DULAB, Iraq - -- Officially, the season doesn’t start until June 21, but for the Marines and sailors of Regimental Combat Team 2, the “not so” lazy days of summer are already here. Calendar aside, it’s hard to argue with triple-digit temperatures.
Back in the states, escaping the heat is only a road trip away. Hop in the car and head to the beach – problem solved.
Over here, however, things are a bit more complicated. Take the RCT-2 Route Clearance Platoon, for example. To the outsider, their job appears easy – cruising the streets of Iraq for an honest day’s pay.
But like most things in life, things are not always what they seem. This particular road trip is more dangerous than most.
The RCT-2 Route Clearance Platoon, whose members are part of Bravo Company, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, are responsible for minimizing the number of improvised explosive devices along vehicle routes within western Al Anbar province.
“These guys have the most dangerous job in Iraq,” said 1st Sgt. Michael T. Mack. “While everyone else is trying to avoid IED’s, they’re out looking for ‘em.”
Sparing no expense, the platoon is armed with the latest mine-resistant vehicle technology that money can buy.
“These new trucks definitely have the advantage (over the humvee),” said Gunnery Sgt. Erik A. Chism, the platoon’s staff noncommissioned officer in charge. “Their hull is specifically designed for better blast dispersion.”
Chism, a native of Centerville, Ala., also points out the added height as a vast improvement over the old model. The “birds-eye view”, together with larger windows, gives passengers a 360-degree perspective of the surrounding area.
“We recently found a command wire IED with five, 122mm mortar rounds attached,” Chism said. “An explosion that size would’ve annihilated a humvee. The Buffalo (Mine-Protected Clearance Vehicle), on the other hand, would only been slightly damaged. The Marines inside would be OK.”
In addition to the Buffalo, the platoon also uses the Cougar Hardened Engineer Vehicle and the Husky Mine Detection and Towing Vehicle.
“The Husky is a mine detector on wheels,” Chism explained. “Once it finds a possible IED, the Buffalo is called over to interrogate the area. The Cougar carries our security element.”
According to their Web site, Force Protection, Inc. recently received a $490 million contract to produce 1,000 Cougars for the Marine Corps’ Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle program. And as far as the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is concerned, production can’t begin soon enough.
“Now we have something better,” Gates said during a recent Pentagon press briefing. “We’re going to get that to the field as best we can.”
He also cited a USA TODAY article, which said no Marines had been killed in roughly 300 IED attacks on MRAP’s. “That certainly got my attention,” Gates added.
1st Lt. David T. Shanks, the platoon’s officer in charge, is all for new technology – the safer, the better. Having said that, he doesn’t want people to forget what matters most in a real combat situation.
“Regardless, the human element is still the most important factor,” said Shanks, a native of San Antonio. “A well-trained Marine is the most precise piece of equipment I have. A tool is only as good as the guy who’s using it.”
Pvt. Colin J. McNabb, a combat engineer with the RCT-2 Route Clearing Platoon, seconds this notion. He warns against getting caught up in all the media coverage.
“These vehicles can give you a false sense of security,” said McNabb, a native of Davenport, Iowa. “We build bigger trucks, they build bigger bombs. The enemy is much smarter than people think.”
McNabb, who serves as an M240G machine gunner, voluntarily switched units to deploy with this platoon. Although it’s his second deployment overall, it’s his first in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“When I deployed last year with the 11th (Marine Expeditionary Unit), we went to places like Australia, Singapore and Thailand,” said McNabb. “We were scheduled to come here, but never did. This time around, I wanted to make sure.”
The hardest part of the job, according to McNabb, is the monotony. The platoon travels between 1,800-2,400 miles per week, averaging more than 10 hours of road time each day.
“Yeah, it can get boring,” McNabb said. “But the last thing you want to do is fall asleep.”
To help ward off the sandman, McNabb and his fellow Marines have turned to an assortment of energy drinks for assistance.
“We’ll do pretty much anything to stay awake,” McNabb explained. “You’ve got to pay attention to the little things out here, even more so than normal. It’s no joke – lives are at stake.”
The platoon’s 25 Marines and one Navy corpsman have an incredible responsibility. Military and innocent civilian lives hang in the balance. The margin for error is zero.
“Sometimes you drive for 12 hours straight and it kicks your (tail),” McNabb said. “But when you find an IED, you do get satisfaction. I know I accomplished something; I just saved a Marine’s life. In the end, it’s worth it. Plus, it beats sitting on a boat for the next six months.”
The Route Clearance Platoon is part of Regimental Combat Team 2, a Marine Corps command responsible for more than 30,000 square miles and 5,500 Marines, soldiers and sailors in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province.