U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY -- Months of extensive desert warfare training has equipped the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) with one of the best-trained Battalion Landing Teams in the Marine Corps. The readiness of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines can be credited, in part, to the hard training and experienced leadership of its 81 mm Mortar Platoon.
81's are currently enduring a rigorous desert training package that stretches their capabilities far beyond the expectations of mortar support. The package, which includes mortar ranges, helicopter assault courses, Assault Amphibian Vehicle raids, tactical recovery of aircraft-personnel (TRAP) drills, and small arms ranges has showcased their versatility and strengthened their combat readiness.
For mortar support training, 81's participated in a Fire Support Coordination Exercise (FSCEX), in which different air and ground assets integrated for a combined arms fire on simulated targets. When forward observers and members of the Marine Liaison Element, Reconnaissance Platoon, or Naval Gunfire Liaison called for fire, a target was engaged by either artillery, mortars, or close air support.
"There is a simple way to explain it," said Sgt. Conrad Griego, Fire Direction Center (FDC) Chief from Huntington Beach, Cal. "The FO's are the eyes of the operation, the FDC is the brain, and the gun line is the muscle."
By superimposing maps over the top of plotting boards, the FDC has the necessary information to calculate coordinates for mortar fire. During a mortar fire, the "brains" of the operation work constantly to keep the guns firing.
"When the FO's call for fire, we take their map data, plot it and then convert it to accurate sight deflections for the gun line. " Said Grieco.
The "muscle" also endured a tough workout. For two days and nights, 81's honed the skills of their namesake by destroying distant targets from their pits. The platoon enjoyed the simulated carnage down to the last mortar.
"I love blowing things up," said Lance Cpl. Dustin Hurley, an ammo man from Everett, Wash. "Its what we are out here for and we are getting quicker every day."
Speed was undoubtedly one of the most important goals for the platoon, even beyond the gun line. At any given moment during their training, 81's was given the order to pack up and move out to another area, set up, and get rounds down range. They trimmed time off of each movement.
"Displacement is a constant objective for us," said Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Major, the 81 mm Platoon Sergeant. "We may need to suppress an enemy convoy or an enemy air defense position and a quick displacement of our guns may be the key factor in accomplishing that."
Major is one of the Marines that the platoon will look to for guidance in any conflict they may be involved in. As a veteran of the Gulf War, Major brings an invaluable perspective to the platoon's desert training.
"This platoon is involved in a lot of different missions besides mortar support," said Major. "We have to be at the top of our game in sending mortars down range as well as small arms familiarity. Performing TRAP and helicopter assaults demand our Marines to be well rounded in infantry tactics."
During a night live fire in which 81's practiced squad sized maneuvers, Major stressed the importance of small unit leadership.
"You have got to listen to your squad leaders," Major told his Marines. "They are the ones who will direct your fire and get you out safely."
"These nighttime squad live fire maneuvers teach leaders how to safely control their Marines out there," said Major. "They have to know each other well to operate in this environment."
For that, Major can look to two of his sergeants. Both Sgt. Felix Nole, a squad leader from Houston, Texas and Sgt. Dwain Bailey, 2nd mortar section leader from Hillside, New Jersey are also Gulf War veterans, who got out and returned to the Marine Corps after serving as police officers. Their combat experience helps keep the platoon focused by linking the training environment to possible real life situations.
"When the guys ask me what to expect I try to relate it to displacement," said Nole. "As a mortarman in the Gulf War we never stayed in one place for long. We would be sending rounds down range, and then receive a new mission. We would move on and execute it."
"If someone is pinned down and they need us to free them up, we have to move and set up fast. I tell them this is why we are always practicing displacement," said Nole.
"I think we are prepared," said Bailey. "Some of the younger guys lack experience but the last two shoots we had showed our capabilities. Then main thing is getting the gun up as fast as you can. We've already broke our average time in half out here."
In addition to a full plate of unit oriented training, each Marine must undergo a "testing day", which platoon commander Capt. Bart Lesniewicz has incorporated into the schedule. The testing will consist of stations where a platoon member must go and perform different tasks to assess the range of their capabilities.
"There will be disassembling and assembling stations for every weapon we carry, as well as plotting boards with grid coordinates to calculate, NBC and first aid stations, and current events questioning," said Lesniewicz.
"I think that every Marine should know two ranks up from him," said Lesniewicz. "In combat, you need to know the jobs of the people around you."
For the 81 mm mortar platoon, knowing the jobs of those around them has become a common thread. With experienced leadership and dedicated training, the platoon has propelled their battalion and the 24th MEU (SOC) to the highest caliber of amphibious warfare and combat readiness.