TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Reserve Marines from Company E, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment fought their way through the barren desert landscape during a squad and platoon level fire and maneuver exercise at Range 400 here June 30 - July 1.
For two days the the Marines ran, crawled and climbed through the brutal lunar landscape, lugging more than 50 pounds of gear in the 110-degree heat.
“Even though it’s kind of like Cold War tactics, it teaches the team leaders and squad leaders to maneuver their Marines under fire,” said Staff Sgt. William Wentworth, a Company E platoon sergeant who recently joined 2/25 as an individual augment from Company A, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment.
“Everybody’s going to learn something out here,” said Wentworth, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran with 11 years of combined active duty and reserve time.
With all the individual augments from other battalions within the 25th Marine Regiment, which is geographically dispersed across the Eastern Seabord and Midwest, this is the first time entire platoons from Company E have operated together since mobilization at their home training center in Harrisburg, Pa., May 17.
“This gives the team leaders the chance take charge and employ their Marines and weapons systems correctly on targets,” said Cpl. Steven Leo, an assistant squad leader in 2nd Platoon from Zelionople, Pa. “From my last deployment, training has improved tremendously and enhanced our readiness.”
Leo, a lineman for a utility company in his civilian career, served with Company K, 3/25, in Iraq in 2005.
As the morning turned to afternoon and the sun beat down ever harder, the Marines suited up in their bulky armor, which included modular tactical vests with kevlar sapi plates, Kevlar helmets, knee pads and elbow pads.
In addition, they carried their machine guns and rifles, live ammunition, cleaning gear, and three liters of water in the hydration systems on their backs.
“This is a reality check to get Marines to not just train harder, but to train wiser,” said Gunnery Sgt. Robert Cirino, the 1st Platoon commander.
“To hydrate right means to hydrate three days in advance,” explained Cirino. ”This weather will prepare them for the heat in Iraq, both mentally and physically.”
First platoon stepped across the line of departure for their first “dry run” the morning of June 30. With encouragement from their non-commissioned officers, the Marines moved quickly, negotiating the lunar-like surface as mid-day fast approached.
“This is the most motivated platoon I’ve ever worked with in the Marine Corps,” said Cirino, who has a combined 17 years of active duty and reserve time. In his civilian career, Cirino is a 10-year veteran of the Nassau County Police Department.
Headed for his second tour with 2/25 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Cirino explained that the maturity level of Reserve Marines, as well as their civilian skills, make them a great asset to the gaining force commander.
Moving through a dry ravine for cover, the Marines struggled against the heat and tricky footing towards the objective, a trench defended by green silhouette targets. Leaders communicated with their Marines through a combination of hand and arm signals, verbal commands and hand-held radios.
“It’s good to get out here and work out the kinks, identify weak areas, and see what we have to work on,” said Cpl. Dustin Schappell, a team leader from Shrewsbury, Pa.
“The cohesion is coming together,” asserted Schappell. “This is where the metal meets the road.”
Schappell, too, is a veteran police officer with 11 years in the Baltimore City Police Department.
U.S. Navy corpsmen accompanied the Marines during the entire exercise. It is crucial that the corpsmen become conditioned to operate with infantrymen, as they will also deploy with 2/25 to Iraq in the fall.
“Keep on the water, and eat so that you get the nutrients that you need,” instructed Petty Officer 2nd Class James Muhlenbruck.
Muhlenbruck explained that food, in addition to plenty of water, is necessary to prevent hyporatremia, a condition caused by water flushing out all the electrolytes in the human body.
A U.S. Navy reservist, Muhlenbruck operates a lifeguard company in Point Pleasant, N.J., and also works part-time as an emergency medical technician.
In addition to the heat, the African honey bees which inhabit the range area were another constant source of friction throughout the morning. Although the troops did their best to ignore the bees, the swarming insects were attracted by moisture, especially sweat, and some Marines were inevitably stung.
“It hurts for about two seconds, and then you move on,” said Gunnery Sgt. Carl Lorio, the acting 4th Platoon commander for Company E and the officer-in-charge of the range. “Unless, of course, you are allergic—then it’s a different story.”
The company’s corpsmen had identified all personnel allergic to bee stings and had a supply of epinephrine injections on hand.
The company took a pause during the hottest part of the day June 30. Under the partial shade of camouflage netting, team and squad leaders conducted basic skills classes to better prepare their Marines for deployment.
Cpl. Abdo Zogheib taught his squad how to count in Arabic. He slowly recited the numbers, “Wahed, ithnane, thalatha” (one, two, three) having the Marines repeat after him. He then tested their knowledge, having students practice translating the numbers from English to Arabic and Arabic to English.
“Out of courtesy, by showing that you are willing to learn the language, it goes a long way to winning their hearts and minds,” said Zogheib , who moved to the U.S. from Lebanon when he was four years old. He maintained fluency by speaking Arabic with his father all his life.
As the day cooled down, 2nd and 3rd platoons made their way through the circuitous washes and ravines, squad leaders shouting commands over the wind and pointing out key terrain features and landmarks for the next day’s live fire.
At about 9 p.m., the Marines bedded down under the canopy of stars in their sleeping bags as the night breeze provided a welcome respite to the day’s heat.
The company kicked off July 1 with an early-morning safety brief from the range safety officer and a motivational talk from Maj. Charles Clark, the company commander.
Clark likened the live-fire exercise to a football team practicing full-contact in pads for the first time in the season.
“Keep your heads in the game,” said Clark. “Stay focused, stay hard. Give me 100 percent at all times.”
The machine gun detachment headed out first, shuffling up the trail to their direct fire support position. Undaunted by their load of machine gun equipment and ammunition, they ran the last 100 meters to take up their firing positions on “Machine Gun Hill.”
As 3rd platoon assaulted the objective several hundred meters away, the machine gunners laid down suppressive fire on a supporting enemy position. The teams could see their deadly accuracy, as the pop-up targets repeatedly went down in clouds of dust.
”They did really well. There was good communication between teams, seeing how they work, and preparing them physically for what they’re going to face,” said the machine gun squad leader, Cpl. Andrew Wathen of West Alexandria, Ohio.
Speaking from experience, Wathen served in Iraq with Company L, 3/25, in 2005. His combat tour included nine firefights in one day in May 2005 during Operation Matador.
The Company E commander supervised his Marines during every phase of the exercise, following behind the machine gunners and linking up with the platoon maneuver element to observe them during the assault.
“Through the first month of mobilization, Echo Company training has progressed from individual skill sets to fire team and squad-level skills. We are now focusing on platoon-and company-level operations and are well on our way to fighting effectively as a Marine infantry battalion,” said Clark, who works for Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va., in his civilian career.
“The Marines of Echo Company are the finest I’ve ever had the privilege to serve with,” insisted Clark. “They continue to distinguish themselves during every training evolution. Echo Company will be prepared for any mission we receive in theater.”
Company E is scheduled to return to Range 400 in August, when they go through the course in a battalion-level exercise as part of Mojave Viper, an overall assessment of 2/25’s readiness to deploy to Iraq.
For more information about Echo Company, the 25th Marine Regiment or Marine Forces Reserve, visit us on the web at www. mfr.usmc.mil.