RAMADI, Iraq -- The crack of insurgents firing rounds overhead sends him into action to find his target and neutralize it - fast. The Marine assesses multiple enemy targets approximately 400 meters away. He sights in. His finger steadily squeezes the trigger as a single shot jets from his rocket launcher. The explosion rocks the earth as the perfect hit is rewarded by the now silenced enemy – courtesy of the "Rocket man."
“They are calling me ‘Rocket man’ because of all the rockets I’ve fired since we have been here,” said Lance Cpl. Richard M. Mason II, of Medina, Ohio. “It’s an adrenaline rush to be the guy firing the rocket during a firefight.”
Mason has accurately fired 24 rockets in combat and his teammates have dubbed him appropriately.
The 21-year-old assaultman with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment has become a vital asset in the ongoing battle against the insurgency in the capital of Al Anbar province.
“During almost every engagement he has stopped enemy fire by destroying insurgents held up in a building,” said 1st Lt. Carlos M. Goetz, 2nd platoon commander. “Without hesitation he has exposed himself to enemy fire numerous times in order to execute my intent and help his fellow Marines.
“Twenty-four is an awesome feat. He has become very proficient at his job,” said Goetz, 29, from Miami, Fla.
Mason decided to follow his grandfather’s footsteps by joining the Marine Corps in October of 2003. So far during his enlistment, he traveled with 3rd Bn., 8th Marines to the Caribbean in 2004 and participated in Operation Secure Tomorrow in Haiti. He battled the insurgency in Fallujah in 2005 and now, on his second tour to Iraq, he is helping to improve the security conditions in Ramadi.
His weapon is a portable anti-armor rocket launcher known as the shoulder-launched multi-purpose assault weapon or SMAW. When fully loaded, this 30-pound weapon can destroy bunkers and other fortifications during assault operations. It even has the capability to bring down battle tanks.
In 2004, Mason attended the School of Infantry after graduating boot camp. This is where he learned to become efficient with his favorite weapon system. The mixture of class room instruction and live fire proved to be the perfect recipe for Mason’s growing skill.
“My instructor had the same last name as me and he was always pushing me to be better,” said Mason. “On SMAW ranges I took everything very serious as if I were in combat.”
While the SMAW system is effectively equipped with a technologically-advanced optical device and 9 mm spotting rifle, Mason prefers the old-school method when aiming in on his targets, even in the dark.
“I prefer the iron sights. I don’t use a scope or the spotter,” said Mason. “In this type of environment you don’t always have time to use those things.”
One night during an attack on the Government Center, mortar teams launched illumination rounds to give Mason enough light to see his target. However, the objective was not the only thing the flare illuminated; it also exposed Mason’s position on the roof. Insurgents spotted him and rounds came flying his way. That night he fired four rockets in heavy contact to repel the attack.
“It’s not difficult to fire. It’s the loud explosion going off right next to you that’s hard to deal with,” he said. “People anticipate the recoil but there is none and as far as the explosion you just have to learn to deal with it.”
In another situation, K Company Marines at the Government Center began exchanging machinegun fire with insurgents May 2. The insurgents managed to burrow themselves inside a well fortified building which made it harder for the Marines to eliminate the threat. Mason was ordered to fire a rocket at the building from the rooftop. He scrambled to the rooftop again exposing himself to incoming fire, his teammates laid down suppressive fire and he launched a rocket at the building.
“His quick reactions possibly saved the lives of his fellow Marines. You only get one opportunity to shoot it,” said Goetz. “It leaves a big signature, so you need to be on target.”
Cpl. Jeremiah A. Hendricks, an operations clerk for the battalion, met Mason during their deployment in Haiti.
“I’m impressed by what he’s done. It motivates me to know his skills are being used well in battle,” said Hendricks, 23, from Atlanta, Ga. “It takes a lot of courage to be exposed to enemy fire so many times.”
Hendricks is one of many of Mason’s fellow comrades who say he is an outstanding Marine and asset to the platoon.
“He displays a lot of maturity and is always willing to do the job,” said Goetz. “He’s an advantage to our platoon and the Marine Corps benefits from having him in their ranks.”
“It makes me feel good when they specifically call for my name over the radio when they need to send a rocket down range,” said Mason. “I feel like a real asset.”