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‘Gators’ prowl highways near Fallujah

26 Aug 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva 1st Marine Division

Forget murky swamps or backyard swimming pools.  Regimental Combat Team 5 has “Gators” stalking the six-lane highways surrounding Fallujah.

Marines from D Company, 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion, RCT-5, are skulking the main roads surrounding Fallujah.  They’re on the hunt, looking to clamp down on anyone trying to shut down the well-traveled routes for coalition forces.  Their favorite prey is improvised explosive device emplacers and the roadside bombs they employ.

Team Gator, built around D Company, is tasked with keeping the main routes in the area open for coalition and civilian traffic.  Marines drive their 27-ton amphibious assault vehicles constantly.  Day and night, the amtracs, a holdover nickname when earlier generations of the vehicle were called amphibious tractors, keep the main routes clear.  It’s a mission that’s taxing physically and mentally, and requires an alligator’s thick skin to endure.

“We’re out there looking for IEDs and possible ambush sites,” said Staff Sgt. Justin K. Mayville, a 28-year-old section leader from Killeen, Texas.  “The ‘amtracs,’ are well-suited for this kind of mission.  They’re good on open-terrain and highways and stand up well against IEDs.  They just get hot in the daytime.”

Nighttime isn’t much better.  On a recent patrol, Marines loaded their amtracs, or “hogs” as they affectionately call them, and churned off into the inky-black moonless night.  It was a ritualistic hunt.  The roads they haunt are their hunting grounds, and they know them well.

“If we’re not doing this, another section is doing it, every day,” Mayville explained.  “Marines know this area well and they know what to look for.”

That’s because Team Gator creeps their beasts along the roads at a patient, persistent pace.  Headlights on, the lumbering amtrac beasts chug down the road, bellowing diesel smoke in a throaty groan.  Marines ride high, perched in their stations or stand in the back, heads and rifles poking out from the open hatches.

“We’re looking for anything out of the ordinary,” said Lance Cpl. John D. Darmody, a 20-year-old amtrac crewman from Allen Park, Mich.  “We’re looking to see something new in the road that we haven’t seen before.”

Darmody explained Team Gator has traveled up and down the same stretches of highway so often, they know the identifying features.  They can pinpoint patch jobs on the road surface from repairs to craters left from previous IEDs.  Pieces of trash, canisters, even shrubs that didn’t seem to be there the day before are tell-tale signs that something is amiss.  That’s when Team Gator gets ready to pounce.

“That’s one of the main things about patrolling,” explained Cpl. Manuel A. Castellanos, a 24-year-old crewman from New York City.  “You get out there and mastermind you’re whole area and patrol your whole area.  That’s how you know when something’s not right.”

The patrol of amtracs hefted their armored vehicles onto the highway and for hours scanned every possible spot to hide a roadside bomb.  The pace was painstakingly slow, as they rumbled their way down the asphalt.  Choking acrid diesel smoke mixed with the syrupy-sweet odor of transmission fluid and oil.  The vibration was enough to shake loose dental fillings, and the heat wafted up from the belly of the machines to the point that the warm summer night breezes were a welcome escape.

“It wears a lot on the Marines,” Mayville explained.  “I try to break the monotony of the road noise.  I try not to take the same path.  I change the routes.”

Marines steered their hulking amtracs in long, flowing loops.  They traveled one side of the highway with their eyes glued to the roadside landscape under the dim headlights.  The turned around and the metal tracks ground against the pavement, sometimes sending up tiny sparks as they headed back in the opposite direction.

Patrols like this seem to last forever.  Darmody said he’s been on patrols such as this that lasted 12 hours.

“The patrols are pretty hard,” he said.  “It’s the length and the heat that get to you.”

“It’s more than being awake,” Castellanos added.  “You have to constantly be on guard.  You can’t get complacent.”

Marines resorted to a few tried methods to keep aware when they’re on a Gator hunt.  Darmody slipped below his turret to light cigarettes every so often, as much to keep himself awake as to pass the time.  Occasionally, he smacked his helmet, jolting himself from the drowsiness that settled in. 

For Castellanos, it was the radio that kept him focused.  It maintained his awareness and the voice he heard in his ear was a reassurance he’s not on this hunt alone.

“We do a lot of talking over the radios,” he said.  “Knowing you can talk to your guys on the ‘trac’ and in your section, you know you are going to make it through the night.”

Mayville said he’s got a simple solution.  It’s a cooler packed with ice and water.

“It’s a big morale booster,” he said.  “In the evening, it’s not so bad, but you can count on it being 20-30 degrees hotter inside the ‘trac.’  We push a lot of water.”

The glow of headlights filled the horizon several hours into the patrol.  Marines edged their amtracs off the road to make room for the passing convoy.  Nearly 70-vehicles large, the convoy rolled by.  They carried everything from complete humvees loaded on flatbed trailers to fuel trucks and supplies. 

The fact the convoy rolled through, unhindered and unscathed, was proof to Team Gator they made a difference.

“This job is very important,” Mayville said.  “That’s a main supply route we’re on.”

“That let’s us know we’re doing our job when they can move freely,” Castellanos added. 

Team Gator Marines nosed their vehicles back into Camp Fallujah after several hours and dozens of loops up and down the highway.  Back inside the safety of the camp, they edged their hungry “hogs” to the camp’s fuel farm, where Army soldiers were refilling fuel bladders.  They were likely the part of the same convoy they watched passed hours earlier.

“It makes you feel good knowing they’re replenishing everything from fuel to food for the chow hall,” Mayville explained.  “We kept that road open for them so they could bring the stuff here that keeps Marines happy.”

1st Marine Division