View Full Version : Trailblazing Reserve Unit Demobilizes

06-25-03, 06:00 AM
Trailblazing Reserve
Unit Demobilizes

By Staff Sgt. Rick Langille

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif, June 19, 2003 They're reservists. But, contrary to the historical precedent set by their predeccessors, they didn't linger behind front-line troops when Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off.

They were on the leading edge of the blitzkrieg against Saddam Hussein's forces - mounting a groundbreaking war campaign that some say may mark the changing face of reserve integration into main combat forces.

Now, members of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment are heading back to their civilian jobs as sheriff's deputies, plumbers, electricians, technicians and construction workers - but not before earning gratitude from their active-duty brethren for yeoman service, including some clutch warfighting when things got sticky for Regimental Combat Team 1.

"There was an incident just north of An Nasiriyah in which RCT-1's headquarters came under enemy fire," recounted Cpl. John P. Hoellwarth, a native of San Francisco and a public affairs noncommissioned officer with the combat team. "We engaged the enemy with small arms, but in the midst of combat, 2/23 came in from the flank and cleared the whole area.

"That day, 2/23 was our guardian angel, and the enemy learned respect for Marine infantry - reserve or not."

Last week, the 2/23 main body departed Camp Pendleton after 17 months of active service. The unit was initially called to active duty in February 2002 to serve as the quick reaction force for contingencies - including terrorist response in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, - west of the Mississippi River.

In early 2003, with their mission nearing its end, the Marines of 2/23 began to plan for demobilization and a return to their "normal lives." Some members of the battalion had already been demobilized when the commanding general of the 1st Marine Division requested that 2/23 fight the war with RCT-1.

Sgt. Maj. Jon D. Barter, battalion sergeant major for 2/23 said the battalion's selection spoke volumes about "the reputation that we built throughout the year of being on QRF. There was another battalion for 1st Marine (Regiment) ... but he slipped us in there."

"(Major) General Mattis requested us to go to war with him. It wasn't just luck of the draw," added Lt. Col. Geffrey L. Cooper.

Cooper, who assumed command of 2/23 on Jan. 13, was concerned the Marines might be disheartened by the extension - and was caught off-guard because they "went from being really motivated to being extremely motivated. Now they had a mission."

For 27-year-old Sgt. James D. Galindo, a scout sniper with eight years in the reserve, a dream came true when his unit mobilized.

Galindo was activated along with the battalion in February 2002. Staying in the reserve after his first enlistment had been a hard decision.

"It was more like a moral obligation. I did some soul searching and decided to do two more years," said Galindo.

At the time, Galindo was in the midst of a custody battle for his son. His family questioned his decision to stay in.

"My family felt taking care of my son was more important than anything else," he said.

Galindo, like other Marines in 2/23, spent the year at Camp Pendleton training. Marines attended organic courses and division schools. They trained as squads, companies and as a battalion.

According to Cooper, the Marines won division competitions, saw honor graduates from NCO school and the squad leader course. They proved their mettle and demonstrated their worth, he said. According to the Marines of the battalion, their efforts earned the respect of their active-duty counterparts.

But it began to look as though they might never apply those skills in combat.

Until January.

They were nearing the end of their one-year mobilization and had begun to demobilize when 2/23 was ordered to serve as the third maneuver battalion of RCT-1. Marines already sent home were recalled to join those who remained.

Some dreaded the coming conflict, but many expressed relief that they wouldn't be left behind. They had trained long and hard to be recognized as equal to their active-duty brothers - to be seen simply as Marines.

"Marines of the reserve component wait anxiously to prove their commitment and proficiency," said Barter.

This was their chance.

Having won the begrudging respect of their colleagues in training, 2/23 deployed as the third maneuver battalion of RCT-1. Unlike 1991, when reserve infantry battalions were, for the most part, relegated to rear-area missions, 2/23 was employed like any other infantry battalion of Marines.

Along with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment and 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 2/23 leapfrogged the route from Kuwait to Baghdad. RCT-1 came to consider their reserve colleagues no

differently from any other unit in theater, active-duty and reserve Marines alike said. Sometimes they were in front, sometimes they were behind, sometimes they relieved and other times they were relieved. It was hard to distinguish 2/23 from any other infantry unit.

By all accounts, the Marines of 2/23 performed in an exemplary fashion.

It wasn't all glorious, to be sure. The men of 2/23 suffered their share of wounds.

One of them died in combat. The saddest moment for many was learning of Staff Sgt. James W. Cawley's death on March 29. Another unsavory memory was the night spent outside the city of An Nasiriyah while other Marine forces fought inside it.

"It made me sick not to be able to go and help them," said Lance Cpl. Isaiah J. Hinton, a rifleman from Livermore, who will remain with the 1st Marine Regiment on a medical hold while his friends go home.

Asked what moment brought the greatest satisfaction, Barter said it was entering Baghdad, "not in front of, not behind, but on line with RCT-1." Most cited the taking of the U.N. compound in Baghdad - a feat that brought worldwide attention.

The battalion secured the building and surrounding courtyard, keeping out looters and vandals, but not before a few rampaging Iraqis had smashed every door and window.

The vocational skills of the battalion's Marines allowed them not only to save the structure, but to make it work once more.

In five days, the Marines had the electricity, phones and water working. They had even re-established e-mail. "It was our building," said Sgt. Javier A. Brito, a scout sniper from Tucson, Ariz., who was one of the first Marines into the building.

But the Marines' skills weren't limited to the construction trades. They had "probably the best medically equipped (infantry) battalion in the Marine Corps," Cooper said. It included more than 60 Navy corpsmen and two medical officers, he said. Many of those corpsman, and many Marines as well, are firemen and police officers in their communities.

Additionally, the NCOs, most of whom had previously served on active duty, were quick to point out that while many of their junior Marines lacked active-duty experience prior to being activated, they were on the whole more mature than the Marines they led before joining the reserve component.

Cooper said he couldn't be prouder of 2/23. He called commanding an infantry battalion in combat as "the greatest experience I've had in 26 years of wearing this uniform."

While in Baghdad, he re-enlisted several Marines, including Barter, and promoted a few staff NCOs.

The Marines and sailors of 2/23 take pride in being liberators - and passing the ultimate test of how well they've applied what they've learned in military training.

"Going to war ... being tested and passing, that was a really good feeling," said Hinton.

The battalion's performance has revitalized efforts to align reserve units with their active-duty counterparts, Cooper said.

There's even talk of reserve units being incorporated into the unit deployment program.

Cooper attributed those developments partly to 2/23's seamless integration into RCT-1. The unit, along with other reserve battalions, may even continue training with the 1st Marine Regiment, he said.

The mission of the Marine Corps Reserve is, in part "... to provide trained and qualified units and individuals to augment, reinforce or reconstitute the active component of the Marine Corps ..."

The Marines of 2/23 not only accomplished that mission - they may have paved the way for closer, ongoing integration of active-duty and reserve forces, he said.

"I believe our experience will change drastically the way we use reserve forces in the future," Cooper said.

Cpl. Jose L. Garcia contributed to this story.


A Marine sniper team with 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, trudges through sliding dirt to move into a shooting position during a security halt along the route to Baghdad. Among the units returning from war, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment may change the future of Marine Corps Reserve units. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva.