News: Alpha Battery brings Steel Rain to Helmand
Story by Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes
FIRE BASE SAENZ, Helmand province, Afghanistan - An infantry squad leader can exercise a few options when engaged by insurgents. He could assault through the attack, while weighing the possibility of losing one of his Marines in the crossfire, or he can use one of the many assets available to him and call for artillery support. The Marines of Alpha Battery quickly stir up a storm to bring steel rain to the enemy when they receive the call for support.
The battery from 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment out of Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, is currently deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. They provide timely and accurate artillery fires for ground maneuver units in the northern-half of the province. The round which is most requested is the satellite-guided Excalibur XM982 Precision Engagement Projectile.
“The infantry can just fight it out or call for artillery,” said Staff Sgt. John Kellam, a Cincinnati native and the position battery gunnery sergeant at Fire Base Saenz. “I’d say 99 percent of the time, we get a call. The most important thing is being able to call for indirect artillery support rather than sending a Marine into a building where they are risking their life…[it’s important because we are] protecting Marines from having to put themselves in situations like that.”
The battery is much like a game-show lifeline—whenever a unit is in a tight spot they just have to pick up the line and phone a friend. The battery is ready to launch rounds downrange whenever a call comes in, whether it is the Excalibur round, a high-explosive round, or just an illumination round.
“We provide a 24 hour-a-day, seven day-a-week security blanket,” said Capt. Richard H. Lee, a Fullerton, Calif., native and the commanding officer for the battery. “We can shoot a projectile accurately within five meters with minimal collateral damage.”
Lee understands how this support element can affect the troops on the ground. He was the artillery liaison and the executive officer for Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment when he deployed to Iraq in 2005.
He said that deployment opened his eyes to the importance of his Marines’ support and said there were several instances where they could have used artillery support .
Though the art of artillery is complex in nature, Lee said the easiest way to explain the support his Marines provide can be summed up in three simple words: eyes, brain, and brawn.
“The eyes are those forward observers or any unit requesting fires. Their fires get transferred to the Fire Direction Center [referred to as the brain]. ” Lee illustrated. “The FDC is where they receive the call for fire and compute the data…the deflection, quadrants, how far left or how far right do they want the howitzer tube to go—once that data is computed it is sent to the gun line, which is the brawn.”
The infantrymen of 2nd Marine Division (Forward) and other coalition forces supporting counterinsurgency operations in the northern portion of the province act as 1/12’s forward observers. Whenever they find themselves in an undesirable position they can call, relay coordinates, and wait for impact.
The Marines who receive the call for assistance work in the FDC.
Lee mentioned their mission is to provide the requesting unit with timely and accurate fires-- exactly what the Marines of the FDC aim for. The FDC can go from silence to utter chaos in a matter of seconds.
Two fire direction controlmen sit side by side at a table rapidly punching numbers being yelled at them. They yell back the exact information they receive for absolute verification. They push send as Staff Sgt. Joe A. Palacios, the operations chief for the battery and a Corpus Christi, Texas native, peers over their shoulder to triple check work.
Palacios scrambles like a quarterback in the fourth quarter of the championship game, checking, rechecking the data, and verbally relaying it to the gun line over a radio. Palacios knows if one number is off or the powder charge is relayed wrong, the very Marines they are supporting could be put in harms way. Palacios may move like the championship is on the line, but he said this is not a game because Marines lives are at stake.
“Eight-five percent of the missions we shoot are danger close,” said the Texas A&M graduate. “Danger close is anything less than 600 meters from friendly forces.”
Palacios added that is just six football fields and they have shot missions where the projectiles have landed on target less than 200 meters away from friendly forces. One miscalculation and the round fired could have landed right on top of the very people who need the help.
“Perfection is demanded,” Palacios exclaimed, as he slammed his index finger on the table to drive home his point. “We are going to get perfection to the gun line. Every round means something to me because someone needs it.”
The Marines on the gun line are made aware of the upcoming mission and quickly gear up in their personal protective equipment as they receive the data required to set their M777 A2 Howitzer on target. The gun chief, who is in charge of all personnel on each howitzer, screams “FIRE MISSION,” and his Marines echo each command back to him to verify the mission they are being directed.
