once every couple of weeks, the platoon suits up with their full combat load – body armor, helmets, ammunition, rifles and various other gear – and practice their routine of exiting a helicopter, setting-up security at the scene, and quickly to ensure they’re ready if the call comes to perform a rescue mission.

Though the Marines have not been called upon to perform a rescue mission yet in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, training is continuous to ensure the Marines can respond quickly.

Time can be the enemy on such rescue operations, and there’s little room for mistakes, according to the Marines. A few minutes can mean the difference between the enemy finding a downed pilot before the Marines arrive, and can also mean the difference between life and death if the platoon’s medical personnel can not arrive in time to treat the wounded.

That’s a scenario the Marines don’t want to have to face, but must plan for.

“You may never get the call, but if you do, it’s your obligation to be there in a timely manner to quite possibly save lives,” said 1st Lt. William S. Johnson, the 26-year-old Marine from Oakdale, Minn., who commands the platoon.

Johnson says the success of a mission heavily relies on its ability to respond quickly to a call – weapons ready, communications gear checked, full combat gear on, ready to be briefed on the mission and flown to the scene.

“The quicker we get there and the quicker we perform our rescue the better the chances of survival for the aircrew,” added Gunnery Sgt. Corey E. Earle, the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Marines’ Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting team – another element of the “TRAP” team.

Earle’s Marines are trained to fight fires and rescue personnel and equipment from aircraft accidents. They use tools such as the “jaws of life,” to tear open through wreckage to reach crewmembers, similar to those used by first responders in traffic accidents back in the states.

Loaded down with heavy equipment, Earle’s Marines must work hand-in-hand with Johnson’s platoon to respond quickly and make the most of their time on-scene. All the Marines – those providing security and those conducting the rescue – must work together like a well-oiled machine in their response, otherwise, people could die.

The Golden Hour

Earle says response time to an accident scene must fall within the “Golden Hour,” in which “you want to have the patient to a medical facility within an hour of an accident.”

The theory is common sense – the quicker patients are medically evacuated, the quicker they can be treated, and ultimately, the greater a chance for survival.

Urgency, and communication, is the name of the game, he said.

“Everyone must know what the other teams are going to do and their capabilities,” said Earle, a 35-year-old from Tellico Plains, Tenn. “Being able to communicate with the other agencies and help where ever needed will define if you will have a successful mission or not.”

Every Marine a rifleman ... and a ‘doc’

But training to respond to downed aircraft is only one mission Johnson’s Marines are prepared to handle. They’re also provisional riflemen – non-infantry Marines serving in an infantry capacity.

Mechanics, administrative clerks, communication technicians – the platoon’s make-up seems to reemphasize one of the Corps’ time-proven ethos:  “Every Marine a rifleman.”

Lance Cpl. Jonathan D. Bolton, a 19-year-old from Hawthorne, Calif., and tank mechanic by trade for the Marines, traded in his coveralls and tools for body armor and a machine gun after volunteering to serve with the provisional rifle platoon.

He, too, says despite the danger and the heat, he feels he’s making a difference in Iraq.

“When I go outside the wire and give the kids candy, I feel good,” said Bolton, who has two years in the Corps. “The Iraqi people really appreciate us.”

Four months into their deployment with Regimental Combat Team 7 – the infantry unit which provides security to the 30,000 square miles of towns, villages and desert in western Al Anbar province – the platoon has conducted patrols on Iraq’s dangerous roads, encountered roadside bombs, manned traffic control points, and interacted with the local populace.

Though the platoon has not had to perform daily patrols “outside the wire” – the phrase U.S. service members use to describe leaving the safety of a base to conduct military operations – they train as if they do. The platoon spends hours training in skills they need to tackle the dangers of Iraq –combat marksmanship, urban patrolling, and perhaps most importantly, tactical field medicine.

“They know almost as much as a corpsman,” boasts Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeff R. Rader, one of the platoon’s Navy corpsmen. “They know how to treat injuries. They know their medical stuff.”

Dangerous Roads

In western Al Anbar province, going “outside the wire” means mounting up in up-armored vehicles, donning heavy, ballistic body armor and other protective gear, and manning heavy caliber machine guns and rifles.

