“How a Marine Artillery Battery Beat ISIS”
March 2016- The Marine artillery battery did not shower for a month. They slept in the dirt every night. They had no expectations for a hot meal or cold drink. From the beginning of their insert into northern Iraq, they took enemy fire from rockets and a combined arms attack. For their part, the Marines fired back with a steady barrage of artillery rounds. In fact, there was only one 24 hour period in which the artillery guns were silent. Through the long, hot days and austere conditions, the Marines of Echo Battery, Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/6, maintained a high level of esprit de corps, discipline, and resolve. Their mission was simple: Hit the enemy, ISIS, with artillery fire to set the conditions for the recapture of Mosul in northern Iraq.
By the time the Marines inserted into northern Iraq in between the friendly Kurdish controlled town of Erbil and the enemy ISIS controlled town of Mosul, the battle against ISIS was still in doubt. By March 2016, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with the support of a U.S. backed coalition were able to wrest control of Anbar province to include the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. But ISIS forces still controlled large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria. Foreign fighters were flocking from all parts of the globe to fight and maintain territorial control of what ISIS had claimed as an Islamic Caliphate.
In late 2015, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) was forward deployed as a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) in the Central Command (CENTCOM) Area of Responsibility (AOR). The MEU had conventional Marine forces. This included an artillery battery from 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines out of Camp Lejeune, NC. The battery was part of BLT 2/6. A Joint Task Force out of Erbil, Iraq needed artillery to support Iraqi Security Forces. With no Army units available, the Marines got the call.
Echo Battery, 2/10
The Marines of Echo Battery come from all parts of America. The Commanding Officer was Captain Dave Palka (now Lieutenant Colonel). Palka was raised in West Chester County, NY mostly in Yonkers. His father was a Union Iron Worker and his mother cleaned houses. He played sports and studied at a trade and technical school. After high school, he attended Kent State University in Ohio. Like many members of his generation, the 9/11 attacks motivated him to be a Marine and defend his country.
The other leaders of Battery E included First Sergeant Allen Smith, First Lieutenant Matt Ford, and the Battery Gunny, Gunnery Sergeant Scott Cook. Prior to deploying on the MEU, Echo Battery conducted training from the Carolina Coast and the waters off shore to the woods of Fort Pickett, Virginia. They sought to make the training tough and realistic. When I spoke with Palka, he explained, “We are going to do things that suck. We are going to do them often and we are going to do them together.” The tough training instilled disciplined habits of thought and action. Additionally, the training bred high levels of trust, cohesion, and love. While technical weapons proficiency is important, these intangible qualities would be the foundation of the unit’s success.
We are going to do things that suck. We are going to do them often and we are going to do them together. – Lt. Col. Dave Palka (USMC)
Practical Lessons for Unit Leaders
“PT was like church.” Palka’s Marines conducted physical fitness (PT) on a regular basis. They did it together too. Furthermore, they continued to do it on deployment. Palka believes in a link between physical fitness and mental toughness. As a result, maintaining physical strength was a high priority.
During training, Echo Battery did not use a fire watch. Instead they practiced setting in security at night. Furthermore, they would use opposing forces (OPFOR) to probe the security in the middle of the night. According to Palka, this helped develop a combat mindset. It set the tone for the unit that they were going to train how they would fight.
As mentioned, discipline was a crucial part of the unit’s success. This included gear and uniforms. By being disciplined in training with the way they wore their uniforms and took care of their gear, they were able to smoothly transition these skills into combat in Iraq. Palka mentions that their planning was very detailed down to the individual sleeping positions. As a result, by focusing on the little details in training and garrison, Echo Battery transferred these practices into combat.
Planning and Preparation
The six troop leading steps that complement the Marine Corps planning process is referred to as BAMCIS. The first part is “begin planning.” The plans came from a feasibility of support (FOS) request from a Combined Joint Task Force in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). Echo Battery inserted into Kuwait to begin planning and preparation.
The “A” and “M” are arrange reconnaissance and make reconnaissance. The Marines conducted a pre-deployment site survey (PDSS) out of Erbil, Iraq. In the process, they determined good locations to set up firing positions. The Marines completed the planning. Palka issued the order to the battery on a large terrain model in Kuwait. As for the “S”, the supervision came in the form of rehearsals. Marines rehearsed simple things like getting on and off the helicopters.
