ABOARD USS IWO JIMA -- In the Mediterranean Sea, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) are hard at work. While the Marines have been living in extraordinarily tight quarters aboard ship for over a month, this is no reason to stop training. With the possibility of participating in combat operations on the horizon, these Marines and Sailors must continue to train the mind, body and soul for the hardships which may lie ahead. By staying alert, physically fit and prepared for anything, they fully expect to perform better as a more cohesive unit when their time comes to demonstrate their mettle on the battlefield. Among the many on-going training programs aboard ship is the Marine Corps' Martial Arts Program. Implemented in October 2000, the Marine Corps' Martial Arts Program is a skill progression program offering Marines martial arts training through a system of belt rankings from tan belt through sixth degree black belt. But in addition, the program melds nicely with Marines' long established "warrior ethos" by reinforcing the value of the individual, the importance of proper application of these skills and a direct tie to the Corps' existing value structure.In October 2000, then Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones, established the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. "Like marksmanship training, this program provides our Marines with additional tools that they can use on the battlefield," Jones said. "It will require a consistent individual investment of time to develop and master the skills. The benefits of improved self-esteem, mental discipline and personal pride are worthy of the investment and provide substantial returns for our Corps."In announcing the training goals and objectives, Jones established that all Marines, regardless of rank, billet or job specialty should attain the tan belt level of martial arts proficiency no later than October 2003. To meet this Corps-wide goal, 26th MEU (SOC) training personnel have deployed instructors and equipment across all three ships in the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group to bring all deployed Marines to the required tan belt level, the first of five belts in the challenging program.While many young Marines now arrive at their commands having already earned their tan belt at one of the Corps' recruit training depots, many Marines deployed here completed recruit training long before the martial arts program having been introduced into the curriculum there.Sergeant Jeffery C. Duncan, one of the certified martial arts instructors aboard the USS Iwo Jima and the assistant operations and training chief for MEU Service Support Group-26, stated recently how good he felt about the quality and value of this training for his students. "I love it! I feel this training is good for the Marines. The training that they receive is the best possible, under our limited circumstances," Duncan said. "It keeps their minds sharp, their bodies physically fit and their character up." With all the bustling activity and equipment aboard ship, space is limited, thus fewer MEU personnel can take the course at any given time. There are some conditioning drills, for example, that would normally require a large open area to perform that have been adjusted, Duncan said.Whether training aboard ship or in the rear, a top consideration of the program is always safety, Duncan said. "To avoid injuries, we follow strict safety rules and ensure proper fault checking," said the Hubert, NC native. "Fault checking is our way of ensuring that the students use proper techniques while correcting them through instruction," he said. Naturally, the instructors want to ensure that the Marines learn the techniques without hurting themselves in the process. By starting the Marines throwing punches at only 50 percent strength, as opposed to 100 percent, it helps them learn the maneuvers and techniques properly so they can subsequently increase their speed as they increase their proficiency later, Duncan said. In addition to utilizing the proper techniques, the instructors also emphasize the importance of proper hydration and eating three square meals a day to keep the body and the mind strong and focused. They continually stress the importance of proper nutrition as something that should never be overlooked.To test for the tan belt, students must complete 27.5 hours of martial arts training. At the end of the introductory course, Marines are evaluated on specific movements to ensure they are able to effectively apply all the required skills. If a Marine cannot pass the final test, or gives a half-hearted performance, he or she will have to retake the course, Duncan said.One student who has a unique perspective on martial arts training and is currently working to earn her tan belt is Sgt. Erika J. England, the non-commissioned officer-in-charge of the Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team (MMT), Marine Air Control Group-28. The Redmond, Va., native has been involved in a variety of martial art styles from Shoto-Kan to Tae Kwon Do for a number of years. "This form of martial arts is more combat-oriented than any other training I have had," England said. "These are the basics. By starting out this way, it gives the Marines a foundation of the fundamentals to build upon. Sgt. Duncan emphasizes proper techniques and safety a lot! No one has gotten hurt thus far and that is a good thing," she said.As these Marines continue to train aboard ship, they are establishing a foundation and building their bodies for the next level in the program. Once there are a significant number of Marines qualified at the tan belt level, trainers hope to move forward into the more advanced classes, such as those for the gray and green belts. Integral parts of this two-week course are character development and reemphasis of the Corps' values. Tightly interwoven within the curriculum are Corps' values classes covering a wide range of topics, such as self and mental discipline, moral courage, personal pride and a host of other important character discussions. The trainers want these students to understand that through self-discipline and adhering to one's own values, these new martial arts skills need only be applied when lesser means have failed and for self-defense, not to bully others. With strong minds, strong bodies, good techniques and a solid character base, these Leathernecks will be even more prepared to carry the fight to the enemy. To follow Sgt. Duncan and the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU (SOC) visit them on to the worldwide web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.