HABBANIYAH, IRAQ --
The blast reverberates across the desert. Marines turn away from a blast as a round from an M-252 81mm Mortar system escapes its iron chute and flies toward its target.
Marines with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, conducted indirect fire shoots during a fire support coordination exercise here Jan. 16, to train the battalion’s future Fire Support Team (FST) leaders.
Lance Cpl. Mike C. Olynick, one of the many mortarmen with the 81’s platoon, was down in the gun positions, while infantry officers with Company A, B, C and Weapons called for fire from the top of a three story post at Combat Outpost 569.
“The purposes of indirect fire missions are to suppress the enemy, support friendly troops by keeping the enemy’s head down and also illuminate an area if needed,” said the 21-year-old, Chicago native. “This training is great, for me at least. It will help me get faster and more accurate, which takes this kind of practice.”
It was a good day for everybody working out on the cold plains of the desert, said 1st Lt. Jesus S. Mendez, the commander of second platoon, Company B.
“Today they brought us Fire Support Team (FST) leaders out for a little refresher,” said Mendez, a Manhattan, native. “An FST is basically the guy out there on the front lines, observing a target from a distance, providing the bulk of information to the mortars, artillery and air so they can carry out a mission which will destroy the enemy. This is a very good opportunity for us right now, because the operational environment is pretty quiet – so we haven’t been employing these skills out here.”
Mendez’s words rang true. Since the battalion’s arrival in late July, security has spread throughout their area of operation, providing a safe and kinetically inactive operational environment for the Marines of the “Ready to fight” battalion. This atmosphere has allowed Iraqis and Marines alike to begin rebuilding the economic, social, and political infrastructure that will help solidify the security situation in this area of Al Anbar. It has also left the infantrymen of the battalion without many real operation scenarios in which to implement their advanced combat skills as they would have had on previous deployments.
For the mortar men, this is exactly the reason why the training, which is meant for the FSTs, is also beneficial for them, said Olynick, a 2005 Morris Community High School graduate.
“A lot goes into shooting a mortar: deflection, elevation, communication…everything has to be right before you drop that round down the tube,” said the 21-year-old infantrymen. “Today we will probably shoot at least 80 to 100 rounds, and this helps us stay current with the weapons system.”
The Marines on the gunline were plotting fires and senior Marines with the platoon were testing their junior Marines on basic weapons system knowledge such as parts, different types of rounds, what types of fires are used for different situations and also weapons capabilities. Up above the mortar gunline were the young infantry officers holding maps, compasses and binoculars, which they used to watch where the rounds landed, and to make measurements and adjustments to increase precision.
“We are the observers who view enemy tanks, dismounts or any enemy position,” said Mendez, a 24-year-old graduate of Armstrong Atlantic State University. “To do this the observer uses communication and plotting to let the 81mm Mortars and the Artillery know where the enemy is in reference to himself and other landmarks, and then calls for fire on these positions. Communication is key in these events.”
Marines can and do practice these skills between each other without being anywhere near a range or without actually being in the situation, said Mendez, but doing it first-hand in a live training event provides a much more comprehensive training experience.
“It’s very different when you integrate all of the elements together in a live fire, hands-on event like this,” said Mendez. “It’s a way to test yourself, your peers and perfect your skills as a group. You get to see the capability of these weapons systems and the effects they will have. In reality, it takes time for a battery to get their guns up and you’ve got other limitations of the systems and their men…and you learn these things. Also, for some people, actually getting on the communications equipments is tough and this helps because it’s another opportunity to practice.”
The repetitive thumping of mortar fire and the loud crash of artillery fire ceased, signaling the end of the exercise. Taking most of the day to complete, the exercise was a solid refresher, said Mendez, that prepared all of the Marines for future engagements and situations they may encounter.
“Even for something like a MEU, this training is definitely a useful tool,” said Mendez. “This is something a lot of us infantry lieutenants got to do at Infantry Officers Course. But for us, on this deployment and all of the workups, we really haven’t gotten to do it since then. So it was really a good refresher for what we may see. This is what keeps our skills and our tactics for the future. This is what makes us the best.”