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Thread: Training Comes to an End
04-18-07, 07:47 AM #1
Training Comes to an End
April 18, 2007
Training Comes to an End: Part IV of a Series
By Roman Baca
Special to The Recorder
Eagle Mountain. This was called a range even thought it was more of a conglomeration of classes, ranges and large scale scenarios. We were bussed out to the remote side of the base. The fastest way to get to this range was to leave the base and drive around the desert and reenter from the other side two hours away.
29 Palms has a lot of lore surrounding it. The most believable being it was a base that the Army gave to the Navy, the Navy found it inhabitable because of the constant heat (it got up to 110 degrees some days) and, of course, the Marines said, “Well damn, we’ll take it.” On the property was this old, abandoned prison deep in the desert. There we small houses where the people lived that worked at the prison. This prison was Eagle Mountain, where our next training was to take place.
We roll up to this place that has the letters EMCF in bramble bushes. The houses nearby were all abandoned, a modern day ghost town sans tumbleweeds—too hot for tumbleweeds—which would probably burst into flames because of the friction of rolling. This training was to consist of a few days of classes at a nearby school and then a full-blown training scenario that was to last two days.
Again, all the classes were more weapons training, Iraqi weapons familiarization, Iraqi language classes, convoy operations, police training and IED familiarization. These took place at a rather nice school nearby in classrooms. We all wondered who would live this far out in the desert, what they did for a living, and why. The Marine Corps is full of “role-players,” either other Marines to be used as the aggressors or, on occasion, Iraqi or Iraqi-Americans that were hired for their knowledge and language skills. They stayed in some of the better kept abandoned houses around the facility and helped in the scenarios.
This scenario was to start our familiarization of what we were actually going to be doing in the desert. We were to rotate through positions in the span of a few days and take on a number of different roles. We were to have very different schedules for each platoon, and it was to be very little sleep anyway. My platoon was staying in the library part of the prison, on the floor. There was very little room, but with the rotation going on, there was more for sleeping. As always, there were more involved in the scenario than just our platoons. There was another company close by getting ready for deployment that knew a famous director that was doing some sort of documentary on them. So rumor had it that there was to be a big show with cameras and explosions sometime during the scenario.
We started the rotations and they seemed to go as planned. Some were doing quick-reaction force, towers, entry control points and patrols. I will go in-depth with all these later, as they were quite diverse jobs in Fallujah. Given their reputation, TOWs were to be at the heart of the big show, because it was rumored that they were prepared to react better than most. So my squad was set up at the ECP that was to be the epicenter of the show.
It was orchestrated like most of the bombings in Iraq at the time. A crowd of disgruntled locals massed at standoff distance yelling at the gate. A military Humvee approached at a moderate speed, and out of nowhere a car appeared traveling at a high rate of speed. Before anyone could react there was a huge explosion and the car behind the Humvee was in flames. Some “insurgents” jumped out of the crowd and brandished weapons. Then all hell broke loose—fire, yelling instructions, gunfire, Marines running here and there. Somewhere in the commotion a Sergeant rushed the crowd and was gunned down. Another Sergeant went to pull him to safety and was gunned down. Then the coaches called it and the simulation was over. The coaches gave a quick debrief and said what we probably could have done better, but that it was handled pretty well, this being our first taste of the chaos of combat.
Then out of nowhere, all training was halted. Complete stand-down. Some dishonest Marine had swiped a statue of an eagle from one of the administrative offices he was “searching.” So everyone stopped and everyone was searched. Having been with so many stand-up Marines with TOWs, it was extremely disheartening that someone would want to do something like that. It was a realization that some of the people we were going over with did not exhibit the qualities that we, as Marines, were supposed to embody. That not only would we have to police an area full of people we couldn’t talk to, relate to, or understand, but we would also have to police some of our own.
Sometime during the day the eagle was found and returned. We packed up and prepared to return to our barracks. The ice that was ordered to keep us cool arrived two days late. So we spent the better part of the afternoon dumping bags and bags of ice and throwing away the bags. Now this was not a few bags of ice, this was a truckload of ice. So we had a little fun throwing the ice, jumping in it and burying people in it. Then we filled our camelbacks (hydration bladders that go on your back and carry 3-5 liters of water) with some clean ice, loaded busses and set back to the barracks where the beer was waiting.
March AFB’s Haji City. March AFB was a bus ride from 29 as well. We didn’t know what to expect. Before Eagle Mountain we were given satellite maps and a sand-table depiction of the area, but March was different. We packed enough gear for a week and left.
