AN NASIRIYAH, Iraq -- Marines in the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) recently secured stacks of Iraqi currency from two bank vaults to protect the people of a small neighborhood here.
Marines from the Battalion Landing Team 2/1's G Company, Weapons Company's Combined Anti-Armor Team, MEU Service Support Group 15's Explosive Ordinance Disposal Detachment and the Command Element's Force Reconnaissance Detachment teamed up to forcibly enter two Iraqi bank vaults to take possession of more than 14 million Iraqi dinar and keep it from falling into enemy hands.
Enemy forces had been trying to break into the vault using explosives, and their efforts were causing a lot of fear and unrest among the residents. Additionally, the explosions were causing damage to homes adjacent to the bank.
While on a regular patrol, CAAT Marines discovered a group of armed Iraqi men trying to use force to break into a bank vault that had been abandoned during recent fighting in the city, according to Capt. Justin Dunne, G Company Commander.
The CAAT Marines stopped the Iraqis' attempt and then called for Marines of G Co. to assist securing the bank and its contents. Once they arrived, the BLT 2/1 commander had the Marines clear the surrounding buildings for perimeter security.
After a quick analysis of the bank's vault, Dunne determined that he would need a team of Explosives Ordnance Disposal Marines was to get into the vault. Its walls were 18-inches thick with two rows of steel-rebar reinforcements. "Those things are pretty tough," said Master Sgt. Greg Carroll, EOD team leader. Carroll said locals told him it took three cranes to set the vault into the bank when it was being built.
Initially, he and his team members attempted a couple of different C-4 charges to blow the vault's door but were unsuccessful. They were able to dislodge the door from its hinges, but its locking mechanism remained intact, Carroll said. Because of this setback, the team re-evaluated a hole made by the Iraqi thieves and decided to use that to gain access to the vault. The hole was just big enough for a small person, however there was a problem -- two sets of rebar reinforcements stretching across the hole.
Because EOD does not normally carry equipment to cut rebar, Carroll got the idea of using Force Reconnaissance and their breaching capabilities.
Force Recon's missions often require them to breach entryways, so they carry a number of different breaching equipment, according to Capt. Ryder White, Force Recon platoon commander.
Both sets of half-inch thick rebar were still intact and apparently were the only thing that prevented the Iraqis from gaining access to the vault and its contents. Force Recon initially used a cutting saw, but because of the small diameter of the hole, they switched to a cutting torch. In less than five minutes, the rebar was removed and the hole was cleared of debris.
The smallest person on the scene was Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Andrew Tyler, a corpsman with the EOD Team, and he volunteered to enter the vault to retrieve the contents. Shortly after entering, he began handling stacks of Iraqi dinar.
A lot of work and coordination went into this breaching mission and "the bottom line is that we made it into the vault" said Carroll.
The stacks Tyler was handing out were bundles of 250,000 dinar. Each of the battered 250 dinar bills displayed a portrait of the recently removed Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. One after another, the stacks were handed out of the small hole until a large sack, too heavy for one person to lift, had been filled to the top.
The G Company Marines loaded the cash into a vehicle and then proceeded to a second bank around the corner in the same situation.
The second bank, much like the first one, contained an equally secure vault, Carroll said. And just like the first vault a small hole had been cut in one of the vault's very thick walls. However, this hole was much smaller and needed to be expanded. EOD set up a strong charge and succeeded in opening up the hole, but the blast started some of the vault's contents on fire. The fire was extinguished on the scene but the smoke and the fact it was getting dark, prevented the team from finishing their breaching operation that night so they planned to return in the morning.
Golf Co. Marines remained on site to provide security for the bank and while standing the post, the Marines talked about what had been happening. "We didn't think we'd come into Iraq and rob banks," said Staff Sgt. Jorge Jacinto, 3rd Platoon Sergeant, G Co jokingly. He and his Marines had never seen that much money and many took photos with it. He and his Marines also spoke to some of the local residents who said they very appreciative of what the Marines and Sailors were doing to make An Nasiriyah a safer place.
Nearby residents told Dunne about how the local thugs were using explosives and other tools to get into the vaults and how it was damaging the homes adjacent to the bank. They wanted the Marines to "take away the source of friction to ensure the safety of everyone," Dunne said. One resident even took Dunne into his house to show him damage caused by the Iraqis' attempts to break the vault.
The next morning, the Marines found that the vault contents had been smoldering for most of the night and even though the fire was out, it was still incredibly hot inside the vault, Dunne said.
1stSgt. Jimmy Sweet, G Co. 1stSgt and 2ndLt. Jon Gross, platoon commander, G Company, took turns removing stacks of money. The heat inside the vault prevented either Marine from spending more than a couple of minutes in there at a time. In just a few minutes, the Marines had pulled out more than one million Iraqi dinar.
All the money was turned over to the staff judge advocate, Maj. Mick Wagoner, to be accounted for and turned over to higher headquarters for processing.
"The money will eventually be able to be turned in for the new currency," Wagoner said. If the thieves had gotten a hold of the money, they would have been able to turn it in for new money and capitalize on their crime, he added.
Back at the 15th MEU's Command Post, the cash was laid out in neat stacks to be counted. The final amount was 14,437,800 dinar and at the current exchange rate, is worth less than $5,000.