Fire Base Bell Established
Fire Base Bell is named after Staff Sergeant Vincent J. Bell, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011. Echo Battery Marines took pride in the name. The name engendered a sense of honor and legacy. The artillery Marines were reinforced with engineers and infantry Marines and a Q-53 Radar Section from the U.S. Army. Together, they were Task Force Spartan. The infantry Marines from Echo Company, 2/6 served as Task Force Spartan’s Security Force, responsible for providing perimeter security, and the overall defense of the fire base. The engineers constructed the eight foot berms surrounding the fire base, survivability positions, ammunition holding areas, and a detailed obstacle network in support of the fire base’s defense. The Q-53 radar section enhanced the battery’s organic radar capabilities and contributed greatly to an effective counterfire capability.
On March 13, 2016, an advanced party inserted and set conditions for the main body to arrive. However, it took less than 24 hours for the enemy to begin firing at them. Enemy fire from Katyusha rockets would remain a persistent part of life for the Marines. Nevertheless, by March 18, the entire unit was in place to include four M777A2 Howitzers. The Marines successfully established a “FIRECAP” with a pre-planned 32 round fire mission. With the guns in place, the Marines continued to dig and improve their position. A key tenet of life in the field is to always be improving defensive positions and establishing priorities of work. Task Force Spartan was no exception. The Marines filled thousands of sandbags.
The Marines knew the risks and prepared for them. Part of combat is accepting risk and danger. War is
violent and chaotic. On March 19, ISIS launched 122mm Katyusha rockets. One of the rocket hits impacted Gun One and caused a mass casualty event. Among the Marines that were hit on the gun, the Howitzer Section Chief, Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin succumbed to his wounds and passed. He was 27 years old. Palka explained that the loss of SSgt Cardin was tough for the unit. He was a great Marine leader and a great man. SSgt Cardin put his Marines first and set the example in all his actions. R.I.P. SSgt Louis Frederick Cardin.
After the casualties were treated and evacuated, there was a need for the Marines to “get back on the gun.” In the ensuing days, the Marines would return to the spot where the rocket impacted and continue to fire rounds to defeat the enemy. Palka and leaders at every level throughout Task Force Spartan would set the tone for the mindset and attitude of the Marines. They allowed a time to reflect and pray. However, ultimately, the Marines had a mission to accomplish. Furthermore, the Marines were hungry to fight back. And fight they did, firing over 2,000 155mm artillery rounds over the course of 67 days.
Attack at Night
On the night of March 21, 2016, a squad sized element attacked Fire Base Bell. The enemy attacked with a combination of rifles, machine guns, grenades, and improvised explosive vests. The battle lasted two hours. During this time, the infantry Marines on perimeter security were able to repel the attack and kill four enemy fighters. Palka explained that the enemy were from different nationalities that included Chechens and Chinese. Additionally, the artillery Fire Direction Center (FDC) was able to manually compute firing data and fire illumination rounds that helped the infantry Marines defeat the enemy attack. There were no Marine casualties during the attack.
Life at the Fire Base
Over time the enemy attacks lightened. Palka says that one of the reasons is that an enemy leader, who
had critical indirect fires knowledge, was killed in a drone strike. The Marines continued to pummel the enemy with artillery rounds on a daily basis. While initial counterfire approval missions took 15 minutes, they eventually got to under two minutes. As a result, the Marines gained confidence with each fire mission.
While operating out of Fire Base Bell, the Marines continually wore their full personal protective equipment (PPE). Additionally, Marines learned how to manage the tempo of operations. At the outset, leaders struggled with getting enough sleep. But, with more experience, they learned to balance sleep schedules and look after each other’s rest. Palka explains that “self-care” is important for a leader to stay mentally fit in combat.
The Marines took pride in their hard living in the field. Palka said that one of the things that drew him to a combat arms profession like artillery was going to the field. Living in the dirt is a hallmark of the Marine Corps sense of toughness and fortitude. Task Force Spartan Marines relished this reputation.
