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Marine tank unit crucial to stabilization of Iraq

Marine Corps News

Story Identification #: 20051278261
Story by Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

AN NAJAF PROVINCE, Iraq (Jan. 27, 2005) -- In the middle of this barren Iraqi desert, the deafening sounds of cannon fire from an M-1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank punches through the air in a momentary fiery blast.

Clambering out from inside the belly of his tank, Cpl. Matthew R. Hendges lights up a cigarette as he watches, and listens, as three other tanks fire their cannons at far-off targets in this Iraqi wasteland.

Today, the Marines are refining their tanker skills – roaming around the desert, lobbing 120 mm rounds thousands of yards at targets – old 7-ton trucks and Humvees, which are now more recognizable as piles of scrap metal than vehicles after being hammered by the Marines’ constant firepower.

Hendges, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., is part of the 29 Palms, Calif.-based 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Tank Battalion, and which is currently attached to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).

The 11th MEU (SOC) has spent the last seven months in Iraq helping the fledgling interim Iraqi government stabilize the war-torn country.

“I didn’t come here to get in any history books, I came here to do what I’m supposed to do – help people out,” said Hendges, a task he feels the Marines have achieved, especially since routing out insurgents from the holy city of An Najaf and later in Fallujah.

In August, the Marine tankers participated in a three-week combat operation to oust the militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sader. In November, they were called upon to support combat operations in Fallujah.

During fighting in both cities, 3rd Platoon fired hundreds of 120 mm rounds at enemy positions, served as cover for Marine infantrymen, and more than once found themselves under hours of heavy enemy fire.

Miraculously, the platoon suffered only one casualty - 1st Lt. Russell L. Thomas, the platoon’s commander, was shot in the arm in An Najaf.

“Someone was watching over us,” said Hendges, who recalled days when he and the rest of the platoon spent hours inside the 67-ton war machines as they took enemy rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire.

Now, after two major combat operations and months of patrolling and security operations, the Marines will see the culmination of their efforts by week’s end when Iraqis cast their ballots in the country’s first democratic elections.

“We’ve made a hell of a difference here,” said Hendges, leaning against his tank, which the Marines have dubbed “Veritas” – latin for “truth.”

“When we got to Najaf, no one would come outside, everyone was afraid,” he continued. “Now, we see kids going to school and playing soccer. They’re not afraid of us anymore, finally.”

As Hendges extinguishes his cigarette, the ‘boom’ of another tank round rumbles through the air, followed by the sharp ‘twangs’ of 50-caliber machine gun fire from atop the tanks. Once a month, the tankers come out to this open area of desert west of An Najaf to keep their tanker skills sharp, according to Thomas.

In the battle of An Najaf, the tanks took the lead on numerous assaults into the city, moving ahead of the infantry to draw out the enemy’s fire, thus identifying enemy locations. This tactic exposed the tanks to numerous rifle, RPG and mortar attacks.

“It was pretty scary,” admits Staff Sgt. James L. Eagleman, a tall, slender Native-American from the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota. “But, we’re all alive, we all made it through.”

Eagleman, a 33-year-old and 11-year Marine Corps veteran, is one of several tank mechanics who, during combat operations in Iraq, left the protection of the platoon’s 67-ton armored recovery vehicles to repair and recover other vehicles.

For today’s firing exercise, the mechanics stayed up until midnight to ensure the tanks were fully operational. Five hours later, they were back in their coveralls and on the tanks again, tools littered on the tank’s outer armor as they put finishing touches on their work.

During the height of combat operations, they worked 24-hour shifts to quickly repair the battle-damaged tanks for another round of fighting.

The tanks proved to be an invaluable asset for Marine forces routing out Sadr’s milita in An Najaf, said Lt. Col. Bart S. Sloat, commanding officer for 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 11th MEU’s infantry element and lead ground force during the battle at An Najaf.

