Rules of engagement mean Marines see victory in holding fire

February 7, 2010 12:19

By John Vandiver, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Sunday, February 7, 2010


Sgt. Jefferson Haney is a rarity, and his fellow Marines look at him with just a little bit of envy.

The artilleryman with the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment is one of few who have done what they spent countless hours training for: firing his howitzer at the enemy.

“Two rounds on an enemy bunker,” recalled Haney as he stood near the firing line at Fiddler’s Green, a combat outpost in Helmand province.

“The bunker was destroyed.”

With new and more stringent rules of engagement imposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an effort to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan and to win over the population, the men who fire the cannons are finding it harder and harder to get their shot at the enemy. As a result, artillerymen now find themselves in the awkward position of having insurgents within range, but being forced to stand down when calls for help come in from Marines under fire in the field.

“It’s frustrating when you get Marines out there calling for fire and that request gets denied,” said Gunnery Sgt. Jason Reynolds of 3-10’s India Battery.

Cpl. Ernest Brown, an artillery section chief, added, “It plays with your emotions when you know there are Marines out there taking fire and there’s nothing you can do.”

For Marine artillerymen, it’s tough to balance the desire to defend their comrades in the field with counterinsurgency objectives and rules of engagement that sometimes require letting the enemy escape.

Now, as more Marines arrive in Helmand province as part of an effort to reverse the gains insurgents have made in recent years, the artilleryman could soon get a chance to fire. But more than likely, Marines say they will continue to lend support in different ways: firing illumination rounds in the night and walking in the boots of their infantrymen counterparts.

“As a young Marine it was harder, but now I understand it,” Sgt. Brian Northcutt said as he led a group of Marines on a recent patrol in central Helmand province. Though he’s never fired a cannon in combat, Northcutt has conducted countless patrols during his deployments, during which he’s talked with locals and tried to build good will.

“I understand now that firing artillery isn’t the way you win this kind of war,” Northcutt said.

But taking on the roles of infantrymen also means taking on greater risk. Since 3-10 deployed late last year, the battalion lost one Marine to a roadside bomb. In December, the unit’s sergeant major lost both of his legs during a foot patrol when he stepped on a pressure-plate bomb. And there have been numerous cases in which Marines have suffered concussions during vehicle patrols, according to the unit’s commanding officer.

“We’ve paid a pretty stiff price in that (infantry) mission,” said Lt. Col. Todd Finley.

The unit recently saw its role reduced with the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, which took over several of the 3-10’s patrol bases near the insurgent-heavy city of Marjeh. Some Marines are holding out hope that they’ll get some of that territory back once their infantry counterparts make their push into Marjeh, one of the last major Taliban strongholds in Helmand.

“There was probably some frustration or disappointment for some of the Marines, but in the bigger scheme I think the Marines understand the real reason why we came here was to provide supporting fires,” Finley said.

First Lt. Courtney Boston, executive officer for 3-10’s India Battery, said his Marines have accepted their new roles, but still crave the chance to fire.

“Marines love to do what they’re trained to do. If the stars align, we’ll shoot and we’ll be good at it,” said Boston. “At the same time, there is a greater objective. Sometimes shooting may be detrimental. It’s actually a victory if we’re not shooting.”

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