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1st Marine Logistics Group

Photo by Sgt. Enrique S. Diaz

Marine money handlers fill critical niche in Iraq

4 Jul 2006 | Sgt. Enrique S. Diaz 1st Marine Logistics Group

A Marine sits behind a window shielded by iron bars with several orderly stacks of one-to-one $100 bills in front of him ready for service members wanting a little spending cash.

The Marine handling the currency, a disbursing agent, is responsible for the successful transaction of thousands of dollars each day.

But handing money through a window from an air conditioned office only scratches the surface of what he and his fellow disbursers are doing to support ongoing operations in western Iraq.

"Most everybody that comes by the window thinks that's all we do, they don't realize we go outside the wire," said Cpl. Dane R. Griffin, a 21-year-old disburser assigned to the 1st Marine Logistics Group here.

Commanders can count on their disbursing agents to be ready to go out on a moment's notice on a variety of missions, where disbursers often end up in some of the deadliest cities of Iraq like Ramadi and Fallujah.

Payments for construction contracts with local businesses, rewards for tips leading to the arrests of terrorists and condolence payments to families caught in the crossfire of battle are all handled through Marines like Griffin.

A typical day

For Griffin and nearly 40 of his fellow Marine money handlers, leaving the relative security of their bases scattered throughout the Al Anbar Province is a regular occurrence.

A cornerstone to rebuilding efforts in Anbar, which is comparable in size to South Carolina, disbursers headed into harm's way carry the same combat load as their fellow Marines. In their packs, room needs to be made for the added weight of money.

During a recent outing, Griffin's mission was to compensate a local sheik for collecting money from locals in his town to pay for repairs to a power plant in east Jazeera, a rural area between Ramadi and Fallujah.

The Marines traveled dirt roads flanked by palm trees where the threat of roadside bombs is ever present.

Guarded by soldiers from the Iraqi Army's 1st Division, Griffin and Marines from the 3rd Civil Affairs Group waited at the power plant for the director of electricity.

Inside, Staff Sgt. Gary R. King, a reserve civil affairs specialist from Mesa, Ariz., looked for the director of electricity he brought Griffin to pay.

The man was nowhere to be found. A local who works at the plant attempted to be the recipient of the payout.

"No, I can't give you the money; it's not your name on the paperwork," King told the worker.

Most of the time, payments that are meant to help boost the local economy go smoothly. Usually, the money is delivered without any problems, but sometimes the deal isn't completed - especially when the local villagers are intimidated by terrorists and fear being seen cooperating with American forces, said Griffin.

The director never showed. The payout would not happen this day.

The fear factor

Working with Americans and getting paid with U.S. dollars often makes locals easy targets for terrorists. Pay missions are occasionally unsuccessful for this reason.

"A lot of (Iraqis) want our help, could use our help, but are too afraid to come ask," said Griffin, from Bellingham, Wash., "They are terrified of the insurgents."

Pay recipients won't show to collect for fear of death or harm to them and their families.

Taking new steps forward

The steady flow of missions coupled with the ongoing job of financing service members on the base has increased the amount of money the Marines keep on hand. To meet the security need of a larger sum of money, a new, fortified disbursing office was built and opened here May 15.

This new facility isn't only holding U.S. currency.  In recent months shipments of the Iraqi dinar has been filling the safes.

This initiative will allow Marines here to pay Iraqis in their own currency.

Since Iraqis will be getting paid with their own currency they will not stand out as much as they would if they had $2,500 in their pocket, said 1stLt. Juan Rose, the officer in charge of Camp Taqaddum's disbursing office.

Another hope is that by paying locals with the Iraqi dinar the local economy will continue to grow by pushing the native currency into the market place.

"The sooner that the Iraqi people see that we are working with them to provide a better future for all, whether it is in building hospitals, schools, or helping get a water irrigation system for a small town, the sooner American forces can go home," said Rose.

No shortage of work

At Al Asad Air Base, 90 miles north of Camp Taqaddum, a detachment of disbursers has already paid more than $1 million on such projects and continues to provide approximately $100,000 every month on ongoing ventures to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure.

The pay agents are currently supporting construction projects such as an Iraqi Army camp, water treatment facility, electricity plant and rubble removal in this northern region of the Al Anbar Province including Haditha.

"If we get a call and they say 'We need you out with one of our teams in 30 minutes,' we go and sleep in the dirt with everyone else," said Gunnery Sgt. Timothy M. Lynch, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of Al Asad's disbursing office.

It's hard to tell a disburser from any other Marine when they go to make a payment; the finance specialists patrol right next to infantrymen as they roll into a city, said Lynch, 35, from St. Joseph, Mo.

In addition to helping Iraq rebuild its infrastructure, the disbursers are also helping their fellow Marines in the most undeveloped locations.

Marines operating at the furthest outposts in Iraq do not have readily available services such as a post office or a store where they can purchase hygiene items or simple luxuries like magazines and junk food.

Disbursers team up with the Marines who provide these services to pay out cash to the warriors on the frontlines so they can buy what they need to keep them going. The money withdrawn is later subtracted from their paycheck.

"The judgment, dependability and courage displayed while responsible for the invaluable lives of their fellow Marines, as well as the vital straps of cash carried on their backs while either on convoys, mounted on foot patrols, changes the perception that disbursers just help you fix your pay," said Rose, a 24-year-old Los Angeles native.

Dangers the same as for any other Marine

The inherent danger while on missions is the same for a disbursing Marine transporting money as it is for his fellow warriors searching for the enemy. This reality was brought home when the disbursers lost one of their own earlier this year.    

Corporal David Bass, a pay agent assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion 7 at Al Asad Air Base was killed April 2, 2006, when the vehicle he was riding in rolled over during a flash flood.

The 20-year-old was considered the model disburser that others strived to be, said Sgt. Ty J. Phillips, a disburser stationed at Al Asad and friend of Bass.

Bass was the kind of Marine everyone wants by their side, at work or off the clock; he was professional and knowledgeable, on his free time he was humorous and trustworthy, "just an all-around good guy from Nashville," said Phillips, a 24-year-old Cassville, Mo. native.

Unexpected events and small victories

On the way back to Camp Taqaddum, Griffin and the group stopped at Camp Habbaniyah, a base north of here where the civil affairs Marines he was with are stationed.

Griffin's luck began to change - he would get a chance to make a payment today after all.

He linked up with an Iraqi day laborer on the camp that has repaired some of the base's generators in his free time. With more than $600 in his pocket, the Iraqi left content knowing he can trust the Americans to repay their dues, he said.

It's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless for Griffin. From there the Marines finish their business and take Griffin back to Camp Taqaddum.

Tomorrow he has to go back to work at the window and support a steady line of Marines and sailors who want a little spending money.

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