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Marine artillery unit serves as infantry in Iraq

FORT WORTH -- Lance Cpl. Danny Studdard is an artilleryman by trade and training.

But it's been 18 months since he's worked with 155 mm howitzers, and by his own admission, he might not be any good at putting steel on target anymore.


By Chris Vaughn
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

"I've totally forgotten it," said Studdard, 23, an Irving man who serves in the headquarters battery of the 14th Marines in Fort Worth. "It's a skill you've got to work at a lot, and I haven't."

Not that Studdard hasn't been serving. Quite the opposite. He was mobilized for active duty last May and sent to a Sunni-dominated province in Iraq for a seven-month tour of duty -- as an infantryman and truck driver.

Across the 14th Marines, one of the Marine Corps Reserve's largest units nationwide, artillerymen, supply sergeants and personnel clerks have taken on new combat roles in Iraq that have little to nothing to do with their previous specialized training.

The reasons for the shift are simple enough -- the Marines need considerably more truck drivers, infantrymen and military police than they need howitzers. Also, the Corps is steeped in a philosophy that every Marine is first and foremost a rifleman.

It's likely, though, that the changes are more than a temporary response to the stress Iraq has put on the military's smallest branch. Already the Corps and its reserve force are making the changes permanent.

"For a major land campaign that involved maneuver over broad areas, you would want to have as much artillery as we once had," said Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, who as the Marine Reserve's top commander helped shape the changes before his retirement last year.

"But right now, the fight we're engaged in and the one we see in front of us is one that has lower requirements for artillery. So you make some adjustments."

The 14th Marines is home to the Reserve's entire artillery arsenal, at one time five battalions and dozens of batteries strung from California to Pennsylvania.

The regimental headquarters has been at Naval Air Station Fort Worth since 1998, and the headquarters of 2nd Battalion has called Fort Worth or Grand Prairie home since the 1960s.

Last year, though, the regiment began shrinking. The 4th Battalion switched from artillery to light infantry specializing in anti-terrorism security, and 1st Battalion is scheduled to make a transition into reconnaissance when it returns from Iraq.

Nothing similar is feared by the 2nd Battalion, based at the old Naval Air Station Dallas.

"My entire battalion is transitioning to the artillery rocket system," said Maj. Stanton Chambers, executive officer of 2nd Battalion and a Dallas police officer. "We're getting one of the new showpieces of the Marine Corps. I have no concern that we're going to move out of artillery."

Since 2003, the reservists in the North Texas units have been regularly deploying to Iraq at a pace that will tap the regiment of available units and manpower in spring 2007.

"Approximately one battalion of Marines has been used every seven months for a deployment," Col. Paul O'Leary, regimental commander, wrote to the Star-Telegram. "However, based on current regulations we will have used all of our reserve forces and will not be able to use them again unless there was another presidential callup."

Because the artillery units use 5- and 7-ton trucks to haul the guns, they were a natural to haul infantry and supplies in Iraq, according to O'Leary and McCarthy. Most of the Marines in the unit have the certification to drive the trucks.

They receive a few weeks of training in California and then are attached to active-duty infantry battalions for the trip to Iraq.

After arriving in Iraq in July, Studdard and four other local Marines were assigned as drivers for Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, based in cities near Fallujah.

But in reality, "I was a grunt with a license," Studdard joked. "We went on raids, weapons cache sweeps, patrols; we lived in the holes we dug."

Like the vehicles of many of the other Marines from Fort Worth, his vehicle was hit by a homemade bomb. In his case, it did little damage. But in others attacks men in the Fort Worth unit were badly injured.

"The first month we were there was rough," said Sgt. Danny Garcia, a supply sergeant from Fort Worth. "We took five casualties within an eight-day period. We thought it was going to be a long tour."

O'Leary, who is at Marine Corps headquarters in Virginia planning the future makeup of the Corps, wrote that while his Marines aren't working with artillery, they're "gaining great combat skills and small-unit leadership experience. I am confident that when they return, with available training time, they can transition back to being artillerymen again."