By 1st Lt. Daniel JohnsonJuly 21, 2016
WASHINGTON -- In Iraq, the Kara Soar Base feels like a different world; only a few hours away lies the modern city of Erbil with sky rises and brand name car dealerships. Yet here in the farmland of northern Iraq in the searing heat, battles can be seen raging near the Tigris River through the thick dust smoke and missiles can be heard launching nearby as smoke clouds on the horizon confirm a successful strike.
It's a world U.S. Soldiers face daily in support of the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve mission.
Through the heat of the day and into the night, Soldiers from Battery C, 1st Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, support the multinational effort to increase the military capacity of Iraqi security forces personnel to defeat the Islamic State group. As they wait on fire missions at night, the other-worldly effect is more distinct, when a boom, a whiz and a yellow streak of light races across the sky.
Soldiers from the artillery battery conduct their missions from the gun pits on the gun line where their M777 artillery pieces stand ready to fire.
"I feel like we're here doing what we're supposed to be doing," said Staff Sgt. Carlos Mont, crew chief of section five, gun three, battery C. "We're doing our job. This is the heart and soul of where the enemy is, and we're doing damage to them every day."
Soldiers must be ready for action at a moment's notice in case of a fire mission. In an environment where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and conditions are muggy even during sundown, this is a challenge. Each night Soldiers on the gun line sleep in full kit, which includes protective body armor weighing about 30 pounds; a ballistic helmet that is always kept within arm's reach; and ear protection.
They also must conduct crew drills to ensure readiness. Artillery crews understand the lethality of their mission and approach crew drills with focused determination; the simplest mistake can cost them their guns, targets, or even their lives. As the team executes a proper crew drill, the process resembles a dance team performing an act. There are no wasted movements and conversations are kept short and to the point. These drills are an essential part of the success of their mission.
"We've been here almost a month now and within the first week we were already providing supporting fires," said Mont.
The Soldiers' team quickly springs into action. They quickly don their helmets as they sprint toward the gun line. Mont prides himself on having one of the fastest gun teams in the battery. He barks orders to the Soldiers on his gun, a three-man team, as they move in a synchronized war dance.
Once the Soldiers finish loading the M777 howitzer, Mont raises his hand in the air and swiftly brings it down, yelling, "FIRE!"
The ground shudders as the explosion sounds, the reverberation appearing to shake the body armor of the Soldiers on the team; the overpressure from the gun knocking the breath out of anyone standing nearby. This is the first of many rounds they'll fire today.
Each member on a team has a role, from loading the round, to making the calculations, to pulling the string that fires the weapon. "I've done every position on that gun." said Mont. "As a chief, I verify everything done is done safely and correctly. I verify the ammo, propellant, fuse, and shell, making sure everything is done accurately."
As the men continue firing, there is a cheeriness apparent on their features. They are 7,000 miles away from home living in austere conditions with limited communication with the outside world, and it appears that this repetitive act of firing their weapon is what makes them happy.
Mont, 28, is on his third deployment. As crew chief Mont is the most experienced Soldier in the section on the M777 weapon system. He is responsible for the safety of his crew as they fire their gun. The weight of his responsibility is evident on his features and in his movements. This is also his first deployment away from his children.
"It was different deploying when it was just me and my wife," said Mont, sitting on an ammo box, his face thoughtful. "Now having kids, it was pretty hard leaving them."
Mont's section is fairly fresh-faced; only one of his Soldiers has a previous deployment. They all look to Mont for leadership and guidance.
"Naturally they were asking me, 'Chief, how are things going to be out there?'" Mont said. "I told them, 'Honestly, I've never been to Iraq, so I can't tell you about where we're going and what to expect."
Using his previous experiences in Afghanistan, Mont prepared his Soldiers for the conditions they would most likely be operating in the best he could.
Mont is proud of the work he and his men are doing supporting the fight against the Islamic State group.
Pfc. Tristan Trammel, 19, was driven to join the military after hearing online about the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group. He is the youngest member in the section. Most people his age worry about college, summer vacation, or their status on social media. Trammel's main focus is when he gets to fire his next round.
"I was originally wanting to go to the Air Force," said Trammel as he looked at the berm in front of his gun, the sweat beaming from his brow. "I saw the videos ISIS was posting of their executions and it pissed me off. It made me want to do something a little more combat orientated."
Trammel's current position has fulfilled his wish. Almost every day he fires in support of the Iraqi security forces. The young Soldier is happy that he is helping to save people like those he saw get hurt in the online videos he watched as a civilian.
"I'm fulfilling the purpose I had when I joined," he said.. "I won't say I enjoy this, but I understand it. At the end of the day, I know I get to do my job."