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01-16-07, 09:11 AM
Marine spec-ops teams describe their first deployments

By Trista Talton - Staff writer
Posted : January 22, 2007

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Somewhere in Africa, a man is free from the pain of an infected molar thanks to a pair of car pliers and a Gerber tool.

That’s just one of the ways Marines and sailors from two Camp Lejeune-based Foreign Military Training Unit teams reached out to local villagers and built trust during their roughly two-month stints on the world’s second largest continent.

The two teams, among the first under Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command to deploy last year, shared their experiences in their first after-action interviews Jan. 8.

They said the deployment was a test of leadership and self-sustainment, a chance to use the French language they’ve been learning to speak and a time to build trusting relationships.

In all, four teams were deployed to Africa and South America to assist their host nations’ military, teaching foreign soldiers basic infantry and marksmanship skills.

Members of two of those teams sent to Africa were not permitted to talk specifics, such as which country they were in or when they are scheduled to go back. One team asked that only each Marine’s rank and first names be printed for security reasons. The other team requested only ranks.

But through their descriptions, team members painted pictures of what life was like training eager-to-learn foreign soldiers in extremely austere living and working conditions.

FMTU Marines and sailors had to build a rapport and trust with the men they were training while trying to maintain a low profile.

They wore civilian clothes beyond the compound gates. The 11-man teams traveled in small numbers and had someone on watch at all times back at the compound. They even befriended locals, which may have been a benefit to the teams’ security.

“I’m pretty sure if anyone wanted to do us harm, someone would come and tell us,” said Sgt. Adam.

Daytime was spent teaching and training their host nations’ troops. Marines teaching the classes wrote their own courses.

One of those teachers, Cpl. Jon, said that at day’s end, team members hung out with the foreign soldiers, playing soccer or card games, answering questions about American culture and listening to them boast about their culture.

The Marines and Navy corpsmen became part of the everyday lives of the soldiers they were training.

“That was something we gained a lot of credibility from,” said Gunnery Sgt. Dave, whose team was responsible for training about 300 soldiers to operate at the squad level. “We lived with them, we ate with them, even taught them how to play horseshoes.”

Getting creative

For Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Peter, the deployment meant a chance to get a little creative when a villager came to him with an infected molar that needed to come out. He numbed the area, then spent three to four hours using car pliers and a Gerber multi-tool to finagle the infected tooth free.

Word of the molar-pulling quickly spread to local villages, and Peter found himself getting many dental requests. His team put out a call to local villagers, and he treated them for one week.

“A lot of them had colds,” he said. “A lot of them had malaria. It was stressful sometimes because we’re not actual doctors and we don’t have all the equipment we needed.”

The compound his team stayed in included an open, public well filled with contaminated water. So the team used a shaft to drill into the water table and extracted water with a hand pump.

“I actually drank some of that water and didn’t get sick,” Dave said with a smile.

He called the team’s first deployment an “awesome experience.”

“We’re not around so we can stay back here in the States,” he said. “We feel more alive when we’re over there. Everybody just has their A-game when we’re over there. I don’t have to tell these guys what to do. They know what to do.”

One of the team’s majors said he had done bilateral training of foreign forces before, but not at the level of immersion these teams did in Africa.

“It was enjoyable, but it took a lot of mental focus,” he said. “You can’t mess up. All eyes and ears are watching you.”

A corporal in his team agreed.

“No matter what, somewhere somebody was watching you. I didn’t expect it to be to that extent,” he said.

FMTUs are as much about training foreign troops as they are about building trust with those they train, said Col. Mike Peznola, commander of all FMTU teams.

“We need the people person,” he said. “You’ve gotta be committed to them, live, eat, sleep, breathe with them. If all you do is train, you’re not going to get the whole picture.”

There are 10 FMTUs and the 11th and 12th teams are being organized. Teams specialize in French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian.

Elements of two of the first four teams to deploy have re-deployed. One team is expected to return to the same place in Africa as early as this spring. But, as one Marine said, it’s not out of the question they’ll be sent somewhere else.