NEW ORLEANS --
Gunnery Sgt. Raoul P. Sheridan has deployed before. He’s been to the cities and deserts of Iraq, where he provided fire support for Marines. But his last deployment was unlike any other.
He found himself sweating in more than 90 percent humidity, freezing at night when the temperatures dropped below minus five degrees Fahrenheit. He hiked mountains and slashed through jungles. This was not the Middle East.
Sheridan is the guns platoon sergeant with Battery H, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, headquartered in Richmond, Va. Battery H was part of the recently resumed Unit Deployment Program, which had been significantly scaled down in 2003 as more and more units were rotating into the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The UDP was established in 1977 by then Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Louis H. Wilson Jr. as an initiative to improve unit continuity by extending training rotations. As part of the program, infantry battalions stationed in the United States deployed to Okinawa, Japan for six months instead of the more common year-long deployment. Armored battalions and air squadrons were fit into the rotation in the mid 1980s.
The first Reserve unit involved with the UDP was Company C, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in 2003. Marine Forces Reserve has trained its companies, batteries and squadrons on the island of Okinawa ever since.
“This is the smartest thing that Marine Forces Reserve could do,” said Sheridan.“This was the best training a lot of my Marines have ever seen.”
“There wasn’t enough … turnaround time between when we found out and when we went,” Sheridan said. “The battery had enough time to schedule one command post exercise to establish communications and logistics, but that was it. The Marines had to knock the rust off really fast once they got to Okinawa.”
Even the upper levels of leadership believed the time allotted to planning the deployment was short, but all the Marines recognized the challenge and rose to overcome it.
Realistic scenarios and combined exercises are a highlight of the UDP, bringing Marines of many different units together, sometimes with foreign forces. Battery H participated in many such exercises, travelling to South Korea to do a combined shoot with the Korean forces.
“Our guys shot more than 2,500 artillery rounds on three, month-long field exercises,” said Sheridan. “That’s more than they’ve ever shot before. There’s no way we could have those types of opportunities in the States.”
The UDP deployment was a blessing in disguise for Lance Cpl. Todd Self, a fire direction controlman for Battery H.
“It really helped me see the bigger picture,” said Self. “It’s a different perspective to be a part of something instead of focusing on the task itself.”
It wasn’t like the firing charts and training rounds usually dealt with at the drill center, said Self.
“We got to experience some pretty great exercises,” he said. “The best thing about them was getting to do combined missions with other units and other countries.”
In addition to providing necessary training to keep Reserve Marines operationally prepared, the Okinawa deployments highlight the Marine Corps’ strategic shift in focus to the Pacific region.
“As the Marine Corps’ future looks more to the pacific, the opportunity to deploy to the region becomes that much more important,” said Col. Roger Garay, commanding officer for the 14th Marine Regiment. “By not only completing, but excelling with this training, (Marine Forces) Reserve has shown that they are more than proficient with the skill sets the Marine Corps needs them to be familiar with.”
The Marines of Battery H not only travelled to foreign countries to fire artillery rounds, they practiced realistic “artillery relocation training exercises,” which presented scenarios that have actually occurred or may occur in combat support situations, to accurately train the Marines.
The most important thing is that the Marines got so much experience, Sheridan said.
“They got time to become so much more than proficient in their jobs, time to really become the leaders we know they are,” he said. “This is exactly the kind of training that the Reserve really needs.”
Even though Battery H has rotated back to the continental United States, the UDP will continue to train and prepare Marines in the future.
Battery O, 5th Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment is training in Okinawa now, said Capt. Eric Jones, strategic planner for the Pacific Region at Marine Forces Reserve. However, the Reserve focus will shift away from artillery and toward air assets as Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 112 and Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 772 mobilize in the first half of 2013 for the trip to Okinawa.
“Marine Forces Reserve has the skill sets that the Marine Corps needs, and they show it in deed,” said Garay. “The UDP is a chance to not only better those skills, but to prove that we have the same proficiency as our active duty counterparts.”
Marine Forces Reserve’s training readiness is infinitely higher, Garay said. It can be recognized that after 10 years of war, the Reserve is so much better than it was before 9/11. The UDP gives the Reserve Marines the chance to maintain the high level of readiness that has come to define the Marine Corps Reserve.