Marines using RAC's in Iraq.
Kevin Sites  /  NBC News
Marines Small Craft Company patrolling in Riverine Assault Craft or "RAC's" on the Euphrates River near Iskandariya, Iraq.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/12/2004 12:49:29 PM ET 2004-10-12T16:49:29

The Marines' Small Craft Company was on the banks of the Euphrates River in Iskandariya, about to push off into a steady current and an uncommonly serene Iraqi dusk.

This patrol would not require pounding the pavement, riding in an armored humvee, or Bradley Fighting Vehicle, all frequent targets for Iraq's increasingly emboldened insurgents.

Tonight they would be cruising down the river in what the Marines call “RAC’s”  --a Riverine Assault Craft — twin 330-horsepower cruisers that are not so different from the Swift Boats commanded by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry during the Vietnam War. 

“This thing is like a moving tank on water,” said Private First Class Travis McRae. “If you want to mess with a RAC you're messed up in the head.”

Maybe so. With a 50-caliber machine gun on the bow, a Mark 19 grenade launcher on the stern and two M249 SAWs (squad assault weapons) mounted midship at both port and starboard, Marine RAC’s are floating firepower platforms able to cruise through the water at 35 miles per hour.

Some insurgents may have already got the message. Mortar attacks at the Marine Forward Operating Base in Iskandariya are down significantly since the RACs started patrolling these riverbanks and they could even help to make area roads safer.

“By using the boats,” said the base commanding officer Lt. Col. Robert Durkin, “we can put snipers into insurgent areas and those snipers can sit out there -- just lurking and watch the roads.

"As people attempt to put IED’s (improvised explosive devices) on the roads, the snipers can engage them. It also allows us to provide security to the bridges themselves, to check under the bridges to see that no bombs or explosive have been put there.”

The Marines brought the vessels into Iraq to patrol what was until recently uncontested territory, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which run nearly the entire length of the country, from the port of Basra in the southeast all the way to Syria and Turkey in the north.

Element of surprise
“We pretty much spring out of nowhere," said Captain Art Decotiis, “generally folks are pretty surprised to see us out there.”

MSNBC
But the reaction from the locals has been mixed.

“One guy was throwing rocks at us the other day,” said Lance Corporal Jason Mack. “They didn't like us out there.”

Lance Corporal McRae said he understands the reaction.

“I ask myself, how would I feel if a bunch of them came over to the States and starting zooming up my waterways where I live. I’d probably be a little bit pissed off.”

As they moved down the waterway, the three RACs crisscrossed in a protective formation, one leapfrogging ahead of another to provide covering fire if necessary.

But it was a peaceful evening with the sun looking like a flaming ball threading through the date palms as they picked up speed. 

It was beautiful and exotic, even relaxing, compared to the high tension of overland convoys, where the threat of deadly roadside bombs lurk under every concrete block or cardboard box.

But the danger was still out there, espeically on the western riverbank, where insurgents attack U.S. forces and Iraqi police with regularity.

This crew just arrived in Iraq a couple of weeks ago and for most of the Marines it was their first deployment.

“I’m not going to lie, everybody gets scared,” said McRae. “ It’s more of a nervous reaction then anything.

"We’ve all been trained very well to do our jobs. But soon as that first bullet starts whizzing by our head then we’ll probably feel some real fear.”

Kevin Sites is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Iraq. For more of his observations from Iraq, see his blog at kevinsites.net.

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