By Cpl. Amala Unanue, Combat Logistics Battalion 31
ABOARD USS ASHLAND (LSD 48), Pacific Ocean – Marines sit impatiently in the cramped metal space that makes up an Assault Amphibious Vehicle, commonly called a “track,” aboard an amphibious dock landing ship. The smell of fumes from the vehicle fills the air, and the little light coming from the driver’s hatch disappears with the thump of a heavy steel hatch closing. Now, with rifles in hand and little space to accommodate legs, the action-hungry Marines wait for the amphibious assault to commence.
The roaring of the vehicle’s engine marks the beginning of the launch. The Marines are pressed backward as the vehicle takes off, and yell out commands like “get ready,” and “here we go.” Then the Marines tilt with the momentum of the drop, feeling a second of freefall. The vehicle splashes into the water and maneuvers toward the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia, kicking off their first operation, an amphibious landing, of Exercise Talisman Saber 17. During the exercise, Marines and Sailors, along with their counterparts in the Australian Defence Forces, spent several weeks building bilateral capabilities and strengthening the U.S.-Australian defense posture while honing a long-lasting relationship between the two nations.
When an AAV splashes into the Pacific Ocean from the well deck of the USS Ashland (LSD 48), long days and nights of mechanical work and problem-solving perseverance are put to the test. With little gratitude and possibly one of the most laborious mechanic jobs in the Marine Corps, AAV maintainers and technicians continuously push toward mission accomplishment, but above all else, the safety of Marines riding in the vehicles.
“We’ve put in 258 man hours on-ship alone,” said Sgt. Anthony Mullen, who repairs and maintains the 30-ton tracked vehicles as part of his duties with Combat Logistics Battalion 31. “Every time the vehicles splash into the water, people’s lives are at stake. That’s why we work so hard – not only to accomplish the mission, but to keep the AAV crewmen safe.”
Mullen is the AAV recovery chief for India Company, the mechanized raid asset for the Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st MEU. He operates the AAV-R7, a recovery and maintenance AAV variant mounted with a 500-pound crane, a winch cable, pneumatic air, and welding capabilities. Mullen compared his position as a mechanic to a Navy Corpsman attached to an infantry unit. Navy Corpsmen save lives while Mullen performs lifesaving maintenance on AAVs.
“There are so many publications on the vehicles I have to read and thoroughly understand,” said Mullen. “The recovery chief is the technical master for the tracks, so that when a problem arises, whether it is on ship or in the field, I will be there to fix it fast.”
Mechanics, Marines with greasy hands and dirty uniforms put in the hours while the vehicles are staged on ship and during operations out in the field.
Mechanized training and operations would be impossible without mechanics on-call at all times, said Cpl. Garret Plessinger, a mechanic with India Company.
“While the operators are out there running and gunning, we’re getting dirty with them, constantly fixing parts,” said Plessinger. “We pull all-nighters and stay up just to keep vehicles in the fight.”
The work of AAV mechanics is critical in the premier crisis response force that is the 31st MEU in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Tracks, being the number one means for transporting personnel amphibiously and long distances on land, require constant maintenance.