AL ASAD, Iraq -- Setting out into the darkening deserts surrounding Al Asad June 13, the Marines with Diamondback 3 conducted a mounted combat patrol, observing the neighboring areas surrounding the base.
These hardened warriors with 1st Platoon, E Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, Marine Wing Support Group 37 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, stopped at a series of checkpoints at random locations in the desert to keep a keen eye out for any perceived threats from unexploded ordnance or suspicious looking personnel.
"Basically, we gather intelligence," said Sgt. Martin D. Contreras, patrol leader, Diamondback 3. "We are the eyes for the base. If we see anyone doing anything suspicious, we go talk to them, and if they try anything crazy, we detain them. We also talk to the local nationals and see if they know of any activities going on outside."
Sweeping through some of the less explored areas surrounding the base, the mounted combat patrols often times stumble upon unexploded ordnance.
"We find [unexploded ordnance] an average of once per week," said Contreras, a 23-year-old Bryan, Texas, native. "Out of our three teams, one of them will find something that ranges between 155 mm artillery rounds and 57 mm anti-aircraft rounds. We've also found a few landmines."
Although they've seen the surrounding areas numerous times and are fairly used to the places and the people, the mounted combat patrol Marines keep an acute alertness each time they leave the base.
"We go out every day and only have so much area to cover," said Cpl. Justin H. Woods, machine gunner, Diamondback 3. "It looks really big the first time you go out, but after you've driven over it a dozen or so times, it starts to get smaller. You have to remain alert and not dismiss things that are out of the ordinary. You have to maintain your situational awareness."
According to Contreras, keeping a watchful eye on the surrounding areas can get a little difficult, as they view a lot of the same places on a daily basis.
"As far as the sectors surrounding Al Asad, they are pretty safe sectors," said Contreras, a Bryan High School graduate. "Other than hand and arm signals, we've never had to escalate force, and most of the personnel in the surrounding areas are pretty friendly. We do stay alert all of the time. We have to take that extra step to stay on our toes out there."
The mounted combat patrol teams still run into challenges to overcome during patrols even with their keen awareness.
"The biggest challenge is communicating with some of the local nationals," said Contreras. "Interpreters do not go with us every time we go out, so that is a challenge. There's not enough of them to go around for every day."
While their main focus is pushing Al Asad's security beyond the fences of the base, they also provide necessities to the local nationals when they pass through their villages.
"A lot of times we stop and talk to people," said Contreras. "We try to help them out by any means. We provide them with water, chow, medical attention and fuel. We give the kids toys and candy. Just putting smiles on people's faces is one of the good things about what we do."
Visiting and caring for the Iraqis and their kids reinforces the Marines' pride, as they see the extent of the good they are doing out here.
"You get to hear first hand how they feel about us, instead of hearing it on the news from a different source," said Woods, a 26-year-old native of Crestview, Fla. "We do a really important part in keeping this sector of the Al Anbar province secure for the Iraqi people who have lived in this area for decades and decades."
According to Contreras, the mounted combat patrols are a requirement to ensure that security is held beyond the perimeters of the base.
"Just by patrolling the area, it lets the Iraqi people know we are here and are controlling the area," he said. "Instead of just having that level of security inside the base, it helps to keep it out there, as well."
As the majority of the Marines with Diamondback 3 were with Marine Air Control Squadron 1 controlling air traffic, monitoring radars and using radios before this deployment, the transition to grunt-type jobs while in the combat environment has been smooth.
"It's pretty amazing to take a group of Marines from a control squadron like this and have them do this mounted combat patrol platoon and have everyone work as proficiently as we do," concluded Woods, a Crestview High School graduate. "You can't do that with any other service."