MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- The prospect of reacting to a bloody ambush with an M-16 that does not fire is not a situation that most Marines would hope to find themselves in. The more advantageous option is to have a firearm that the leatherneck is confident he can use to engage and destroy the enemy.
So in the face of walls of sand, sticky heat and the threat of an enemy attack at any time, the ability to keep the Marines of Marine Aircraft Group-13 supplied with "good-to-go" weapons fell on the shoulders of Sgt. Gamel Ali, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the MAG-13 armory, and the Marines in his charge.
"Our job was to supply and equip the pilots and ground troops of MAG-13 with weapons, equipment and ammunition," said Ali, who added that the armorers were also responsible for distributing night-vision goggles, knives and bayonets, and giving weapons-handling classes to MAG-13 personnel.
Ali and the armorers supported MAG-13's mission from the USS Bonhomme-Richard (LHD-6), USS Bataan (LHD-5) and from bases of operation on land in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. When they arrived in the Persian Gulf, the armorers had to look after the weapons of MAG-14, as well.
The commissioned officers and staff noncommissioned officers carried firearms at all times, Ali said, and the junior Marines and noncommissioned officers carried weapons when they would be assigned to a convoy, so the armorers had to keep busy maintaining the weapons conditions.
"The importance of the armory was to make sure everyone had reliable weapons," Ali said, noting the sense of pride they took in assuring the weapons' functionality. "We were very picky on the quality of the weapons we distributed."
A challenge to keeping the weapons in good condition was the frequency of sandstorms in the area. While it was extremely difficult on land, the armorers said the ships experienced sandstorms, too 12 miles offshore. The approaching sand was like the giant wall of sand seen in movies like "The Mummy," according to Cpl. Richard Sweeny, MAG-13 armory.
Added to the discomfort of the sandstorms for Sweeny was the heat and protective conditions. The air temperature in Kuwait was about 125 degrees, but inside the solid metal box that served as the field armory, the temperatures climbed past 150 degrees. All this while wearing mission oriented protective posture suits gear that the military wears to protect against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks for two weeks at a time.
"When it came time to take the MOPP gear off, you could take off the boot and the sweat just poured out," Sweeny said.
After a four-month deployment, Ali, Sweeny and Cpl. Joshua Price, MAG-13 armorer, are back in Yuma, while three armorers remain either aboard ship or on land in Southwest Asia. Even though they've returned, there is still much to be done, Ali said.
"The biggest challenge now is when the weapons get back here, we'll have to get them ready quick for the units that have to go back out on a (Marine Expeditionary Unit) deployment, and for rifle ranges," Ali said.
The whole time the armorers were gone, they had an important asset remaining in Yuma. Keeping things in order from the rear was Cpl. Dennis Tanner, who kept the armorers supplied while they were deployed.
"From the beginning he's the one who made it all happen," Ali said. "He made sure we had the parts and that we were all on the same sheet of music, as far as accountability."
Though for some the deployment is over, the armorers were an important part of mission operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I was just doing my job. I signed the contract to be a Marine," Price said. "I just did my part."
Even though his words may have been low-key, Ali said he knows Price and Sweeny will recall their experience fondly in years to come.
"They may not want to say it now, but they feel pride at what they've done," Ali said. "They're going to remember this and feel good. They'll see how the Iraqi people are doing better and they'll know they were a part of that."