GARMSIR DISTRICT, HELMAND PROVINCE,, AFGHANISTAN
GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan — Another clearing operation means another chance to pinpoint a different perspective on deployment through the eyes Marines with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Over the past five months I have neglected a key person involved in transporting personnel and equipment around the battlefield — the turret gunner. They are the pair of legs that I share inside of a truck with whenever I go on a mounted patrol. These Marines get the style of a convertible, minus a windshield, air conditioning and comfortable leather seats.
During a recent clearing operation in northern Garmsir, I spent my time with the turret gunner, experiencing what he goes through on a daily basis. The turret has its perks, but is widely known as the worst seat on a mounted patrol.
A Marine uses his first couple days in the turret getting acclimated to his new environment, constantly watching the passing Afghan panorama for suspicious or dangerous activity.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Lance Cpl. Matthew Wise, a turret gunner with Jump Platoon, 1/3 and a native of Magnolin, Ark. “I remember getting really nervous the first couple of times, especially being in the front turret on the convoy because you’re the first set of eyes. You just have to stay vigilante because you’re responsible for the security of the four other guys in the truck.”
I quickly learned that being dirty is very much part of the job. Dust constantly fumigates whoever stands in the turret and no matter how long the trip, you can always count on having a thick layer caked on the exposed parts of your face.
“Usually the last gunner has it the worst,” Wise said. “He looks like a sand person from star wars when he comes down from the gun. But you learn to deal with, clean up and just keep rolling. It definitely sucks though.”
A seat strap runs across the opening of the turret so the gunner can sit down, however the rugged Afghan terrain prohibits almost any sense of relaxation while in the turret. You constantly have to brace for bumps and potholes, both of which can be a couple feet deep.
“The terrain here is pretty bad,” Wise said. “Sometimes you see the potholes and you get to brace for it, sometimes you don’t and you get beat up. It’s inevitable that you’re going to hit your ribs on the gun from a bump. But you just have to keep going.”
Although a turret gunner is in a truck with four other Marines, they can feel isolated. To say anything to the Marines inside the truck, the gunner must compete with noise from the engine and wind.
The isolated position in the turret does have its advantages. A marine in the turret can see much more of the Afghan terrain than those inside the vehicle, who have a one-foot by one-foot, tinted window to look through.
A deployment in Afghanistan as a turret gunner provides a much different experience than Marines who patrol on foot. Although you don’t walk as much as Marines patrolling on foot, your legs ache from constant unbalance caused by rugged terrain. When you pass a squad of Marines, it’s hard not to wish you down there on solid ground.
Life in the turret is also much more impersonal. Rarely do you get to interact with the local people. You’re stuck, perpetually scanning — ‘up in the gun.’
Bored children, having nothing better to do, often throw rocks at the battalion’s armored vehicles. It must be a game because you rarely seen them smile as much as they do when they throw rocks. Who can really blame them? As a child I remember throwing rocks at cows in the pasture behind my house; it’s just one of those things children do. Those not throwing rocks give a thumbs up or shake the shaka, or hang loose, sign.
After the first few weeks up in the gun, the Afghan panorama loses its initial appeal and being a turret gunner becomes more of a normal job.
“Sometimes you get downtime sometimes you don’t,” Wise said. “This year is a change of pace. Sometimes we stay out in the [vehicles] for days at a time.”
As a turret gunner, your primary responsibility is the security of your vehicle and convoy whether on the move or stationary. Although my perspective of operating in the turret is limited, Marines who regularly have that duty stand for more than 10 hours a day. For the regulars, a perpetual grind of sand on teeth and layers of dust on the top half of your body is a daily experience. Work isn’t finished when they pull into base. Weapons must be cleaned, and vehicles must be refueled and refitted with water and food in preparation for the next day.
“Each job has its own challenges,” Wise said. “Last year I didn’t stay at as good as a position as I do this year. And this year I get to see all over the [area of operations] and all the different [patrol bases].”
After spending time with turret gunners, my respect for them has changed from ‘oh, he’s just another guy in the truck,’ to ‘sucks to be that guy.’
I certainly won’t take my relatively comfortable seat in an armored vehicle for granted any longer.
The operation spanned from Sept. 19 to Sept. 24. Marines with Bravo and Hotel Company partnered with Afghan National Army soldiers and the Afghan National Police to clear compounds and roads in the northern part of Garmsir. The partnered forces focused on area bordered by two companies, which can easily become a seam of insurgent activity if neglected.
During the operation more than five suspected insurgents were detained. Although no other significant discoveries were made, the main priority of the operation was to interact with the people in the area. Every night a dinner and shura, attended by the district governor and battalion commander of 1/3, was held.
The battalion will look to continue its partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces in Garmsir. This operation was an opportunity for ANSF to become more confident in their abilities and learn from their Marine counterparts in an effort to transition to autonomous operations.
Editors note: First Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 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 Afghanistan National Security Forces 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 the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.
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This work, Life on a swivel, by Cpl Colby Brown, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.