By Army Pfc. J. Princeville Lawrence
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 10, 2009 - Army Pfc. Dustin Clark was manning the night shift when he heard the warning system go off. Clark -- a counter rocket, artillery and mortar, or C-RAM, systems operator -- has watched the skies for indirect fire attacks here for six months. Months had passed with nothing happening. Now, the system was alerting him that someone, somewhere, was firing rockets toward the contingency operating base.
"Now it's time to do my job," he said.
Within seconds, Clark acquired the projectiles and tracked them. After sounding the general alarm for the soldiers throughout the base, he turned to his peers and alerted them to the incoming rounds. This was not a drill.
A Dayton, Ohio native, Clark is a member of Echo Battery, 4th Batallion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, C-RAM, out of Fort Hood, Texas. He and other C-RAM systems operators provide 24-hour coverage against mortars and rockets across the Multinational Division South area of responsibility.
"We man the duties of watching the skies here," said Army Staff Sgt. Queston Newell, 2nd Platoon section sergeant. "The bad guys shoot their weapons at us. We use our equipment to see them shooting at us. And then we tell people they're shooting at us using an alarm." The mission is two-fold, said Newell, of Lubbock, Texas.
"We actually sense that the round is coming," he explained. "We know where it's going to land, and where it came from. Of course, our priority is to protect our soldiers, but the second part is very important: to find the guys who are doing that.
"We're very accurate," he added.
Much of the C-RAM soldiers' day is spent either monitoring against hostile activity or maintaining and calibrating their equipment.
"The maintenance is the biggest part," Newell said. "We have to test speakers pretty regularly. We have to make sure everyone can hear the speakers. We have to maintain our radar equipment [and] make sure it's calibrated correctly."
While the hours may be long, the C-RAM soldiers take their mission to heart, Newell said.
"They know people's lives depend on them. Without them, people would have to wear their full 'battle-rattle' armor all the time," he said. "We allow them to relax a little, enjoy some volleyball and football. This team gives people in Basra peace of mind knowing we're protecting them from [indirect-fire] attacks."
It's this kind of commitment that allowed Clark to make the calls he did the night the rockets came in. After sounding the alarm, he stood by and tracked the projectiles before and after impact.
"We didn't have any injuries that night," Newell noted, "which is a spectacular tribute to both the soldiers here on the ground doing what they've been trained to do during an attack, and a tribute to the soldiers who are manning shift and making sure that the area is protected. If our alarm saves only one life, we have succeeded in our mission." (Army Pfc. J. Princeville Lawrence serves in Multinational Division South.)