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Lance Cpl. Jeffery Evans, a TOW gunner with Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, fires an M220 Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked Wire-Guided missile Sept. 21.

Photo by Cpl. Chris Lyttle

Marines hone combat skills during rare training exercise

21 Sep 2008 | Cpl. Chris Lyttle

FALLUJAH, Iraq (Sept. 21, 2008) – In an area of Iraq where Coalition forces have successfully tapered down the combat-kinetic environment, Marines of Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, continued honing their combat-readiness skills with an M220 Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked Wire-Guided (TOW) missile firing exercise here, Sept. 21.

“We’re doing a little anti-armor training with TOW missiles and our heavy guns,” said 1st Lt. Luke R. Barnes, platoon commander, Mobile Assault Platoon, Weapons Company. “We’re getting back to the fundamentals like at CAX (the Combined-Arms Training Exercise, Marine Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.) and practicing our fundamentals with anti-armor employment.”

The TOW, a crew portable, vehicle-mounted heavy anti-armor weapon system, is a launcher that fires five types of TOW missiles that can penetrate tanks and armored vehicles at long distances. The Marine Corps mounts the TOW launcher to High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV), helicopters and the Corps’ own Light Armored Vehicle. Before attaching to infantry combat units, select junior Marines are trained on the weapon system as TOW gunners, a primary military occupational specialty (MOS).

Barnes’ designated TOW gunners had the opportunity to fire several missiles in conjunction with medium and heavy machine guns. He said the exercise is focused around the TOW gunners, who generally do not spend much time on the weapon in this stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“The main purpose of this range was to give our TOW gunners some training on the system—to let them engage deep targets with live TOW missiles with fire suppression,” Barnes said. “It’s an anti-armor weapons system that was used largely at the beginning of OIF. We have strayed away from using them in combat but we still bring them here for training.”

Although the Marines fired at unmanned targets, the platoon still conducted this exercise with a heightened sense of awareness in a combat zone. Barnes said the platoon maintained security measures to ensure a safe training evolution.

“Out here we take a lot more safety precautions,” Barnes said. “It is very ‘by the book’. We set our heavy guns outside of the TOW with our medium machine guns. In training, we stop the fire suppression while the missile is fired so no bullets hit the missile and make it go haywire. We probably wouldn’t do that in combat, but just like any other range, all of the safety precautions are taken here.”

Barnes said with the daily operations his Marines perform, it is not often they get to do combined-arms training in Iraq.

“Everyone is out here training to do what they learned in their MOS,” Barnes said. “It’s awesome for us to come out here and do what we initially trained to do.”

Lance Cpl. Jeffery Evans, a TOW gunner with the platoon, was one of the Marines who sharpened his skills with the weapon system. As a junior Marine, he said his last opportunity to train on the launcher was during training at the School of Infantry (SOI). He described his role as a TOW gunner in an infantry battalion.

“In case we ever go somewhere where the enemy is using armor, we practice using the TOW system so we can take out threats,” Evans said. “The experience is unbelievable. As soon as you pull that trigger and hear it kick, it’s like going 140 (miles-per-hour) on the interstate. Your adrenaline starts kicking because you know what’s about to happen.”

Evans said that without training, it can be difficult to keep a missile on target. While Marines fire machine guns down range and coordinate with each other, the TOW operators prepare the launcher with a high-explosive round and sight in on their target. All the movements must be done safely and precisely.

“Your first time can be pretty difficult” Evans said. “But it just takes practice. As far as the safety precautions, we do it all the same as in SOI. But we still have to load the missile quickly and execute everything on time.”

Evans summed up the training day as a break away from the platoon’s regular business, to come out and do what TOW gunners do best.

“Just being out here with your buddies, who are the same guys you go on patrol with every day—they normally don’t get to see what the TOW gunners are trained to do,” Evans said. “But we got to shoot some missiles today and it felt pretty good.”