March was a testament to the extent of detail that the Marines were reaching in order to prepare for the desert. March was an Iraqi city. They took an abandoned area of old run down Air Force housing and recreated an entire working Iraqi city with four mock Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) strewn throughout the city. Of course, when we first got there we were just shuttled to an area that was set up as a base fortified with walls, concertina wire and towers. They showed us to the place we would be sleeping, a broken down house with tons of military graffiti and old maps left from the units before us, and we staked our claim in the cots that we would sleep in. Then we had some down time and lots of energy. Some of us set out to improve the quarters where we were to stay and began an improvised “field day.” The term field day comes from boot camp where it was a complete strip and clean of the entire barracks. So cleaning anything in the Marines is usually called a field day. Some took some old wood palates and rope and made couches and a porch swing. Others made a squirrel trap out of an old ammo crate, and actually caught a squirrel, that they were made to release later.
Then there was the Marine that would be my roommate, confidant, work partner and good friend throughout our time in the desert, Sgt. D’Amico. He is famous for amazing physical humor. One time when we were all watching a movie, he streaked buck naked through our ranks trying to lure anyone and everyone to join him in streaking. Well here at March, he searched the area and somehow came upon a few small bicycles. So with his helmet, flak jacket and a few long sticks, he and a few of his friends set up a jousting tournament. His antics usually were a bit over the top, but generated rousing laughter, and this one was no different. The jousting stopped as soon as it started, with the help of a few Staff Sergeants, and we were back to hip-pocket classes and learning modified Arabic.
The next day, after a bad night of sleeping on cots, we were back to weapons classes, IED and Arabic. The two stand out classes were the one on Iraqi weapons where we got hands-on training with the AK-47 and the Arabic class with some transplanted Iraqi Americans that had a lot of knowledge to impart to a lot of inquisitive Marines. In the first, they instructed us on one of the most dependable weapons ever designed. Rumor has it, you can let an AK-47 rust and decay, and if you can actually manage to get the bolt to move, you can fire it. Extremely simple weapon designed by a Russian train engineer, built in almost every Eastern Block Country, and were as common as candy in Iraq. They were cheap and everyone had one. We were given a quick class on breaking it down, clearing and firing.
This was a very involved week. We got to run room-clearing drills with the upper receivers on our M-16 replaced with one that fired paint rounds. Then we planned an assault of an aggressor’s house. This was a full-on two fire-team clean and clear of a house that was supposedly a terrorist hideout. With my team, we planned a frontal assault with a support team flanking around to the east. Timing was a key in that the flank team would have to traverse an open field so it was imperative that the front unit hit the house with supporting fire early. Everything went as well as it could. These guys were dug into this house well and soon after we reached the house next door and were in place to open up I moved into a place to provide cover fire to my team, and was mowed down by little blue paint balls. Two men out of my whole team made it through the drill. The insurgents lost one.
Then we prepared for our rotations in defending the FOB. On one rotation we were at an entry control point. I was again in the decision making seat. We had an Iraqi police car approach from the east and they dropped off a translator. We searched him and radioed in that he was to come on base. Then the coaches simulated mock incoming mortars. They had these grenades that sounded exactly like them complete with the boom. Well the **** hit the fan and we were all scrambling for cover. I grabbed the translator and dragged him with me to avoid incoming. After mass commotion the drill soon ended and the coach handed me a small blue casualty card. I had been hit. Lost a leg and had massive internal bleeding. My day was over and I was rushed to sick-bay. I didn’t get to see any more action until the next day.
The rest of the time at March was a full-scale simulation using the entire town. There were patrols, Iraqi police, businesses and mosques. There were simulated attacks, roadside bombs, chases and sneak attacks. It was amazing to see the effort put into the simulation. We ended at about noon on the next day and found out that the next few hours were to be spent tearing the place down. They weren’t going to use this facility again and were moving the town to 29. We went to work, taking down boards and towers. We used Humvees to rip concertina wire from everywhere. It was a daunting task that we worked on for hours before they called it and we headed to the buses and back to 29. This was to be our last full-scale training exercise. We were given one more small break. I flew to New Mexico for my grandparents 50th wedding anniversary. Upon returning, we started making final preparations to fly out to the desert. The training was over. Unlike the two week AT (annual training) we did every year prior, after this one we weren’t going home anytime soon.
Sgt. Roman Baca served in Fallujah, Iraq with the Marine Corps from 2005-2006. He is currently a senior majoring in graphic design here at Central.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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