ABOARD USS BATAAN -- Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) are getting their gear and their minds ready for decisive action as an integral part of the new phase of "America's war on terrorism" in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Currently, some 2,200 combat-ready Marines are floating off the coast of Pakistan in the three naval ships that comprise Amphibious Squadron-8.
For these Marines, their journey to the North Arabian Sea began November 11th when they "got the call" to join Camp Pendleton, Calif.'s 15th MEU (SOC) for operations deep into Afghanistan. In nearly no time at all, Brig. Gen. James N. Mattis, a Marine veteran of 32 years and the commander of Combined Task Force 58, had nearly 9,000 Marines and Sailors, including two Marine Expeditionary Units under his command and ready to project American resolve and combat power ashore.
"We are going to support the Afghan people's effort to free themselves of the terrorists and the people who support terrorists," Mattis told reporters from the deck of the USS Peleliu, the flagship for the 15th MEU (SOC).
In the days leading up to the insertion of U.S. Marines shortly after dusk Sunday night into Afghanistan as 15th MEU (SOC) Marines pushed ashore, 26th MEU (SOC) aircraft performed successful bombing runs on Taliban convoys and provided close air support for 15th MEU (SOC)'s operations ashore. Two MEU's in one theater, performing side by side against a hardened foe -- far removed from the solemn memory of New York City's "Ground Zero." Historic actions take disciplined preparation.
Preparing for 'battle' or any mission begins on the individual level, explained Cpl. Ryan K. Scheucher, an India Company squad leader with Battalion Landing Team 3/6.
"When Marines start to get into the mindset that we're in now, knowing that combat is probable, their adrenaline flows and they get hungry to face the challenges ahead," said Scheucher. "It's not necessarily human nature, it's more like 'Marine nature.'"
Scheucher said that he has already begun to recognize his Marines preparing themselves mentally for what may lie ahead. They have had a successful work-up period. They have excelled in training and in large-scale exercises such as the recent Bright Star coalition exercise last month near Alexandria, Egypt. But, this is different. This is a real-world operation and it's time to do a job that America expects them to do.
"As far as the training that we're doing, we're not doing anything that we haven't done before," said Cpl Terrence C. York, a fire team leader with BLT 3/6's Communications Platoon. The native of Baltimore stated that in today's rehearsals and training, attention to detail is critical, now more than ever.
The Marines have been re-inspecting their gear, rehearsing their reactions to enemy contact and ensuring weapons' functionality as the last time that many of these Marines were off the ship was during Bright Star. The different climate and changing season call for different gear, said York. In addition to basic functionality tests, he also said he and his Marines have been going over their weapons' familiarity, including how to fire in close quarters, how to range different targets and, of course, cleaning the platoons weapons' systems. This week alone, the Marines aboard the USS Bataan have set up targets for firing live ammunition so that they can make final adjustments to their sights and ensure their accuracy prior to potential operations ashore.
"We are no longer in a time of training. We are in a time of preparation," said York. Even though he and his Marines are communicators, York said, "We still need to maintain our infantry skills."
Nothing has been done to add to or take away from their normal training, said Scheucher. "We train like we're going to war, year-round. That's the nature of the infantry," said Scheucher. "Of course, right now, the intensity has kicked up a notch."
Their day-to-day routine hasn't changed much since they arrived aboard Bataan Sept. 20, 2001 to begin this deployment, explained Scheucher. They still get up every morning for physical training, eat morning and noon chow, and after evening chow, they have time to themselves to "hit the gym" or square-away their gear. And the periods of instruction and training that go after every morning and noon chow are still there-they've just become more specialized -- more specific.
During their workups, these Marines worked the basics. They studied and rehearsed basic raid packages. They dissected what to do once they reach the objective and built a solid foundation in the fundamentals. Now, they have graduated, as a whole, to more mission-current tactics. Some of their classes and drills lately have been: combat skills, close-quarters combat skills, survival skills and the curiously named "failure" drill, said Scheucher.
The "failure" drills, named for their main objective he explained, focuses Scheucher's Marines on bringing decisive force against the enemy at the critical point in time. "The idea of the "failure" drill is to put the enemy down for good, so that he "fails" to be a threat to you or your Marines."
One of Scheucher's Marines, Pfc. Brock T. Dula, a rifleman from Atlanta, is particularly impressed with the amount of information that he has received in their most recent classes. "These classes are letting us know what to expect and what's out there. Anything I need to know, and I've got it at my fingertips."
Dula feels confident in the knowledge and training that he is receiving from his leaders. "My platoon is ready for anything. We train harder than any other platoon in the battalion."
Marine Corps' tradition calls for the oldest Marine present at a formal birthday celebration to pass a piece of cake to the youngest Marines present as a symbol of the passing on of honors, knowledge and tradition to those who would carry the Corps legacy forward. That same spirit exists in Dula's platoon as well. The men of his platoon feel fortunate to be able to draw life experience from their platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Kenneth R. Kurre.
Kurre, a St. Louis native, is on his sixth deployment. He has more time deployed than many of his young Marines have in the Marine Corps. While he may not be one of those who forms the training doctrine [yet], he definitely is a Marine who qualifies to teach it.
Kurre said that lately he's been talking to his Marines a little more than usual about their perceptions of what the future may hold. "I'm getting them in the mindset that if someone is firing at you, you may have to take their lives," said Kurre. "I told them to look to the left and look to the right for that Marine or Sailor standing next to you may be the one to save your life." He also stressed that this is real life and they must be mentally prepared should they receive casualties.
Another concern that Kurre had to put on the table for his Marines was that many of them had not been fired upon in actual combat. Nothing new to the Marine Corps as Desert Storm Marine leaders faced a similar challenge in the early 1990's. So, drawing upon past experience, Kurre strived to ensure that his Marines break any bad habits that they may have picked up, which could be extremely dangerous in combat.
Marines must be self-reliant, Kurre said. He stressed the need to return to their combat "roots" and remember to follow through with their "remedial actions," and to rejoin the fight.
Another thing that Kurre is accustomed to is being away from home. He has a wife and four children. He explained that his wife served in the U.S. Navy and she has always known that he was likely to deploy, especially as an infantry platoon sergeant.
"Anytime you're separated from your family, it's not fun," said Kurre. "Being separated like this does one of two things; it either makes the relationship stronger or pulls it apart. "Knock on wood," ours has only gotten stronger up to this point."
There have been some changes over the years for the deployed Marine that Kurre can aim criticism toward and give praise to. One major change is the availability of information and the Internet, said Kurre. The Marines on deployment today are spoiled with e-mail, he said. "On my first four floats, I didn't have e-mail. It was good, old-fashioned written letters," he said. E-mail is a great thing to have, but once the ship goes into an operational security posture, it's right back to letters.
The Marines of the 26th MEU (SOC) will continue to write home, rehearse weapons and tactics, sharpen their procedures and make the mental preparations necessary for whatever the future may hold for them. Today's Marines are well prepared, well equipped and combat-ready for a new war with no definitive front. Whether they are training in garrison, conducting final preparations aboard Navy ships or engaging the enemy ashore, every Marine of the 26th MEU (SOC) is "front line."