MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- An 18-year-old Marine sits on the flight deck of a carrier with all his gear and waits for the call for him and his peers to go stifle a possible hostile situation. This scenario was exactly one that Chief Warrant Officer-5 Timothy R. Hoffman found himself in when he was a lance corporal in the Mediterranean off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon, in early 1976.
At that time something bothered Hoffman about his situation. It certainly wasn't his call to duty; instead it was his weapon, the M202 Multi-Shot, which Hoffman described as a four-tube rocket launcher.
"At the time I got to thinking, here I have this weapon system along side of me and I have never fired it. Not only had I not fired that one, I had never fired one period!"
Because of never having fired his weapon, Hoffman's confidence was affected.
"I remember sitting in that hangar bay thinking "who's fault is that?" I was a young lance corporal who'd been to work everyday and done everything he was told."
However, Hoffman was fortunate and was not called to action on that deployment. Twelve years later, in 1988, at the rank of gunnery sergeant, Hoffman applied for what was then a new Marine Corps billet for warrant officer -- gunner. He said like other warrant officers the gunner is a technical specialist whose specialty is weapons.
"In my mind this was the guy who would make sure that this [lack of confidence] doesn't happen to another Marine," said Hoffman.
Hoffman wasn't accepted in the program until the following year. He has served as a gunner at various levels including battalion, regimental and officer in charge of instructors at 2nd Marine Division schools.
To Hoffman, a Marine gunner is more than a weapons specialist; the gunner is an infantry specialist. He explained that when one is chosen for the program the board looks for 16 to 20 years experience, most of which is gained from an infantry background.
Hoffman, one of about 48 Marines in a gunner billet in the Marine Corps, advises the commanders in live-fire weapons tactics and safety. He explained that he gives advice at all levels, advising platoon, company, battalion and regimental commanders. There aren't many gunners in the Marine Corps and they keep each other up to date on new weapons, programs and classes that they may attend to stay proficient, said Hoffman. For example, if a new weapon comes along, they inform each other about classes and lectures that they can attend so they can stay ahead of the game.
Hoffman admits that Marines have gotten along for years without gunners, but says they'll be here till the end as long as they continue to be an asset. He said since the sergeant major is the commanding officers' right-hand man, the gunner becomes his left-hand man.
"He serves as the infantryman's best friend in planning, coordinating and executing all live-fire training," said Capt. T. Shane Tomko, commanding officer of Kilo Company, Battalion Landing Team 3/6. "A good gunner is worth his weight in gold!"
Gunners also gain experience along the way by staying in operational forces most of the time, said Hoffman. He said that gunners serve concurrent tours, moving from deploying unit to deploying unit.
Hoffman said this "continuity" is what separates the gunner from the other warrant officers. He explained that many warrant officers are called "gunner" out of ignorance; gunner is an actual billet filled by very few. If the warrant officer doesn't have a bursting bomb on his left collar then he's not a gunner. Hoffman said that many times trying to make or correct this distinction is mistaken for arrogance.
"The term gunner is loosely tossed around to warrant officers in the service support MOSs (Military Occupation Specialties), which I believe is criminal!" said Tomko. "This in no way disregards the professionalism and credibility of Marine warrant officers, but a gunner is a gunner and a warrant officer is a warrant officer."
This also brings up another concern in the gunner community. Many are taught that "if it shines salute it." Well, the flat black bursting bomb is an exception -- salute it.