Lance Cpl. Mitchell Brady (left), a scout with C Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and a native of Galesburg, Ill., relaxes in the shade of his light armored vehicle in southern Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 18, after a four-day raid against an insurgent stronghold on the Pakistan border. LAR Marines typically spend weeks and months away from bases, out in open country, making their vehicles a sort of mobile home during deployments. Photo by Sgt. Jeremy Ross.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE PAYNE, Afghanistan (April 4, 2011) — At first glance, the back of the light armored vehicle designated as the casualty evacuation vehicle for C Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, is nothing more than a mobile trauma bay on eight wheels. Stretchers sit stacked to one side of the already cramped 6-foot by 7-foot cargo area. Emergency medical supplies are crammed into bags hanging from almost every surface.
There is more here, though – a hot water heater peeks out from behind a bag of combat gauze. A weightlifting kettlebell sits in front of a set of expeditionary tent poles. An assortment of freeze-dried meals poke out of a pack next to rifle cleaning gear. These and other comfort items are here because this closet-sized space is a home of sorts for Petty Officer 3rd Class Alex Averill and the rest of the vehicle’s four-man crew.
“It’s small, but it’s what we’ve got,” said Averill, 23, the senior medic for C Company, 3rd LAR Bn., and a native of Citrus Heights, Calif.
Since arriving in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province in November, 3rd LAR Marines have been doing what LAR Marines do best – rove the open landscape for weeks or months at a time, living out of their vehicles.
One of the few constant comforts in the deployed lives of 3rd LAR’s companies is their vehicles, and the Marines take advantage of any nooks and crannies not taken up by ammo, radios and other gear to create a mix that is part mobile firepower, part mobile home.
“People call us the desert gypsies,” said 1st Sgt. Justin Owens, 37, C Company first sergeant and a Garland, Texas, native.
The LAVs’ maneuverability and rugged suspension make them ideal candidates for interdicting insurgent narcotics and weapons smuggling in the rocky, rolling desert south of the Helmand river valley. It’s a mission the battalion has been pursuing across its 5,500-square mile battle space throughout its deployment.
LAR units are based around four to seven vehicle platoons of LAVs, most of which are manned by two-man crews and contain a section of four to six infantry scouts. The vehicles themselves are stout, eight-wheeled and most boast a 25mm cannon. To Marines they are affectionately known as “pigs”.
“It’s like that Black Sabbath song, ‘War Pigs’,” said Owens. “They’re dirty, they’re nasty, but they’re capable of a lot of destruction.”
Staff Sgt. Garrette Guidry, 29, C Company maintenance chief and a native of Lake Arthur, La., has a different take on the nickname.
“They call them pigs because they’re always dirty as a bunch of pigs,” he reasoned. “We come back (from the field) looking like a bunch of little piggies.”
LAR companies are meant to be independent operators, with the ability to self sustain for weeks, or with occasional fuel and rations resupply, months. The wandering nature of their mission means that the Marines of C Company and other parts of the battalion have spent significant time away from the relative comfort of a forward operating base. That means weeks with no showers, no dining facility and very little contact with home.
While the vehicles’ range means longer trips outside the wire, there is invariably a little extra space for comfort items to make this rugged lifestyle a little less so.
“It’s your home, so you can arrange it how you want,” said Averill, adding the caveat that tactical considerations come first. “I’ve got a lot of personal stuff in here, but obviously my medical supplies are going to take precedence.”
Averill’s most prized possession in his LAV is a fast-heating camp stove, he said.
“There’s nothing better at the end of a long day than a hot meal,” he explained.
Guidry takes that line of thinking to a different level. He makes use of the extra space in his vehicle to carry pots, pans and his family’s secret blend of Cajun seasoning. His uncle owns and operates a Cajun restaurant named “Guidry’s” in Deerport, Texas, and Guidry hopes to open an offshoot after the Marine Corps.
“It’s definitely a morale booster and a camaraderie builder,” he said of his cooking, which typically includes dishes made of soup broth, summer sausage, rice, noodles and other non-perishable, shelf stable items. “Everybody seems to like it.”
When the Marines of C Company aren’t tucking in at the end of a day of interdictions, they’re usually trying to find a way to work out. There are no membership gyms in southern Afghanistan, and fitness is important to the Marines, said Owens.
This leads to some creative thinking. The Marines do pull-ups on suspended tow bars or off the edge of their vehicles. Some crews sacrifice personal space for small sets of weights. Other exercises require no extra equipment.
“In the last month of the deployment you’ll see a lot of people doing sit-ups,” Owens said with a chuckle.
Ultimately, it’s not the niceties that can be squeezed into LAVs that make being with LAR an enjoyable experience, but rather the other Marines and sailors riding in them, said Averill.
“I’ve become brothers with these guys,” he said of the Marines he serves with. “I’ve lived with them, played with them and deployed with them. Pretty much every aspect of my life for the last couple of years has revolved around 3rd LAR.
“I just hope all this doesn’t spoil my love of camping.”
C Company and other elements of 3rd LAR have plenty more open-air lifestyle ahead of them; the battalion raided the insurgent trafficking hub at Bahram Chah on the Pakistan border, March 14-17, and is currently poised to step up its interdiction campaign in the wake of the attack.