MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Mention the "field" to most Marines and thoughts of being away from home and uncomfortable situations probably come to mind.
Despite some Marines' willingness not to be in the field and their feelings that they are not accomplishing anything except maybe getting a cold and athlete's foot and would be better off back at the barracks watching "Full Metal Jacket," there is method to the madness.
Take a Marine who can't stand training, most likely he is bored because he did the same thing last year and it's becoming monotonous to him. He's bored because he knows the next step, he knows everything that's going to happen and is probably telling the new Marines what to expect. This proves that the training did pay-off the first time around and that repetition lead to knowledge.
Cpl. Kevin L. Jones, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit correspondence clerk, said during the initial workups for the MEU, a lot of his new Marines got some excellent training. The native of Lake View, S.C., admitted, "I'd rather be in the rear chillin', but these exercises are much better than in the past. It seems like they put some actual thought into recent exercises and learned from the mistakes of last year."
He said for their own reasons, whether they enjoy playing soldier or value the training, the Marines taking part in the exercises are taking them more seriously than in the past.
"It will be better once 'game day' comes," he said.
And Jones is most likely right when he says that, according to Lance Cpl. William J. Hough, 26th MEU administrations clerk from New York. Every time Hough has been on an exercise he has been part of the guard force, the Marines who patrol and provide security for the command and control camp. His experience doing this made him ready to handle a dangerous situation while training in Slunj, Croatia. He was guarding the Marines' barracks when an intoxicated Croatian soldier approached him with hostile intent. Because Hough had trained for this situation, he halted the soldier and instructed him to get on the ground. Hough's chain of command took care of the situation from there and the Croatian soldier's command was notified and the soldier was reprimanded.
"Even though these are workups, you have to put in full effort because over there [overseas] it's real. Because of that [previous training], I was better able to handle the situation," said Hough.
"Nothing's ever going to let you know what you're going to do in that situation [combat]. But this [pre-deployment training] is the best thing we can do right here," said Sgt. Christian J. Krueger, 26th MEU forward command element non-commissioned officer in charge of communications.
Krueger, a native of Pensacola, Fla., said that she augmented to the MEU just before they left to float in '99. She did not participate in any of the workups. When the Marines got there they were called into Kosovo. Krueger said she was part of a convoy nearly three miles long that drove from Greece through Macedonia into Kosovo. Krueger said when she reached her destination, the command and control area, it was elevated above the fighting.
"You could see the fire fight from the hill," said Krueger. "We didn't just see tracers, we were close enough to see muzzle flare." She said despite not having any pre-deployment training she did her job fine, holding solid communication and messaging between her forward position and higher command. Which is not to say that everyone would do that well without participating in a scenario-based exercise first. She admits it's only reasonable to say how well the job is done not only depends on the training, but the person as well.
An example of how training definitely helped overcome a situation confidently came from an experience of Lt. Col. Gary R. Oles, 26th MEU executive officer. Oles explained that on a previous deployment he and his Marines performed a non-combatant evacuation operation. The notional exercise involved rescuing American citizens simultaneously in separate parts of a country that may have soon become potentially hostile.
Five months later, while the MEU was deployed, his Marines performed an actual evacuation from Liberia. It was a simultaneous pick-up from two geographic locations in that country. Oles said he believes the training received many months before prepared his Marines well for the mission they successfully executed.
"Nobody can effectively portray combat in a training environment," said Oles, "but we can certainly plan for scenarios."
Planning for scenarios is something that "successful" leaders are used to. Being proactive becomes part of their regular schedule. The fact that the Marine Corps trains for success may be the reason that Col. Andrew P. Frick, 26th MEU commanding officer, is still alive after what very well could have been a mishap.
Frick had trained many times before, as all Marine aviators do, in a controlled environment. Because he had training for engine failure in a flight simulator, he was confident to take the steps necessary to land his aircraft after one of the engines failed during a night operation aboard a carrier.
But most of Frick's training is not on an individual basis. Frick said that one of his goals in training Marines is to "create a synergy were the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."
"I think we're well on the way to doing that [creating a stronger team]," said Frick. "Though the closer we get to what we would define as perfection, the higher we move the bar."
Hopefully more Marines will make the connection between training and success in their job. Then, when the stress and discomfort of being in the field gets to them, at least they'll have the knowledge that they are gaining something more valuable than rest.