CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - He is the first, best defense for convoys blazing a trail through deserts and village streets filled with unseen dangers.
He is also the most exposed.
Cpl. Andrew Salabarria, a Staten Island, N.Y., native and turret gunner with Combat Logistics Regiment 2, Regional Command (Southwest), lives moment to moment as lead gunner on convoys through Helmand province, Afghanistan.
“It’s a bumpy ride,” said Salabarria, after returning from a two-day mission. “I enjoy it. You’re exposed, but you see how the Afghans live on a first hand basis. It’s more personal.”
Salabarria’s elevated position in front provides him with a 360-degree view of the convoy’s route through sunbaked deserts and Afghan villages.
“Being up front is a new experience,” said Salabarria. “You have to be a lot more vigilant in what you’re looking out for. Usually, if you’re not the [navigation vehicle], your just looking for those possible insurgents … Up front you have to look for literally everything.”
Salabarria helps guide the driver through broken passes and inaccessible culverts that abound in Afghanistan. Every jolt of the vehicle rattles him between the armored walls of his turret.
It is a lonely position. Isolated and exposed, he stands for hours beneath an unforgiving sun and gusts of sand … constantly scanning.
“Everything is a possible threat,” Salabarria said. “To me it’s a position of power almost. You have that weapons system up there and you can engage it at your discretion if see a threat.”
It takes constant vigilance to protect the line of Marines behind him – his friends.
“You have to have that tactical patience,” he said. “You have to know when to shoot and when not to shoot or what to call up and what not to call up because the [area] has changed so much.”
Salabarria, who also deployed to Afghanistan last year, said the area and the Afghan people have changed since his last tour.
So have the Marines, who share the road with bustling traffic. Afghan drivers slide their motorcycles, trucks and tractors in line with vast formations of armored vehicles moving up and down the province’s thoroughfares.
It falls to Salabarria to communicate with local drivers while his vehicle pioneers a route to supply Helmand’s coalition of forward operating bases.
“It brings me a good feeling knowing that we’re getting their supplies safely to them and making sure the convoy is safe at the end state,” he said.
Salabarria keeps a positive outlook on his position. He is up front, exactly where he said he wants to be.