NOW ZAD, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
When it takes something more than the direct fire of machine guns to drive the enemy back, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, relies on a pair of mortarmen to get the job done.
Corporal Jonathan Roblespaul, a section leader with Alpha Co., and Cpl. Ryan Thayer, a squad leader with 2nd Platoon, Alpha Co., assist in laying down long range mortar fire.
“I wanted to be a machine gunner when I came into the Marine Corps, however, I was ‘volun-told’ to be a mortarman,” said Thayer. “It has worked out well and I love my job now. I have been here since March, and between high-explosive and illumination rounds, my gun alone has fired more than 80 rounds.”
These mortarmen fire two different rounds from their M224 60 mm light weight mortar firing tubes: high-explosive and illumination. Often the illumination is to light up the sky and expose insurgent activity. The high-explosive mortars are designed to impact and obliterate its target.
“What we have seen a lot of out here is that you can take a machine gun, shoot it at the enemy, and they will stay there and even continue firing back. However, when you show them a couple of ‘booms’ that pop up near them, they just stop firing and take off,” said Roblespaul, 21, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “They don’t like the big booms.”
Mortars not only have a farther range than most rifles, but they can also be fired at the enemy over hilltops and mountains. This ability to fire indirectly at long distances gives the mortar a distinct advantage.
“Mortars keep the enemies’ head down,” Roblespaul added. “What our job can do is allow the infantrymen to maneuver safely while suppressing the enemy.”
When the Marines of Alpha Co. need help, their mortarmen are ready.
“We are one of the main assets out here. We can drop the round and get on top of the enemy before anyone else can,” said Thayer, 21, from Bridgewater, Mass. “We can effectively shoot out to that range before any rifleman can get on the ground and get out there.”
According to Marines of Alpha Co., insurgents are known for firing recklessly from long distances, and are rarely accurate. This distance factor creates an opportunity for mortars to step in and lay down support.
Mortarmen fire two ways: stationary and hand-held. While stationary, the firing tube sets firmly on a plate and mortarmen make adjustments where they are. When hand-held, mortarmen have the ability to fire and maneuver while still engaging the enemy.
“Being a mortarman is great,” said Thayer. “Even when we move ‘hand-held’ and we are getting shot at, it is usually from 600 meters or more, so we can still reach out and touch them when others can’t.”
Although mortars help push the enemy out during attacks, they’re good for more than inflicting casualties on the enemy. They also show the enemy that Marines are nearby, watching them.
“We often fire illumination rounds just to show our presence, to let the enemy know that we are still here and have some muscle with us,” Thayer said.
Many times the illumination rounds light the terrain enough to scare off the enemy.
“In Now Zad, we have been getting hit with improvised explosive devices along our resupply routes. Last night an observation post reported seeing some suspicious activity,” Thayer added. “We fired illumination rounds to let them know we see them, and if they want to keep putting IED’s in the ground, we are going to take them out.”