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thedrifter
04-23-03, 10:51 AM
April 22, 2003

Far from Iraq, Marines think of war but train for battle

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. - Under the warm midday desert sun, the Marines of Charlie Company's Third Platoon prepared for a daytime helicopter raid.

Their target: An enemy trench system dug well into the desert.

Transport helicopters would take the Marines to the target, which the men believe is manned by enemy forces. An array of weapons -- 81mm mortars, Javelin missiles, MK-19 grenade launchers, .50-cal machine guns, AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunships and attack jets carrying 500-pound bombs -- would eliminate any enemy threat that showed its head.

The prospects of experiencing near-real combat excited the Marines. "You get to kind of feel what it's like to be so close. You will feel the ground shaking," Sgt. Neil Lobos, a 24-year-old from Katy, Texas, said April 18. "It gets your adrenaline pumping. It's really motivating."

The infantrymen, their faces painted in different camouflage patterns of brown, black and green, waited for their CH-46E and CH-53E helicopters to arrive. They do what grunts do while they wait: They nap. They read. They tease one another. They do practical jokes on their friends, like putting food in the half-open mouths of sleeping men and snapping a photograph for a quick laugh and an eternity of teasing.

It doesn't take much to get any grunt motivated: Some chow, lots of bullets, a real combat zone.

But Charlie Company and the rest of 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment isn't in Iraq with most of the 45,000-member I Marine Expeditionary Force, the Marine Corps' tip of the spear that helped oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and sent much of his military troops into hiding.

Instead, the 2,200-member 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., remains stateside, preparing for what could be their turn in the U.S. global campaign against terror.

The men and women of the "Fighting 13th" are spending two weeks at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, a premier desert warfare training range in the Mojave Desert, for a series of live-fire combined arms exercises known as CAX.

That the 13th MEU is here is unusual: The Marine Corps' seven standing expeditionary units usually don't do the battalion-level war games, which typically last nearly four weeks.

But the war in Iraq has altered the military's training, deployment and rotation schedules, and now the 13th MEU has an unusually long pre-deployment schedule to train.

Its leaders aren't wasting any time. As U.S. troops fight for real 8,000 miles away, the 13th MEU has been building combat skills by weaving lessons from the war in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan into every training evolution in deliberate fashion.

Here in the California desert, the Marines, much to their glee, will expend a lot of lead during desert war games. They will learn the delicacy of handling live rounds and the finesse of nighttime operations and driving in rugged desert terrain. They will knock down "Ivan" targets and light up the Milky Way-filled night sky with flares and weapons.

Still, for Charlie Company's Marines, it's hard not being in the real combat zone.

"They all hate being back here," Second Lt. Eric Williams, 24, of Holly Park, Ala., said of his third platoon. "They were ready to go."

For reasons uncertain to the Marines, they aren't in Iraq. The men had fully expected to be there. But when the bulk of I MEF left on orders to Kuwait, 1st Battalion was the only one of the 1st Marine Regiment's four infantry battalions to stay put.

Not an easy pill to swallow.

"My whole battalion left," Cpl. Abimael Clemente, 22, an Avenger system technician with 3rd Low-Altitude Air Defense Battalion from Camp Pendleton, said during a Stinger missile shoot. "It kind of makes me sad, because I wish I was there with them."

It's an ever-present subject.

"We talk about how much we hate being here," admitted Cpl. Don Turner, a 23-year-old rifleman from Artesia, N.M. "I've got a lot of friends there in 2/1," a sister battalion in southern Iraq as part of the 15th MEU.

Third platoon calls itself "Givers of Death," a moniker scrawled on a makeshift orange platoon guidon proudly carried by Lance Cpl. Truong Doan, 19, a fire team leader from Albuquerque, N.M. The Marines, an assortment of young men ages 19 to 25, mostly wish they were "over there."

They are a proud, gung-ho bunch of men who know their friends will return with mighty tales of battle. Stories of dodging sniper fire along Iraqi roads and in small villages, of crossing Iraq's historic rivers and marshes of the ancient Mesopotamia and of fighting through battlefields despite slight brushes with death by AK-47 rounds or shrapnel from grenades.

"I envy them," Turner said, "because they're doing what we came in (the Marine Corps) to do…fighting for your country and fighting for your fellow brother."

Charlie Company isn't alone and stuck at home.

"Of course, as a Marine, we all want to be there with the brothers, fighting next to them," said Lance Cpl. Johnny Lopez, a 19-year-old Weapons Company machine gunner from White Plains, N.Y.

"It's kind of frustrating. I get news from those who are out there," said Lance Cpl. Andrew Maring, a 24-year-old Stinger gunner from Dayton, Ohio. "I don't want to sit here and hear about it."

The Marines try to ease their anxieties by reminding themselves what their leaders constantly tell them: "There's some reason why we were left behind."

So they focus on their combat skills, training over and again in repetitious cycles to build the "muscle memory" they know will be key to surviving a firefight or destroying the enemy. "This is where we need to learn in trial-and-error," Turner said. "This is where we need to make our mistakes, here and not out in the battlefield."

So the Marines train hard and try to make the best of it.

The next war "could be anywhere," noted Clemente, the technician. "That's what I have to get ready for."

© 2003 Gidget Fuentes.


Sempers,

Roger