View Full Version : Experience binds troops on consecutive missions

11-08-05, 05:46 PM
Experience binds troops on consecutive missions

By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer

SADAAH, Iraq - In the chill of December, as buses rolled back into Camp Lejeune, N.C., plans were already forming.

While the men of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, were scattering across the country for leave following seven months in Afghanistan, many of them - and all their leaders - began turning over in their minds the next assignment: another seven months in Iraq's western desert.

"We've been talking about this since we got back from Afghanistan - how we were going to do all of this," said Lt. Col. Julian Alford, the battalion's commander.

"All of this" is months of campaigning along the Euphrates River valley, working to block the flow of arms, money and insurgents from the Syrian border east into Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad. The techniques: slow, patient offensive operations followed by extensive patrols from firebases close to the population.

And the battalion's Marines say the mission has gone smoothly because much of the unit - including more than half its officers and staff noncommissioned officers - served together in Afghanistan. Launching a second combat deployment with many of the same key personnel, Marines say, left 3/6 a tight, efficient organization.

"When we're running a sweep and I'm talking to the other company commanders, I'm talking to friends," said Kilo Company commander Capt. Brendan Heatherman. "Something like [Operation Iron Fist in October], three companies on line sweeping through? We never did anything like that in Afghanistan. But what we got there was the knowledge that we could work together."

"I always go forward," said Cpl. Jeremy McMillan, "because I don't have to worry about who has my back. I know he's there."

McMillan, 24, of Mansfield, Ohio, stood next to Cpl. Anthony Sangi, a fellow squad leader in Kilo Company's 3rd Platoon. After seven months in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, the pair said, they could practically read each other's minds.

"When the shots start coming, we just look at each other and we know what the other is thinking," said Sangi, 22, of Saugerties, N.Y.

Hundreds of the battalion's enlisted Marines shared the Afghanistan experience, and many work in the same squads and fire teams in Iraq as they did in Afghanistan. This experience together is revealed as much in the camaraderie and constant storytelling over games of Uno and euchre as while patrolling the farming villages of Sadaah and Karabilah.

Among the Marines new to that tight-knit group are the battalion's platoon commanders, each of whom has had to approach their newcomer status in a different way.

For 2nd Lt. Geoffrey Newton, an enlisted staff sergeant before entering a commissioning program, the tools have been his experience and knowledge of enlisted life.

"I try to temper my task with how it was for me," Newton said. "It helps them if they know that when I give them an order, I'm also up there filling sandbags with them. I know they're tired, and they know that I know."

Second Lt. Brian Fischesser, a recent graduate of The Citadel, has taken the traditional new platoon leader's approach: a big dose of humility and a lot of listening to Staff Sgt. J.C. Knight, his platoon sergeant with Kilo Company's 1st Platoon.

"I think it's huge that so much of this platoon has been together for so long," he said. "Everything you read from as far back as World War II tells you that the more cohesive you are, the better. Even the lance corporals here I look at as big leaders because of their experience."

Newton and Fischesser said they saw an important job in reminding the Afghanistan vets that their mission in Iraq would be much different.

"I told them upfront: This is going to be a tougher fight," Newton said.

It's a message the NCOs reinforce.

"You can't get into the habit of saying, 'I'm salty, I've been to Afghanistan, I know everything there is to know,'" Knight said.

"Having gone to Afghanistan makes this easier," said Cpl. Derek Washburn. "But this … this is a lot more dangerous."