Security in the region requires the presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops to limit insurgent activity. That means Johnson’s Marines must be out on the streets in towns like Baghdadi – a town of 30,000 nestled along the Euphrates River just northeast of Al Asad – one of several regions Iraqi police, soldiers and U.S. troops patrol daily to keep insurgents at bay. 

Exposure to small-arms attacks and roadside bombs come with the territory for the Marines, but their presence is crucial to the stability and security of local towns, said Johnson.

“Boots on the deck, no doubt,” he said. “If we don’t go out there, the more dangerous Iraq becomes. More is to be gained from talking to the people, not just waving your guns around.”

Last month, the platoon manned a traffic control point for several days near the town to add an extra layer of security in the region, a known hot-spot of insurgent activity. Aside from the sweltering heat, the Marines encountered no enemy activity.

Two days after they left, the same area was attacked with two suicide bombers in vehicles.

“That could have killed us,” said Lance Cpl. Nicholas Spiewak, a machine gunner from Yuma, Ariz., who stood post at the traffic control point. “In a way, it pisses me off ‘cause I want to see action, but on the other hand, I’m glad nothing did happen ‘cause I don’t want to see Marines get hurt.”

Spiewak is one of the few bonafide infantrymen in the platoon, and saw action last year in Iraq when he deployed with the Twentynine Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in Fallujah.

Luck and Experience

Last year, Spiewak was shot at nearly every time he left his unit’s base, he said. He also encountered multiple IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire attacks, as well as indirect fire, such as mortars. This year, he has not been shot at once, he said.

“We really haven’t seen a lot. Eventually, something will happen,” said Spiewak, who knows that the “Complacency Kills” signs often posted around U.S. military bases in Iraq are more than just words stenciled on a sheet of metal.

The 22-year-old doesn’t go outside the wire without the “Letter of Protection,” a Wiccan spell he says guides and protects warriors and travelers.

“I was on point on patrol,” said Spiewak of his current platoon’s first patrol through western Al Anbar province in early March, which resulted in the unexpected discovery of an IED. “I turn around and see the lieutenant (Johnson), I faced forward to check around, turned around again, and heard him say, ‘Run!’ and he was gone.”

Johnson found the bomb during the patrol, which did not explode.

“Fortunately, we’ve been pretty lucky,” said Cpl. Ricardo J. Balistreri, a 20-year-old from Milwaukee and one of the platoon’s squad leaders.

But Johnson says training, combined with superb small-unit leadership and the combat experience of the platoon’s infantrymen from past deployments, are the real key to the Marines’ success in Iraq.

“We’re proven,” said Johnson, who also saw action as an infantry platoon commander last year in Iraq with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.  “I’d match these guys up with anyone.”

Brothers in arms

Rader, who joined the Navy three years into college, said he has the utmost faith and confidence in the Marines’ abilities to medically treat combat casualties just as effectively as he could – a plus in the event they actually get called on to respond to an actual emergency – and the result of countless hours of training.

The 23-year-old from West Windsor, N.J., joined the platoon several weeks ago. He said the platoon is like a family, brothers even, which makes it hard for him to even think about his Marines, his “very close friends,” injured on the job when they leave the safety of their base. 

“I try not to think about it,” said Rader. “Yeah, ‘cause I know when I go out, I’m with my friends, and I don’t want anything to happen to them. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to go out with anyone else.”

Rader’s sentiments seem to echo throughout the platoon – “I know if I get into a firefight, I know that the Marine next to me has my back,” said Spiewak. “I’m not afraid to walk down the streets of Baghdadi.”

“It’s weird how all these people from different backgrounds just click,” said Balistreri. “I’d say there’s a lot of camaraderie in this platoon.”

Training, experience, weapons, tactics – perhaps the real secret to these Marines’ success is not just the hours they put in behind their weapons, or on and off-loading helicopters with 60 pounds of gear strapped to their bodies. Instead, their success seems to be driven more from an urge to accomplish their mission, and make sure everyone comes home alive.

“I’ve worked with these guys a long time,” said Cantu, who recaps his bottle of water, straps his helmet over his sweat-soaked hair for another round of aircraft rescue off-load drills. “We’re pretty tight.”

Email Staff Sgt. Goodwin at: goodwinjm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil