Central Command Area of Operations -- "Hanging on three!," Cpl. Antonio M. Liddel's booming voice announced as Lance Cpl. James Martinez, of Andrews, Pennsylvania, held an 81mm mortar round suspended above his gun's tube.A flurry of shouted commands and staticy radio calls followed, and Liddel, a 21-year-old Pensacola, Florida native, issued the final command that had Martinez release the round, dropping it into the steel casing of the 86-pound mortar system. Seconds later, the distinctive "thump" of a discharging mortar filled the air and sent the crew of Gun Three scrambling to fire another round.For three days, this scene was repeated time and again as the 81mm mortar platoon of Battalion Landing Team 2d Battalion, 6th Marines' Weapons Company trained on a desolate patch of desert during a recent 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) training exercise."The primary mission of the 81mm mortar platoon is to give close continuous fire support in both offensive and defensive combat operations," said 1st Lt. Michael P. McDaniel, the 81mm mortar platoon commander. This includes neutralizing enemy infantry, crew-served weapons, and interdicting the enemy's movement of men, vehicles and supplies."McDaniel, a former enlisted Marine who hails from Highland, Maryland, said his unit's mortars are a combat multiplier for the MEU."We're the battalion commander's organic hip pocket fire support asset," said McDaniel. "Our mortars are highly effective, extremely, responsive, easily employed, and particularly lethal."Commonly known simply as "81s," the 81mm mortar platoon is composed of approximately 50 Marines broken down into two sections of several squads, or gun crews, each. Each section is led by a staff sergeant who in turn has corporals and sergeants in charge of the individual gun squads."I am responsible for the training and operation of my section," said Staff Sgt. John P. Brandon, of Pender County, North Carolina, first section leader. "I keep the platoon commander informed of my section's status and assist him by making recommendations for movement and selecting firing positions.""In turn, I hold my squad leaders responsible for the actions and training of their squads (gun crews)," said Brandon.Each section has several four-man gun crews that consist of a squad leader, gunner, assistant gunner, and an ammo bearer. One of these Marines also doubles as the driver of the squad's Humvee.Lance Cpl. Robert Pettorson is an ammo bearer for one of second section's gun squads, and said a superior sense of teamwork helps his squad be more combat ready. "We have excellent communication and a great sense of comradery that a lot of small units don't have," said Pettorson, of Matawan, New Jersey."Our missions aren't always the same," said Lance Cpl. William Eaton, an "A-gunner" in first section. "Each person has to watch the other's back to ensure there are no mistakes." In addition to the gun squads, each section has its own fire direction center (FDC) that gives the mortars squads the particulars of the mission at hand."We receive a target location from the forward observer and tell the gun crews what deflection and elevation to put on the gun, and what charge to use to hit the target," said Cpl. Carman U. Jiles, of Macon, Georgia, primary plotter for the platoon's first section.Gunnery Sgt. Frank Ferrante, of Grand Junction, Colorado, the 81s platoon sergeant, said his platoon is tasked with more than just indirect fire missions."We're also the MEU's primary TRAP (tactical recovery of aircraft/personnel) force," said Ferrante, a 14-year Marine veteran. "Our pre-deployment work up was extremely challenging for us, training-wise. We sent Marines to the Assault Climbers, HRST (helicopter rope suspension training), and TRAP Courses, and this gave us a base of skills we expanded during the work-up exercises. We definitely grew as a platoon in both proficiency and experience."A veteran of service in a 60mm mortar platoon, Pvt. 1st Class Timothy W. Thore is from Talbot, Tennessee, and now serves in a first section gun crew as an ammo bearer."I like it here (in 81s)," said Thore, who is appreciative of the advanced training he has received for the collateral missions of the 81mm mortar platoon. "Of course, the gun's bigger than in 60s, and I think being here has made me a better Marine because of the additional training we've received and the importance our unit has within the MEU."