FORWARD OPERATING BASE EDINBURGH, Afghanistan --
The siren went off in the fire direction center, where Marines awaited the targeting data needed to launch rockets to targets. Seconds later, the trucks rolled into position, carrying rocket launcher pods ready to help troops who were receiving mortar fire. In less than five minutes, the rockets were ready to fire because of the work of junior noncommissioned officers serving as section chiefs with 3rd Platoon, Tango Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment. The soldiers on the ground lost sight of the enemy and called off the mission, and the Marines returned to their posts to await another call for fire.
High Mobility Artillery Rocket System section chiefs are responsible for maintaining the system and ensuring the readiness of their Marines and multi-million dollar equipment, said Staff Sgt. James D. Sanders, the 3rd Platoon sergeant with Tango Battery, 5th Bn., 11th Marines.
Because the Marine Corps acquired HIMARS within the last five years, many corporals and sergeants have gained considerable experience with the system and earned all of the qualifications required to serve as a chief. Three of the four section chiefs within the platoon are younger than 25 years old, said Sgt. Ricardo A. Monge a 24-year-old section chief with Tango Battery, 5th Bn., 11th Marines.
Sanders said HIMARS chiefs carry a lot of responsibility. The HIMARS is a GPS-guided system capable of outranging traditional artillery by up to three times and striking a target within one meter of the grid coordinate. The HIMARS can destroy targets using fewer strikes than cannons.
Monge, a Los Angeles native, said mistakes can result in the rockets not firing, ultimately putting the troops on the ground in danger. The rocket pods on the M142 truck can develop mechanical errors, or the communication system can lose contact with higher command. The chief and his crew conduct dry-fire drills daily to ensure the HIMARS can fire and the Marines remain sharp.
Section chiefs who are junior NCOs have many unique challenges, said 1st Lt. Tom V. Worthington, the 3rd Platoon commander with Tango Battery, 5th Bn., 11th Marines.
“Because their experience is only one to two years more than their subordinates, they're going to make mistakes,” explained Worthington, a 25-year-old native of Falmouth, Mass. “Young NCOs are still learning how to do their jobs, delegate, and train Marines. They have to do many things all at once.”
The chiefs at Tango Battery handle their responsibilities well because early in their careers they strived to be chiefs and prepared for it since the beginning, said Cpl. Abbas Alhmedi, a section chief with Tango Battery, 5th Bn., 11th Marines.
“In artillery, it has always been happening,” said Sanders, a 26-year-old native of Wichita, Kan. “Every cannonier trains to be a chief. I never looked at the fact that they were young.”
Every HIMARS crewman receives on-the-job training, and top performing NCOs attend the three-week Chief's Course at the Artillery Training School at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. Alhmedi said candidates must pass a written and hands-on examination with a score of 100 percent in order to qualify as a chief.
Sanders said in addition to qualifying as a chief, the Marines must meet complete additional training before deploying. All of the young chiefs performed exceptionally during the rigorous six-month predeployment training program. They met all of the standards they were tested on, and they demonstrated maturity and knowledge in front of their peers.
“I respect the NCOs because they know their jobs very well,” said Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Fins, a HIMARS driver with 3rd Platoon, Tango Battery, 5th Bn., 11th Marines. “I never question them because of that.”
Editor's Note: The 3rd Platoon, Tango Battery, 5th Battalion, 11th Marines is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 6, which is a part of Task Force Leatherneck. First Marine Division (Forward) heads Task Force Leatherneck, the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest), and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.