“You can feel a tank coming down the street, you can feel the street rumbling,” said Sloat, 46. “In An Najaf, that’s what caused a lot of them (insurgents) to pull back.”

In August, average temperatures rose to 130 degrees. Closed inside their tanks’ iron bellies, the Marines were often exposed to nearly 150-degree temperatures. After hours inside the tanks, the Marines fought dehydration as well as enemy insurgents.

“If you put yourself inside an oven, it might compare (to the heat),” said Hendges.

To counteract dehydration and the exhaustion of battle, the Marines were cycled out of combat and back to their headquarters base, where they slept for a few hours and were hydrated intravenously.

“Doc would hook ‘em up with IV’s, and then they’d crash for a few hours, and they went right back out there. It was amazing,” said Cpl. Andrew J. Keegan, a 22-year-old New Yorker, who, as the platoon’s communications technician, “makes sure everyone can talk.”

For Cpl. Scott A. Twente, a 22-year-old, mustached Marine tanker who speaks with a slight Texan draw, the heat proved to be to much at one point. A combination of high temperatures inside a tank, along with a douse of “Dragon’s breath” – a term the Marines use to describe the smoke left inside the tank’s cockpit after firing the main cannon, caused Twente to pass out.

Choking on smoke and unable to breath, Twente opened the tank’s top hatch to catch a breath, but also exposed himself to enemy fire.

“I thought, ‘I’m either going to die in here (tank), or outside,’” said Twente, who begins to engage in conversation about his tank’s battle scars – the result of a constant barrage of enemy fire.

“This tank used to be called ‘Malice,’” admits Twente, a Floresville, Texas, native who joined the Marine Corps three and a half years ago to “stay out of trouble.”

Squatting atop the tank, he points to a welded piece of Veritas’ main cannon – “I had to rename it (tank) after this happened,” he said, pointing to where the tank was hit and pierced by an enemy RPG.

Now, Veritas’ wound has been replaced by a welded scar of metal from the Marines’ repairs.

The platoon’s other tanks, now treading around the desert to obtain new firing positions for the live fire exercise – bear similar scars from past battles in Iraq: holes pepper the side of one tank, the result of an enemy improvised explosive device. Others bear off-colored, out-of-place panels – replacement armor added after sustaining damage from enemy rockets.

“They’re temperamental, and they’re high maintenance, but they prove their worth in combat,” said Eagleman, patting Veritas’ outer armor, a slight grin on his face.

The platoon’s Marines speak of their combat experiences modestly, as if years have passed since they found themselves being pelted by enemy fire, or as though the intense moments of combat they describe are just scenes from old war movies.

But the combat they endured was hardly a movie, and the last time they heard the ‘pings’ of enemy small arms fire and ‘booms’ of enemy mortars slamming into their vehicles was just a few months ago.

“We’re talking about 21-year-old Marines who experienced extreme conditions,” said Thomas, a native of Wilmington, Del. “This is what tankers do. If they had to, they would say, ‘Let’s strap it on and do it again.’”

Since Fallujah combat operations ended nearly two months ago, the platoon have spent their days patrolling in An Najaf and nearby city of Karbala, assisting local Iraqi security forces for the cities of 600,000 as preparations for Iraq’s elections continue.

After two major combat operations in Iraq and nearly nine months deployed, the Marines of 3rd Platoon are eager to get home. Most have wives, girlfriends, fathers, mothers, and other family waiting for their return to the U.S.

But these Marines know they have a final mission to oversee in the middle east before they can back their seabags and leave – to continue providing security, and humanitarian assistance, to the Iraqis who no longer hide in their homes, but instead greet the Marines with friendly smiles and “thank you’s” shouted in broken English.

“Two years ago, they were under the rule of tyranny,” said Keegan. “Now, they can vote. It’s nothing but a good thing.”

In the distance, another ‘boom’ rockets from a tank’s cannon as the Marines lob another round into Iraq’s desert.

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