Numbers are once again yelled back and forth as the Marines ready the howitzer, projectiles, and the powder charges. The command “FIRE WHEN READY,” vibrates from the field radio and two Marines pick up an Excalibur round and heave it into the loading tray. Two field artillery cannon crewmen follow immediately after, holding a six and a half-foot long ramming rod, plunging the round into the tube. The powder charge is loaded as soon as the round is in place and the breach is slammed shut, signifying the howitzer is ready to rain the end of days upon whoever is at the receiving end.
“STAND BY” … “FIRE!,” screams the gun chief and the dirt kicks up from the ground and smoke jets from the front of the 9,000-pound cannon.
Lee mentioned in a nut shell the guys normally noticed in an artillery battery are the guys shifting, loading, and firing the guns. He added their mission could not be accomplished without his Marines behind the scenes in the sections like the chow hall, motor transportation, and communications.
“We are mobile so we can pick up our guns and move closer if we have too. We have the assets to do that [because of our] motor transportation section,” said Lee. “Our communications section allows us to talk to the units that need to be talked to.”
Lee added artillery is mostly digital now and the communications Marines play a large role in ensuring the communications gear is up and running so the FDC is able to relay data to the gun line quickly.
Lee said the expectation he has for all of his Marines for this deployment was simply no more than that of their mission statement, “to provide accurate fires any day and every day.” He added, his Marines have not only met the mark, but have surpassed his expectations while still keeping in mind they are only half way through their deployment.
“I would say they are well above the mark. We’ve been accurate every single mission we’ve fired and the Marines have busted their butts since they’ve been here,” said Lee. “Keep in mind it is a marathon, not a sprint. We still have half a deployment to go, but at the pace they are going right now –they have exceeded my expectations.”
Kellam, who is in charge of overseeing all sections of the battery on the fire base, shares the same feeling as his commanding officer.
“I always tell the Marines to stick to the basics and do not try to approach issues at an accelerated standard,” said Kellam. “As soon as they got out here, they knew they were going to come out strong and stick to it. Every time I think the Marines are at a peak, they surprise ... just when I think they can’t get any better, they prove me wrong, which is exactly what I want them to do.”
The Marines of Alpha Battery know if they fall below the mark it can be detrimental. Marines’ and civilian lives are at stake and they grasp tightly to the fact if there is one miscalculation their rounds can be off target.
“It will only take one mistake to put a black eye on our face, so the expectation is to come out and work as hard as you can, do the best you can, and provide accurate fires 100 percent of the time,” said Lee.
Fortunately, there have been no mishaps and they have been able to successfully complete nearly 90 fire missions, including Excalibur and illumination missions with just three months in country.
Alpha Battery replaced Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, which was responsible for the area of operations during the winter months and shot 60 Excalibur missions during their entire deployment.
Alpha Battery has surpassed that number in the past weeks and is more than willing to bombard enemy positions with the tenacity of the thundering gods of ancient mythology.
“They have been aggressive since day one. We treat every mission we get as if it is the first mission we’ve fired—the adrenaline running, the anxiety level of that first mission … it is the same for everyone.” Lee explained. “I don’t think [the Marines] are happy with where they are. They always want to improve and I think they are going to finish the next half of this deployment very strong.”
Lee’s Marines are stepping up to the gun line and sending rounds down range, but this of course does not come without a challenge. He mentioned the challenges they’ve met do not directly pertain to providing cover fire, but rather, challenges that affect assets external to the mission, yet still extremely necessary to make all sections of the battery work together.
"A lot of the challenges that we deal with are really nothing artillery related,” said Lee, who is a graduate of the University of Southern California.“Granted, there may be some issues with the howitzers, but we can usually fix those pretty fast with our artillery mechanic. The issues are power with generators. We don’t have generator mechanics, so if we have any generator issues we have to request it from [our higher command] to come down to fix.”
Marines with the motor transport section as well as those with a mechanical background have taken charge to overcome these challenges. They work on the generators and other assets to ensure the mission is not gravely impacted by unexpected mechanical failure during their remaining time in Afghanistan.
Alpha Battery has less than four months left on their deployment but Lee believes his Marines will be plenty busy until they transfer their responsibilities to the unit replacing them.
“We’re very busy. We are firing more than any other position in the battalion,” said Lee. “It is going to be a full ride until we leave”
Lee feels as if this deployment is an once-in-a-lifetime for him as a commanding officer.
“It is every artillery officer’s dream to lead a battery into combat. It is an honor to be here,” said Lee. “This is the highlight of my career—to be amongst these Marines in combat and to be leading them. There is nothing I would rather be doing.”
Editor’s note: Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as 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.