Follow the leader

Someone always has to go first.
In Afghanistan, the Marine who goes first is the point man. He is the first to jump across a canal, enter a farm field and tread ground that is potentially laced with improvised explosive devices.
“Our squad’s area has good security,” said Lance Cpl. Tyler Wilson, a point man with 3rd Squad, 4th Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. “Knowing that there hasn’t been very much IED activity in our area is a good feeling. But when you come across something you need to check out or looks like an IED, it’s definitely an ‘oh shit’ situation.”
The few responsibilities of a point man are of high importance.
His first responsibility is sweeping the patrol route for IEDs. Like a metronome, the point man’s arm sways back and forth with a combat metal detector attached. The constant, weighted motion causes most point men to build more muscle in their sweeping arm.
“During the first couple of weeks my arm was numb from sweeping everyday,” said Wilson. “But you get used to that pretty quickly.”
There is a certain tone that every Marine dreads. It alerts the CMD user to a metallic presence in his immediate vicinity. Unlike the metal detector of an old man at the beach searching for loose change, this sound means danger is likely buried nearby.
“You have to make sure you know how to operate the metal detector,” Wilson added. “There is a beep that means metal is below you and another beep that means the batteries are about to die. You need to know how to get a good sweep, every time.”
The point man’s second task is to find a route. During the first weeks in Afghanistan, a point man must study his area of operation and make mental notes of natural landmarks.
As his deployment progresses, the point man will become more comfortable with his surroundings and more knowledgeable on every piece of his AO. When his squad leader holds a patrol brief, the point man will eventually no longer need a map. Carrying a global positioning device for backup, the point man sets the pace and route to the villages his squad will visit on a given patrol.
“You have to know your area and be just as knowledgeable about your area as the squad leader,” Wilson said. “My squad has a pretty big area, but the squad leader could give me a place to go and I would know how to get there, anywhere in the area of operation.”
The task of finding a safe patrol route is complicated by insurgent IED operations. A point man must think like an insurgent, remaining cognizant of IEDs placed at choke points in trails or regularly trafficked areas.
While the point man may be in front of the patrol, in the back of his mind lingers the worry of missing an IED.
“Always knowing that there’s a possibility that I could miss an IED and be hit by it stays in my head,” Wilson said.
The variety of IEDs found in southern Helmand makes catching everything laid by insurgent forces a nearly impossible task. Despite this reality, point men still hold themselves responsible for every missed IED and, more importantly, for the safety of their fellow Marines.
“I miss something and one of the guys in my squad gets hit,” said Wilson. “That’s definitely a thought that stays in my head – that I could miss something and someone could get hurt.”
Marines on patrol frequently play a high stakes version of follow the leader. It is important for members of a squad to follow exactly where their point man goes while on patrol. If you stray from the point man’s path, you put yourself in unnecessary danger of stepping on an IED.
For Wilson, being a point man came naturally.
“Not everybody is knowledgeable of their AO or can sweep for hours at a time,” said Wilson. “I take pride in my job.”
As the battalion nears the end of its deployment, Wilson remains in front of his fellow Marines, diligently clearing a path for them over the rugged Afghan terrain.
story by: Cpl. Colby Brown, USMC
photo courtesy of: USMC

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