1st FSSG reservists train to clear minefields

4 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Joel A. Chaverri

The sun is high and beating down on a focused Marine as he moves across the desert as carefully as possible. Sweat trickles down his face and back as he tries his best to remain calm.

Each cautious step is as nerve racking as the last, as the sun-drenched leatherneck advances forward, hoping that he has scanned the area sufficiently, since the lives of his fellow Marines may hang in the balance.

Scanning for mines isn't the safest job, but it's a necessary one because improvised explosive devices and mines have been responsible for numerous deaths during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Marine reservists from Peoria, Ill., have been called to active duty to serve with Combat Service Support Battalion 7, 1st Force Service Support Group, and conducted training here with an upgraded metal detector Sep. 4.

The combat engineers participating in the training are responsible for constructing and repairing military structures and facilities. As a result, they need to be able to scan possible mine-polluted areas and clear the vicinity of anything that could hinder construction progress.

The new AN/PSS-14 metal detector has all of the features of the previous model, but also includes ground-penetrating radar to find mines deep underground.

"(I feel) it's important that (all my students) learn how to use this new detector," said course instructor Cpl. Josh B. Blankenship, combat engineer, CSSB-7. "It's a complicated machine and requires a lot of hands-on experience."

The Marine Corps recently added the new detector to its arsenal, so Marines throughout the Corps are studying up for new tests.

"It's a weeklong class with a written portion on the first day," explained Blankenship, a 22-year-old native of Springfield, Ill. "The written test must be passed before the student can go through the rest of the training."

Each Marine going through the training has to clear multiple lanes with simulated mines placed in random locations and depths by the instructors.

"Each lane is different, and they get increasingly harder as you go through the course."

"There are about 20 to 30 mines per lane," he continued. "The student uses the radar detector to find the mine, and then places a marker where he thinks the center is.

In order to pass, the Marine has to find every mine in the lane. If he fails, he is allowed one remediation session before having to take the entire course again.

Having strict rules and regulations for the instructing and testing of the Marines ensures that they are truly prepared to perform a service that leaves virtually no room for error.

"The course may seem harsh," Blankenship said, "but this is real life out here, and the standards are much higher."

"It's a dangerous job, but it's got to be done," said instructor Lance Cpl. Jason J. Gibbs, combat engineer, CSSB-7, 1st FSSG.

A native of Quincy, Ill., Gibbs served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and helped clear mines for bases being built in Iraq. Now, the 22-year-old is teaching other Marines how to operate the new detector.

"There's no one who doesn't get a little nervous and scared when out there clearing a minefield," said Gibbs, "but if you take your time and do it right then you'll be ok."