Artillery gunners making their presence felt in Iraq
Stars and Stripes August 11, 2006
RAMADI, Iraq — In a shadowy, run-and-gun insurgency, where battles are fought with robot planes and roadside bombs, it’s rare for an artilleryman to fire his howitzer in anger.
Rarer still is the artillery gunner who actually gets to fire shells at the guy who just lobbed a mortar round at his gun position.
While most U.S. artillerymen in Iraq have been called on to perform jobs outside their military specialty — essentially swapping their howitzers for Humvees or observation posts — soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment have assumed a key role in a costly, give-no-quarter campaign in Ramadi.
In the first two months of the campaign, the Giessen, Germany-based 2-3FA “gunners” have fired roughly 2,000 artillery rounds — the vast majority of them high-explosive rounds aimed at enemy mortar and rocket teams or known launch sites. Already, the guns have significantly reduced indirect fire attacks on Camp Ramadi and have been singled out for praise by Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the unit leading the campaign.
Alerted to enemy attacks by a web of radar that covers downtown Ramadi and surrounding areas, the gunners scramble to their Paladin self-propelled howitzers and — if all goes right — fire off a 155 mm “bullet” at the launch site while the enemy round is still in the air.
Although the low, roof-rattling boom of the howitzers is enough to silence all chatter in the camp’s bustling dining facility, soldiers say they take heart in the knowledge those rounds are hissing toward insurgent positions somewhere beyond the perimeter.
“When they hear those guns, people know we’re supporting troops in contact or counter-firing for combat outposts in the city,” said Capt. Rodney Crenshaw, Battery C commander.
“I think it’s a morale booster when they hear those guns. They know we’re firing back,” said the 37-year-old from Wetumpka, Ala.
Before June, 2nd Battalion soldiers were stationed in comparatively peaceful northern Iraq, where they performed infantry, Iraqi army training or civil affairs roles. The only rounds they fired then were either for practice or to illuminate the night for Iraqi patrols.
Ramadi is a welcome change of pace, the artillerymen say.
“We just like shooting,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Saxton, 30, of Ramah, N.M. “We just like slinging it back at ’em and doing it fast so that we get somebody.”
For the most part, the gunners are far removed from the attacks that trigger their fire missions. But there are those occasions when the howitzer crews find themselves close to the action.
Recently, Sgt. Trowny Alexis’ section of 2nd Platoon, Battery C was pulling duty at a dusty firing position on the edge of Camp Ramadi.
The howitzer crew was passing time watching a movie in the tiny, air-conditioned hut erected behind their Paladin when a mortar exploded just beyond a berm that surrounds the camp. The round struck roughly 100 yards away, throwing up a plume of black smoke and rocking the plywood hut.
The men braced themselves for a second explosion when their communications radio blared: “Counter fire! Counter fire! Counter fire!”
Usually, the men have no view of the attacks they are responding to and may only learn details days later. This time, however, there was no question in their minds.
“It got personal then,” said Spc. Adam Gulley, 22, of Phoenix, the “No. 1 man” or loader. “It really hits home with you when something lands that close. Also, you’re quite upset.”
On the section’s best days, it takes just seconds for crewmembers to pile out of the hut and scurry into the rear hatchway of their 32-ton gun. This time, though, the men were especially fast.
“It was a lot more of an adrenaline rush,” said Alexis, 25, of Miami. “I think that’s the fastest we ever shot.”
Since the unit arrived in Ramadi, indirect fire attacks on the camp have dropped from about two a week to less than one a week. It was during late June and through July that the artillery men were busiest.
“We think we killed a lot of guys then,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. Joseph Harrington, 41, of Chesskill, N.J.
The insurgents appeared not to expect such a deadly response, he said.
“I think they had gotten a little lackadaisical,” he said.
The effort by artillerymen to combat insurgent mortar and rocket teams — who often operate in open spaces and farmland on the outskirts of Ramadi — coincides with the use of Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and aerial bombs against snipers and other insurgents deep within the Sunni Arab city.
MacFarland, the 1st Brigade commander, said the heavy-guns approach his soldiers used in Ramadi might have been articulated best by 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes when he said, “Be sociable with them that will be sociable and formidable to them that will not.”
However, in some cases, it appeared that it was not just the U.S. military or its partnered Iraqi army units that were dealing harshly with the insurgents.
Harrington said there appear to have been cases where insurgent fire teams were killed not by his artillerymen, but by local Iraqi landowners or farmers who wanted to prevent artillery fire from being directed onto their property.
“They’re angry at these guys for coming onto their property,” Harrington said. “They’re tired of them getting fired at by us.”