Wednesday, January 25, 2006
There are many unique aspects to the dynamics of my job. I could easily make your head spin if I attempted to explain how my command structure is organized here. Unlike many military units, working dog teams do not deploy in large groups; in battalion or regimental size units for example. We deploy in small numbers and are operationally attached to other larger units. Because of our small numbers and the force multiplier that a dog team is to any unit conducting counter-insurgency operations, we are often requested to assist other units during their combat missions and operations. A part of my job here that I love, is that every mission is unique. My core mission here as a Marine dog handler is to detect and locate explosives or explosive devices and to apprehend or otherwise neutralize anti-coalition personnel...and this never changes. While my overall mission is constant, the circumstances surrounding these individual operations and missions always presents me with a fresh and unique set of circumstances to work under. No mission is ever the same. My most recent operation, "Operation Arabian" was no exception. I was attached to the 414th Stryker Brigade; an Army unit based in Alaska.
I was escorted to one of our Battle Positions under the cover of the darkness of early morning. An element of the 414th met me at the BP with several Stryker vehicles and escorted me to their headquarters. Later that day I attended the mission briefing outlining the mission's overall objectives, NAI's (named areas of interest) and other coordinating instructions. Truth be told, I was somewhat a fish out of water. I have never attended an Army mission brief before and it was an interesting time. Acronyms are as prevalent in the military as are egos; and both, at times, are equally hard to understand. I have been in the Marines for nearly eight years now and I have yet to master the art of acronym interpretation. Now, in this mission briefing, I was being exposed to a whole new lexicon. I wished more than anything that I had been issued an interpreter like our Iraqi officer counterparts. Many times during the brief, I found myself leaning over to my Army counterpart and humbly asking what this meant, or what that represented on the terrain model. By the end of the mission brief however, I had a clear understanding of our mission, timeline and the NAI's (Don't worry...you will get used to the acronyms after a while). I am not going to go into much detail about the mission out of concerns for operational security, but there were a few interesting and somewhat hair-raising moments during the mission which I would like to share.
So there we were...plodding along in our Stryker at a comfortable rate when the gunner yelled out into his mic, "STOP!...STOP THE TRUCK!", as he whipped his .50 cal around the the right side of the vehicle. At the time, I was standing in the rear gunner's hatch and had communication with the crew so I heard his gentle request. I immediately began scanning the barren landscape for any movement; ready to engage. The crew chief asked the gunner what he had. His response caused my heart to race. "Boss", he replied, "I think we just drove into a mine field". I looked outside the vehicle and saw symmetrical circles in the sand in a perfectly straight line on either side of our Stryker...our tires had miraculously passed directly in between two of these circles. The crew chief looked at me as he reached for the mic button on his helmet...I beat him to the punch. "There's no way I'm going out there with my dog Boss". "Call the Engineers", I said, "and let's back this thing out of here." It was a nerve wrenching five minutes as we backed the 23 ton vehicle. The Engineers came and determined that our "mine field" was in fact not a mine field, but rather a camp site recently evacuated by a Bedouin shepherd. The circles in the sand were all that was left of his camp and were the imprints left by his tent poles. It's experiences like this that keep you constantly on your toes and make every mission unique...and for this mission, it was just the beginning.
We completed our mission and the Troop (the Army's equivalent of a Marine company) consolidated at the predetermined rally point to begin the two hour trek back to the COP (Combat Outpost). It was light when we began our return trip, but it was getting dark when the Stryker driver realized that his NOD (night observation device) was inoperable. Murphy's Law states that whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible moment and I am convinced that Mr. Murphy was on that Stryker with us. Sure, we could drive with white light...and risk getting the entire convoy mortared, or we could drive blacked out and risk driving off a 30ft cliff into a wadi; neither option even coming close to ideal. We decided to drive blacked out and have the gunner assist the driver. "Right...Right...No, Left...Right...Straight...STOP...STOP". This went on for the entire two hours. Halfway into the return, I wanted to just get out and walk. We eventually made it back to the COP and were greeted with a salvo of mortar rounds fired from somewhere within the city. I saw the first flash off in the distance as we were entering the COP. Then more...and getting closer. "Incoming!", I yelled. I ducked back inside the Stryker and yanked the overhead hatch closed. To add fuel to the fire, (no pun intended), we were directly adjacent to the fuel bladders. 40 thousand pounds of fuel and a mortar strike could make for a very bad day for alot of people. In typical insurgent fashion, I was told that they ceased their attack and ran before we could ascertain where their mortar position(s) was/were. The QRF (quick reaction force) was launched and I am unaware of the outcome. The fun is never-ending around here.
This was just a typical week in the life of a combat Marine fighting to rid this country of its garbage. We will continue to take the fight to the enemy until there is no enemy, but peace. Until this day comes, we stand ready to execute tempered violence when necessary on your behalf and for the sake of our country and her citizens...the Marines always have, and we always will. Semper Fidelis.