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Marines refresh vital skills on the range

13 Jun 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

There’s something about gripping the twin vertical handles of an M-2 .50-caliber machine gun that just says, “This is going to be fun.”

It’s the Ma-Deuce, the Big-Momma.  When she shouts, everyone listens.

Never mind the recoil harsh enough to shake fillings loose from teeth or the half-inch wide chunk of lead belched out of the belly of the beast.  This thing just makes Marines curl a smile from ear to ear.

“I can relieve stress with that thing,” said Lance Cpl. Michael T. Wilson, 21-year-old machine gunner assigned to Headquarters Company, Regimental Combat Team 5.  “I enjoy it.”

Wilson, along with nearly two dozen more Marines from the company, had the chance to brush up on their skills as turret gunners on the Ma-Deuce and her two cousins, the M-240G machine gun and MK-19 automatic grenade launcher.  They’re the tools of the trade for convoys running through the Fallujah area and the guns Marines rely upon to get them out of a jam.

“The turret gunner is probably the most important in the convoy,” said Capt. Jason S. Freeby, Headquarters Company commander. 

The turret gunners are the Marines who see all.  They have the highest vantage point and are the ones who warn civilians to keep clear, find possible improvised explosive devices and man the heavy and medium machine guns when deadly force is authorized.  They make life and death decisions dozens of times every day they go outside of the wire.

Most of the time, they’re the ones who don’t squeeze the trigger, which makes the training more important than ever. 

“We can talk about the typical procedures for the turret gunners,” Freeby explained.  “But it’s the atypical situations they face all the time.  The turret gunners are the ones who will save a life or take it.”

That requires split-second decisions and quick actions on the bulky guns.  Throw that together with adrenaline-pumping situations of a determined enemy closing in and the need to protect innocents, the training of firing quickly and accurately is a skill Marines can’t do without.

“When I’m up on the weapon, I’m always thinking about what it takes for immediate and remedial action,” said Wilson, from Amherst County, Va. 

“It’s pretty important training,” said Cpl. Daniel R. Heimbigner, a 22-year-old from Spokane, Wash.  “We had malfunctions on the range.  That could happen to us out on a convoy and you’ve got to get that gun up and going.”

Marines took long belts of ammunition, brass gleaming in the dusty air.  They climbed into the turrets, loaded up and aimed in.  Lubricating oil spattered across flak jackets while Marines unloaded on the targets.  The ripping sound of the M-240G alternated with the thumping of the M-2.  Further down, the MK-19’s familiar, “chunk, chunk, chunk chunk,” was followed up corresponding “crumps” from exploding grenades.

The training, aside from a break in the routine of constant convoys or providing security, was a chance for the Marines to strip away all the other distractions and concentrate on just handling their weapons systems.

“It’s important to break out the mission-essential tasks,” Freeby said.  “When you break it away from all the other stuff we task a turret gunner with, it gives them a chance to really hone that skill of shooting that gun.”

It’s a skill, Heimbigner said, every Marine in Iraq needs to master.

“Anybody can be thrown into a turret at any time,” he said.  “At one point or another, everyone is going to be on that gun.”

Besides, it’s fun.

“This is what you join the Marine Corps for,” Heimbigner added.