Artillery Marines Setting New Milestones
Task Force Spartan achieved new milestones for the artillery community. First, they successfully employed a United States Army TPQ-53 Radar System and the AN/TPQ-50 LCMR system. The significance of the TPQ-53 Radar System is that it allowed Fire Base Bell to serve as a Target Processing Center (TPC). As a result, they were able to track enemy fires and quickly employ their own fires to degrade the enemy’s ability to operate on the battlefield.
Task Force Spartan also employed Precision Guidance Kit (PGK) fuzes. This was a historic milestone as the first Marine Corps artillery unit to fire these fuzes in combat. In the process, they were able to destroy an enemy controlled building, which killed two ISIS fighters. They also destroyed a vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).
One of the most remarkable achievements is the fact that not one of the four artillery cannons went down over 67 days. This is a testament to the unit’s proficiency. They continued to be combat capable through diligent maintenance and care for weapons and equipment.
Overall, the Marines ability to dominate the battlefield with artillery established the conditions for the re-taking of Mosul, which Iraqi Security Forces were able to do by July 20, 2017. The fire and fury that the Marines launched from the tubes of their artillery cannons set the tone for the battle that would ultimately lead to the end of ISIS’s territorial claims in Iraq and Syria.
“It felt strange,” Palka said. One day they were in the middle of nowhere in northern Iraq, and the next day they were out. The Marines went from being hyper vigilant to being safe. The focus turned to preparing to go home. Oddly enough, when the Marines extracted from Fire Base Bell, the MEU was no longer in theater. Their ride (i.e. the USS Arlington and USS Oak Hill) had sailed away.
Nevertheless, the Marines were back in Kuwait where they conducted classes and training to return from deployment. Additionally, Palka took his officers out for PT. He sought to create a positive environment where the Marines could process what happened, talk about how they were feeling, and be honest with each other. It is worth noting that the Marines in this unit are undoubtedly tough and resilient. However, Palka recognizes that they are still human too. And as humans, they need to deal with very real human emotions. This is a testament to Palka’s exceptional leadership.
Five Years Later
Many of the Marines are out of the service. Several others like Palka have been promoted and stayed in. The unit has set up weekly Zoom calls where Marines can check in with one another and share what is going on in their lives. This is particularly important for some of the Marines that are struggling with life after the Marine Corps. Additionally, Echo Battery has instituted F.R.O.S.T. (Fast Response on Short Transmission) calls every six months. These calls are designed as a way to quickly check in with everyone that was in the unit.
Palka has struggled with telling this story only because he is very humble. However, he recognizes that this story must be told. This is a crucial piece of Marine Corps history. It is especially important to remember the legacy of Marines like SSgt Cardin.
There are other critical lessons from Echo Battery’s 67 days in Iraq. First, many artillery Marines might not have thought that they were going to employ artillery in a conventional manner. Who can blame them? So much of the last two decades of war has been dedicated to counter-insurgency (COIN). It is important to remember that the strategic and operational landscape can change quickly. One day the Marines are on ship and the next day they are in the middle of Iraq firing hundreds of artillery rounds each day. The story of Echo Battery is a call for Marines everywhere to take their jobs seriously and realize that all of the training and preparation exists for a reason.
How did the Marines beat the hell out of ISIS?
First, there is no substitute for great leadership. Palka received the Bronze Star with Valor and the Leftwich Trophy, and other Marines in Task Force Spartan were awarded for their valor. The Leftwich Trophy is a leadership award given to Captains. Second, tough and realistic training ensures units will be successful. As General Norman
Schwarzkopf once said, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” Third, discipline matters. There is no excuse for leaders not to ruthlessly enforce habits of thought and habits of action. Leaders must instill a combat mindset in their units. Fourth, unit cohesion is crucial. As Palka explained, unit cohesion is born of enduring hardship as a unit. Finally, Palka and his Marines were extremely proficient and knew their weapons systems and their capabilities. They were technically savvy and experts in their field.
In conclusion, the combination of strong leadership, technical expertise, brilliance in the basics, and esprit de corps is an unstoppable recipe for success. Once the Marines got the greenlight, the enemy never had a chance.
Echo Battery Preparation for Deployment Video
Echo Battery Deployment Video
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Business Insider article on Echo Battery, 2/10