Three Tennessee Tech University students and three alumni, all Marine Reserves with Delta Co. 4th CEB out of Knoxville, braved the threats of Southern Fallujah and the desert to make history, and more importantly, save lives.
Students Cpl. Brandon Geesling, Lance Cpl. Peter Gabriel and Lance Cpl. Bryan Wilson along with graduates Cpl. Andy Ledbetter, Cpl. Jamie Greenwood and Gunnery Sgt. Doug Rines, spent March until September in a platoon of about 40 reserves assigned to provide demolition support to the Third Battalion, 4th Marines, an active duty infantry battalion from California. Their story has been told in military circles, but only they realized how special it was to share their military experience with each other, comrades with a common bond through the university.
"When we were getting ready to deploy, I was making sure all the students had properly notified their universities," said Gunnery Sgt. Rines, a 1993 I.T. graduate who coaches baseball at Morristown East High School. "That's when I discovered how many of us were connected to Tech. I started entertaining them with stories about how fortunate they are that there's more to do in town than when I was a student."
The levity turned to seriousness when the six arrived in Fallujah as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"When the infantry went into a home, we blew the doors open," said Rines. "We also spent a lot of time locating land mines and IEDs (improvised exploding devices). We uncovered more than 40 IEDs throughout the city of Fallujah during our seven-month tour, plus numerous small weapons caches. The big cache was uncovered in late April."
Lance Cpl. Peter Gabriel credits the platoon's preparedness and dedication in making the historic find.
"We are trained to use two types of mine detectors," said Gabriel. "We combed huge areas of desert during a week-long Operation Southern Advance, and we started to notice a pattern for where some of the weapons were buried. But at times we just strained away, continuing to comb the vast desert."
The payoff came when a berm yielded 40,000 pounds in different type of artillery rounds, explosives, and vital insurgent intelligence.
"This find saved a lot of American lives and Iraqi soldiers' lives," said Rines. "Not only did we confiscate the weapons and artillery, the intelligence helped locate other insurgents and caches."
The platoon searched the area about 18 miles south of Fallujah for an entire week, covering 20 acres and disabling an IED factory found inside a home.
"These men did a fabulous job, thought on their feet and were empowered to make decisions to keep their platoon safe and to carry out operations," said Rines.
"This was a tremendous amount of responsibility, especially for the students, who don't usually have to make decisions of this gravity," he said. "They controlled a lot of what happened and did it well. There are men that graduate and work many years in their fields who never have the responsibility that these students had during our tour. These young men truly learned responsibility and multi-tasking."
Gabriel, Geesling and Wilson plan to return to Tennessee Tech in the spring. Gabriel, who is just a sophomore, says he is even trying to recruit three others in the platoon to transfer to Tech.
"We all are proud to be TTU students and just thought it would make our school proud to know about this platoon of combat engineers led by a Tech alumnus," said Gabriel.