Sgt. Eliezer Melendez, 113th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
FORWARD OPERATING SITE ADAZI, Latvia - The roar of the engine shakes the M109 Paladin howitzer as it moves into place on the firing line. There’s a crew of four Soldiers getting ready for fire missions as the crew chief calls out commands and has the team on standby.
"Our mission is to send our rounds quickly and efficiently down range, accomplish the mission and return; that's a big part of being artillery," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Omar Salas, Crew Chief of 2nd Platoon Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 29th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. "We send rounds down range, and when that happens it's easy for our adversaries to tell where we are and react. That's why we're as quick and efficient with our fires as possible."
Suddenly with no warning, he screams, "FIRE MISSION!" The crew echoes the commands. They move in sync without a moment's hesitation; coordinate, order, ammo verification, every movement measured as they load the cannon, all following up to a single command. He raises his arm, looks at his Soldiers, and drops it as he calls out, "FIRE!" The Soldiers pull the line to shoot the Paladin's cannon. The barrage begins one after another like a symphony, the motorized artillery piece shaking as the rounds fire from the cannon creating a cloud of smoke and sand. Then suddenly, the stop command is issued, and the crew erupts in cheers.
With a smile on his face, Salas says, "This is just one part of it, you know, the fires and training for the future, but there's more to it. It's the bond you form with your team; you get to know and trust them, and they become an extended family."
The missions for the day end, and the sun begins to set. Close to 18 hours of sunlight dissipate into meandering twilight as the crew starts to take out their sleeping bags, making space inside the M109 to turn in for the night. One of the things people don't usually see or experience is sleeping inside the vehicle. Salas described the experience, saying it's generally pretty comfortable and gets you off the ground, but when it rains, it drips everywhere. He peeks outside the hatch, looking to the night sky before proclaiming it won't rain. Stating they got a 6 a.m. wake-up, Salas calls out, "let's get some sleep; we got a long day tomorrow."
The crew sends some messages on their phones and sets alarms to wake up in the morning. They look exhausted but ready to continue and excited to be on the range.
"We get to fire live rounds this week, so it's a good change of pace," said U.S. Army Sgt. Cole Griffee, also assigned to the 2nd Platoon, one of the Soldiers assigned to Salas.
The inside of a Paladin offers respite; the space is small, but they all turn in for the night away from the sand that would sap their heat during this cold evening.
The sun comes in from the east around 4 a.m., and they wake up to its bright greeting before getting ready for the day and making their way to the chow line.
The call of "all Specialists and below, get in line for chow" greets everyone as the Soldiers get their meals and make it to the viewing point. The range and vehicles are waiting in the sand. Looking over the range, they talk, laughing about their experiences, both past, and present, while eating the meals and snacks they brought with them. During this time, all the crew chiefs, master gunners, and platoon sergeants, affectionately referred to as Smokes, gather for the instruction for the day, and once concluded, each one calls to their respective team to board their Paladins, as another day in the life of artillery is just beginning.