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COMBAT OUTPOST RAWAH, Iraq — Marine Cpl. James Johnson trained long and hard to do what artillerymen love to do — fire their guns in a real war and catch enemy troops and vehicles in a hail of sudden death.

But like so many other artillerymen serving in Iraq, Johnson finds himself in a conflict that is about as far as one can get from the traditional artillery role. He’s a 155 mm howitzer gunner with 2nd Platoon, Battery R, 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, part of Task Force Highlander.

A conflict that began with a 2003 invasion involving big-scale air, land and sea forces has morphed into a cat-and-mouse counterinsurgency.

Not only artillery, but other combat arms as well — armor, infantry, among others — find themselves in a scaled-down role that bears scant resemblance to past conflicts.

“I went to school to shoot artillery,” Johnson, 23, of Grand Island, Neb., said Thursday. “I have been training for the last two years to shoot artillery … kill the insurgents, pretty much.”

Cpl. James Little, 23, of Philadelphia is a howitzer section chief in the same platoon, and he too has shared Johnson’s frustration at artillery’s limited role in Iraq.

“Quite honestly, I wanted to be the one shooting … and inflicting damage, doing our job.”

Instead, say platoon members, the chances to fire “HE,” or high explosive rounds, are few. A real-world fire mission is more likely to entail firing illumination rounds to aid night patrols or signal the insurgents that coalition combat power still has the potential to strike them.

“It goes without saying, it’s more fun to be blowing things up and killing [insurgents] downrange than to be shooting little candles in the sky,” said Little.

Nevertheless, say Marines, their frustration is tempered partly by the belief that all their missions help the overall military purpose.

“It’s easy to get irritated about what we’re doing here, because we’re just firing illum and doing training missions,” said Little. “But it’s really important …”

The artillerymen got a boost in June, when Task Force Highlander officials decided to allow them to pull security duties at one of the outlying traffic control points. The post is one of those that controls traffic in and out of Rawah, a city on the Euphrates River.

The platoon now sends a portion of its artillerymen to that checkpoint, gear and all, for a month at a time.

Before then, apart from artillery duties, they pulled routine guard duty around the combat outpost, a duty they know is important, yet one that carries little prestige in their warrior culture. The platoon continues to draw guard duty.

But at the outlying post, they stand watch at the patrol base, keeping an eye out for possible insurgent movements in their sector. They also run mounted and dismounted patrols. The patrols give them a chance to interact with the local populace, something they find a refreshing change of pace.

The task has brought a huge lift to the artillerymen’s spirits, said the 2nd Platoon commander, 1st Lt. John Huenefeld, 26.

Since then, he said, “the second most asked question besides ‘Sir, when are we shootin’?’ has been, “Sir, when are we going out to the TCP [traffic checkpoint]?’ They’re eager,” he said.

“We’d all like to just get out there and get in the action,” said Johnson.

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