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Cpl. Chris Campbell, 21, is a driver of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle. The tracked vehicles are easy enough to drive, he said, and his favorite part is taking sharp turns to jostle the passengers.

Cpl. Chris Campbell, 21, is a driver of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle. The tracked vehicles are easy enough to drive, he said, and his favorite part is taking sharp turns to jostle the passengers. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Cpl. Chris Campbell, 21, is a driver of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle. The tracked vehicles are easy enough to drive, he said, and his favorite part is taking sharp turns to jostle the passengers.

Cpl. Chris Campbell, 21, is a driver of an Amphibious Assault Vehicle. The tracked vehicles are easy enough to drive, he said, and his favorite part is taking sharp turns to jostle the passengers. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Marines with Company B, 2nd AA Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., patrol Main Service Road Michigan, a road running through Baghdad and Fallujah, on Monday along with Marines from 5th Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment.

Marines with Company B, 2nd AA Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., patrol Main Service Road Michigan, a road running through Baghdad and Fallujah, on Monday along with Marines from 5th Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Lance Cpl. Rocky Archer, 20, an Amphibious Assault Vehicle mechanic, leans back and smokes a cigarette that he lit using the extremely hot engine to his right.

Lance Cpl. Rocky Archer, 20, an Amphibious Assault Vehicle mechanic, leans back and smokes a cigarette that he lit using the extremely hot engine to his right. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Slattery, left, looks over a road map of his area of responsibility — the 25 miles of Main Service Road Michigan — and discusses where Marines might set up vehicle checkpoints and observation posts along the way with track commander Sgt. Frank Drake (not shown), and Cpl. Chris Campbell, right, the driver of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle.

Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Slattery, left, looks over a road map of his area of responsibility — the 25 miles of Main Service Road Michigan — and discusses where Marines might set up vehicle checkpoints and observation posts along the way with track commander Sgt. Frank Drake (not shown), and Cpl. Chris Campbell, right, the driver of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

Slattery marks the crater left earlier by a roadside explosion on Main Service Road Michigan with red spray paint, which not only marks the location, but lets Marines monitor the hole to see if anyone tampers with it or tries to hide another explosive. Insurgents frequently plant roadside bombs on the road.

Slattery marks the crater left earlier by a roadside explosion on Main Service Road Michigan with red spray paint, which not only marks the location, but lets Marines monitor the hole to see if anyone tampers with it or tries to hide another explosive. Insurgents frequently plant roadside bombs on the road. (Sandra Jontz / S&S)

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq — Gunnery Sgt. Brendan Slattery knows just about every crater, pothole and pile of trash along Main Service Road Michigan — all 25 miles of the part he patrols over and over.

“It’s about memorizing the road,” said the leader of 5th Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion 8th Marine Regiment.

The platoon routinely runs nine-hour missions that entail driving up and down the road a dozen times or more in an amphibious assault vehicle, or AAVs, scouting for anything that looks out of the ordinary.

“If you notice something new, it stands out,” he said.

And anything that stands out is dangerous. Insurgents have left roadside bombs in plastic bags, in cinder blocks, in dead dogs. Vehicles feigning mechanical problems have been car bombs.

Noticing them all is not easy.

“Most of it is just instinct,” said the 31-year-old Marine from Marshfield, Mass. “You have to think like them. If you see a bag on the road, you think ‘Yeah, I’d use that [to plant an explosive],’” he said.

He is aided by the watchful eyes of the track commander, Sgt. Frank Drake, and the driver, Cpl. Chris Campbell, who both also have memorized the roadway.

Drake, 25, stands for the duration of the eight-, 10-, sometimes 12-hour missions.

“You get used to it, I suppose, but it makes for a long day,” said Drake, with Bravo Company, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion.

The armored vehicles vibrate so much it seems enough to shake the teeth right out of your head, he said. Feet ache from the jostling, not to mention sore backs and rear ends. Blowing sand and exhaust fumes burn the eyes, nose and throat. His nose drips the entire mission, since he sits right next to the exhaust pipe.

The noise is deafening, and leaves your ears ringing for hours afterward, even with the use of earplugs. The engine burns so hot, vehicle mechanic Lance Cpl. Rocky Archer, 20, uses it to light his cigarettes.

It’s a grueling, miserable way to spend eight, 10, 12 hours a day. But they do it. Every day.

Every so often, the AAVs stop and Marines hop out to set up observation posts, vehicle checkpoints or walk a stretch of the highway to clear debris that could disguise roadside bombs.

Pfc. Sean Anderson, 21, never lets his eyes stop roving during an observation post, he said.

“I’m looking for anything that moves, and speed usually is the key to catching my eye,” he said. “You have to not focus on one area, but be constantly looking around.”

Lance Cpl. Bruce McVay, 19, watched the road.

“I’m watching to see if anyone stops and drops anything off on the side of the road. But we’re also here making a presence so they [the insurgents] know we’re here.”

Twice, Archer has seen a dead dog, veiling a bomb, blow up.

“When the first one blew up, that’s when it hit me,” he said. “We’re not fighting an army. We’re fighting bombs.”


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