Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fire in my hole

A brief description of post 81mm mortar live-fire training activities...

Upon declaring the range cold, several things begin to happen. Unused rounds are noted, made safe, collected and counted. An expended round count is done between the ammunition tech and the gun team leaders. Any discrepancies in rounds is brought to the attention of the Section Leaders and the Platoon Sergeant. There really isn't too much concern with someone sneaking off with an actual 81mm mortar round in their back pocket, due to size and weight, but the formality is there for a reason (ahem, Murphy's Law, anyone?). There are a plethora of other details, but for the purposes of this entry, I will focus on rounds and charges.

A mortar round, as fired from the M252 81mm or the M224 60mm mortar, looks like one would imagine a small bomb to look like. Towards the rear of the round, just above the tail-fin assembly, is where the charges for the mortar are located. Upon removing the round from the container, and in preparation for use, the set number of charges are left on the round for propellant, or removed for closer range firing. Charges removed throughout the course of the day are counted, saved, counted, notated, counted again, guarded against inappropriate use, counted again, and at the end of the day or upon order, are counted one last time before being destroyed.

The charges that we use are intended to throw a mortar round 5000+ meters to reach out and touch someone, pretty powerful stuff. A Marine could get into a lot of trouble messing around with them. The OCD repetitive counting does a couple of things. It lets everyone know that messing around with surplus charges is NOT going to fly anywhere, and in the event that most mortar impacts are in the vicinity of the target, with one hit 500 meters past the target, well, somebody is going to get a talking too, in addition to donning the goofy looking coon-skin cap that announces to the platoon who was the last successful post-operative brain donor to piss off the Gunny.

Usually while everything else is winding up for the day or training session, the Platoon Sergeant will direct the Section Leaders or gun-team leaders to dispose of the extra charges. This would entail charges being separated into several small piles. A few charges would then be broken open to pour out the black granules over each small pile, in order to ensure a complete burn. Just like in the cartoons, you would make a small trail leading from each pile to give the Marine burning the pile a little breathing room. After sounding off with "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!", the Marine would then light the powder trail, take several steps back, and avert their eyes. Everyone on the firing line would like-wise turn their heads, literally to avoid causing eye damage. One particular evening, both of the Section Leaders were busy, so they told a few of their trusted gun-team leaders to gather up and dispose of the extra charges.

They dutifully went to each mortar position, gathered up the charge counts and the charges, double checked their numbers with the ammo tech, and then traipsed up a nearby hill. In the interest of expediency, they decided to create one large pile, quite large as a result of the number of days and rounds fired. They piled all the charges in a massive mound, broke open a good 10 to 15 charges to spread over the pile and to make an extra large burn trail. They then realized that no one on the hill had a lighter on their person. This was where I came into the picture. Knowing that I usually had at least one of just about everything on my body, to include the ability to make fire, they called me up to the hill. After a quick set of instructions (I was a PFC at the time and had never burned the extra charges before), I knelt at the edge of the trail to start the burn.

Readying my zippo, I craned my head back in the vicinity of the firing line, down at the bottom of the hill. "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!", I roared. I lit the tip of the trail and....nada. The powder burned well enough, but fizzled out after a few inches. Must have been a gap in the powder or a damp patch of earth. Ignoring the rapidly growing peanut gallery commenting on my ability to complete a simple task, and inquiring if I needed help in other tasks, like talking to my lady friends, I took a few steps closer to the pile and tried again.

"FIRE IN THE HOLE...er...AGAIN!!!"...same result. A few snickers from the gathered gun-team leaders on the hill accompanied the witty commentary from the gun line. Sheesh.

The peanut gallery was quickly getting out of control.

Dammit, this pile was going to burn even if I had to pour some fuel on it, drop trou and fart through the zippo's flames. I took a few fateful steps forward.

"FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!", I yelled. "Eat me, Pfc!", somebody from down the hill responded.

This time the flame took. Holy hell, did it take! Unfortunately, as I was now about a foot away from somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 billion extra charges, I had roughly .5 seconds to realize the fact before flames shot up 12 feet in the air, singing my eyebrows and toasting my juevos.

The air was filled with uproarious laughter and comments not usually heard from a junior Marine in the company higher ranking Marines.

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