Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bravo battery gives M777 baptism of fire

June 28, 2007; Submitted on: 07/01/2007 01:36:11 PM ; Story ID#: 200771133611

By Sgt. Andy Hurt, 13th MEU

The M777A1 Howitzer cannon lights up the gun line as Bravo Battery 1/11 conducts a fire mission June 26. Bravo Battery is currently the only unit utilizing the M777 in combat, and also the first unit to do such.

COMBAT OUTPOST GOLDEN (June 28, 2007) -- Marines from Bravo Battery 1st Battalion, 11th Marines are making history as the first unit to use the new M777-A1 Howitzer in combat. Executing fire missions every night in support of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, the Marines of Bravo Battery are the leading “combat research” element as the new gun is fielded.

The M777 is gradually replacing the Marine Corps’ aging stock of M198 Howitzers, and many Marines are glad to see the change.

“I like the ‘triple-seven’,” said Sgt. Nelson Santiago. “It’s lighter, and more delicate. Our gun is like a sniper rifle.”

‘Cell Block C’
Santiago, the section chief from Bravo’s ‘Cell Block C’ crew (Gun #6 on the line), said it is exciting for his Marines to get the exclusive first combat use from the new guns. But life on the gun line is far from easy.

Following a night of fire missions, Marines stave off flies and heat as they attempt to rest outdoors during daytime. They “wake up” mid-afternoon and perform weapons maintenance (on a 15,000 pound weapon), followed by physical training. Since the gym is located far from the gun line, the Marines of ‘Cell Block C’ make do with what they have. Pull-ups off the gun barrel, military-pressing powder cases, etc. And then they wrestle for an hour or so.

When the sun goes down, ‘Cell Block C’ gets to work. While some Marines are busy “Getting Laid” (laying the gun into polar position in coordination with other guns on the line), others are checking ammo, and inspecting the new M777 for wear and tear. The mission recorder is busy scrawling notes by flashlight, a series of numbers, angles and equations enough to supplement a college physics class. The mission of Bravo Battery requires a ton of work.

“Some people think we just ‘pull string, go boom’, which we do, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” said Santiago.

Marines complete this rotation every few days, while other elements of the battery are conducting collateral duties. In fact, collateral duties have become so common in the artillery community, the Marines sometimes call themselves “Super-Grunts.”

“Artillery is great because it’s so diverse,” Santiago said. “We do infantry missions, PMO (Military Police) missions, humanitarian stuff … and we get to fire these big guns.”

What really makes ‘Cell Block C’ and Bravo Battery such a perfect test-bed for the new gun is possibly the Marines themselves. A group of good ol’ boys and raw intellectuals, ‘Cell Block C’ is never short of conversation. One Marine, Cpl. Ryan Mayfeild, is dogged because he looks like an “Abercrombie model.”

Another, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Maltez, bears the nickname “M.I.A.” because he once ventured off on a six-hour mission to find water.

Lance Cpl. Heath Shipley claims his best attributes are (in a heavy tobacco-country drawl) “sleeping and complainin’.” The irony is, Shipley’s job as mission recorder is one of painstaking tedium and detail, and utmost importance as he gives mission coordinates as they are passed over the radio net.

Private first-class, second award, Matthew Vincent takes pride in his rank so much he made his own t-shirt. It features a single chevron drawn in Sharpie marker with the text “Proud Federation of Champions” across the back. Vincent is the biggest guy on the crew, and is first to volunteer his strength for the nightly wrestling matches.

Then there’s Lance Cpl. Ben Almquist, a Citadel graduate who plans to apply for a commissioning program. As one of the junior members of the crew, Almquist’s chief responsibility is cleaning the massive gun, which is reflected by his grease-covered hands and face.

Another “boot Marine,” Pfc. Jonhommad Lind, says his father might live in Baghdad, but doesn’t know for sure because he was abandoned as a baby.

Corporal Andre Natividad dreams of covering himself in tattoos when the deployment is over.

It is a truly salty crew, and they take pride in their task. As the M777 is constantly under scrutiny and surveyed for improvement, the Marines of ‘Cell Block C’ and Bravo Battery 1/11 are seeing their work pay off every day. It is an uphill battle, however.

During the movement from Kuwait to Iraq, a container carrying every single piece of mission gear was destroyed by a roadside bomb. As the first battery to test the new weapon, no spare parts were readily available. With each broken seal and bolt, ‘Cell Block C’ is forced to engineer repairs from old parts while supply trains strain to bring them proper equipment.
With the odds against them, Bravo Battery is performing well. Under less-than ideal conditions, the M777 and the “Kings of Battle” are a history-making asset in the Global War on Terrorism.

For more information about Bravo Battery 1/11 and the Fighting 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, visit the Unit’s Web site at .

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