DJIBOUTI, Africa -- When conducting combat training, Marines like to stack the odds against themselves and travel to places where the local flora and fauna struggle to survive, where the expanse of nothingness is the only attribute that rivals the intensity of the heat. Training in adversity is what helps Marines thrive in combat.
The heat that on Aug. 27 greeted Marines assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, as they stepped off of air-cushioned landing craft and CH-46 helicopters in Djibouti, Africa, to begin a four-day live-fire training exercise, was as oppressive as a blast from a 450-degree oven in an un-air-conditioned kitchen.
Training with live ammunition on a company-sized fire and maneuver course, using close-air support and artillery, is generally an experience Marines only get during combined-arms exercises in Twentynine Palms, Calif. The potentially dangerous blending of the MEU’s fire and maneuver assets into a cohesive machine is rivaled only by an actual combat scenario that pits Marines against enemy fighters.
To begin the course, Marines used aviation ordnance and combined-arms combat fundamentals to prepare the battlefield for the follow-on “invasion.” Alpha Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, would conduct a 400-yard course of fire under the accurate eyes and ordnance of AV-8B Harrier jets and AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters. Harriers strafed nearby ranges and dropped pairs of five-hundred pound bombs, while Cobras provided mock close-air support with 2.25-inch rockets and their nose-mounted 25mm cannons.
After the dazzling display of air power, Marines advanced behind precisely placed 81mm mortar rounds lobbed down range by Marines from Weapons Company, who made certain that the full measure of the MEU’s capabilities were brought to bear.
“The big benefit for this unit will be that a lot of our Marines with combat experience will be leaving after this deployment,” said 1stSgt. James F. Cully, company first sergeant, Alpha Company, BLT 1/8. “All the live-fire training we can do here and other places will definitely benefit the unit for their next deployment, which is scheduled for later on in 2007.”
With high turnover expected, Cully isn’t worried about the possibility that many of the Marines remaining with the battalion will head into their next deployment without combat experience.
“The guys that might be deploying might not have a lot of combat experience, but they’ll have a lot of fire and maneuver experience underneath them from this deployment, and that will help them in future deployments,” Cully said.
Fighting within the established training scenario, Marines found a weakness in the enemies’ defensive position that allowed combat engineers assigned to Alpha Company to advance with the Combined Anti-Armor Team and detonate a Bangalore torpedo, clearing the way for the assault element to make their way to the objective.
As the Marines began to gain a foothold, they broke down into squad-sized elements, charging ahead toward their objective while laying down a barrage of lead from an array of weapons, ranging from humvee-mounted fifty-caliber M2 machine guns to the riflemen’s own M-16 rifles. The squads practiced combat maneuver fundamentals while leapfrogging across the desert, ensuring they were always covering each other’s backs.
The firsthand experience gained during the combat movement bolstered the confidence of Marines like Cpl. Brandon Elder, a 2nd squad leader with Alpha Company, who said “you can get a lot of confidence out of an exercise like this” and applauded the African environment for helping maintain the Marines’ tolerance for any climate. “As far as training for Iraq, it’s very hot out there, hot and humid, so it can get them used to the environment and let them experience what it would be like to have a firefight in those conditions,” added Elder.
For the Marines of the 24th MEU, anticipating all the ways a firefight could turn out in real life is nearly impossible, as a number of factors – a thinking enemy, duration of battle and terrain – always play into the outcome. Roughly 40 minutes after the initial breach, green pop-up flares in the African sky signaled that all was quiet once again and that the Marines had emerged triumphant. For units like Alpha Company, their battle was short lived but served its purpose well, giving them not only increased combat readiness, but an accurate simulation of how their next firefight might unfold.