Riflemen reborn: 24th MEU Marines fulfill their creed in Iraq

9 Aug 2004 | Sgt. Zachary A. Bathon

At midday here during the hottest month of the year, it's an unseasonably cool 100 degrees, and a light breeze is filtering the effects of the scorching sun. A squad of Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is nevertheless inside an uncooled tent, where Capt. William M. Vessey of Fort Collins, Colo., is issuing a patrol order. When Vessey finishes, fire-team leaders gather their Marines for initial gear inspections. After checking for their requisite ammunition, first-aid kits, water and flak jackets, they move outside to rehearse their responses to a variety of possible enemy actions.The platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sgt. Michael V. Listopad of Canton, S.D., asks his team leaders to check their Marines' gear one last time.Two hours after the patrol order was issued, the Marines step off, leaving the relative safety of the base, where the primary threat is mortars and rockets, for the more ominous other-world of snipers, improvised explosive devices and ambushes.On the road, they quickly form a pair of columns, staggering them to deny the enemy even a cluster of two. The Marines immediately begin scanning the area, noting the different terrain and looking for any suspicious activity or possible threats. While this may resemble a typical drill for any infantryman in Iraq, one thing was missing, though perhaps not so noticeably - the infantrymen. Where one might expect to find grunts, the men whose job it is to close with and destroy the enemy, there walked a motley group of Marines from the MEU's command element, the yeomen who compose the commander's staff sections. From the platoon commander to the point men, they spanned the spectrum of military occupational specialties. Their ranks included an AV-8B Harrier pilot, personnel clerks, signals intelligence communicators, maintenance management clerks, satellite technicians, and a forward observer. Each was a manifestation of the Corps' guiding philosophy: every Marine a rifleman. With military modernization has come specialization, a division of labor that has yielded an enormous class of support personnel, professional soldiers who perform essential work yet do very little soldiering. But for the tradition-rich Corps, which more than any other military service has cultivated a warrior ethic, every Marine is a rifleman first and foremost. Whatever else he or she does for the Corps comes a distant second.Masters of the BasicsAt basic training, all Marines learn the premium their new fraternity places on first-rate marksmanship. On Qualification Day, few desire to settle for anything less than the coveted "Expert" badge. While the Corps has long been associated with a certain mystique, there is nothing mystical about its approach to making Marines."In order to succeed in the Marine Corps, you don't have to be the fastest, the smartest or the strongest," explained Sgt. Maj. Donnie R. Barrett of Anderson, S.C., the MEU's senior enlisted Marine and a former drill instructor. "However, you need to perfect the basics - the basics of being a Marine and the basics of being a Marine Corps rifleman. Everything else will take care of itself."The Corps has always set the bar high.From the Revolutionary War-era sharpshooters in the ship's riggings to the snipers who had a field day in Fallujah in April, the Marines have always been synonymous with marksmanship.Col. Ronald J. Johnson, the 24th MEU commander and a native of Duxbury, Mass., recalled that not long after the Marines arrived with the Expeditionary Force in France during World War I, they were shooting on a range with some French soldiers."The French observed the Marines and thought they were looking at snipers," he said. "But these were just regular Marines - the cooks and the bakers. When we shoot in combat, we hit what we are shooting at." Marines back then knew when they had found the front. But in the combat zones of the global war on terror, the battlefield architecture is much harder to discern. "The reality is there are no more front lines and rear areas," said Johnson. "Anti-coalition opposition forces are everywhere. This makes it imperative that all Marines [regardless of their job] be prepared always for anything that might happen."Busting the Rust To address the threat of being attacked anywhere and at anytime, the MEU Command Element, under direction from Johnson, created three provisional rifle platoons. Their job is to provide interior security and to conduct patrols outside the camp, making local residents comfortable with the Marine presence and serving notice to the enemy that any attack will come at a price. Taking a group of Marines who, for the most part, spend their average day back at Camp Lejeune behind a desk and computer screen and turning them into a well-organized rifle platoon required some work, but much less than an overhaul. "The biggest challenge we are facing out here is familiarity," said Johnson, who issued a rifle to every individual in the MEU regardless of rank and job specialty. "All Marines are trained on this stuff in boot camp and [Marine Combat Training]. All they needed was a refresher ... and to run through a few individual classes, such as patrolling." The man responsible for busting the rust off this group was Capt. Wade H. Nordberg, 34, a New Waverly, Texas, native and the officer in charge of FOB security. With the help of a few other Command Element Marines with infantry experience, Nordberg prepared the Marines for their mission. It didn't take long for Nordberg to embrace his new assignment. "I was a little skeptical at first," he said, "but it was a good call. The Marines are ready for this and very eager to do a mission." Nordberg rejected the notion that some Marines are out of their league. "The mindset of these Marines is no different than those in combat arms -- Marines are Marines," said Nordberg. "Once you take them away from the desk and put a rifle in their hands, they are in the right mindset." Barrett agreed. "The Marines' attitudes are outstanding," he said. "Everyone understands what they are doing. ... For the first time in their career, they get the opportunity to apply the principles of being a basic Marine Corps rifleman," he said. "In my opinion, that is exactly what every Marine who joins wants to do." According to Johnson, the Marines "are much more focused, much more in tune with what is going on here. The realization that [the enemy is] really shooting at us was brought to life as soon as we arrived." The colonel was referring to a July 23 incident in which enemy insurgents fired mortars into a MEU FOB near the Iraqi city of Iskandariyah, injuring several Marines and killing Lance Cpl. Vincent M. Sullivan of Chatham, N.J., an infantryman assigned to Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines.Complacency Kills Many of the Marines at Kalsu were eager to pitch in, knowing what is at stake. "It is important most definitely that we raise our game out here," said Cpl. Tony Ganes, 21, a native of West Columbia, S.C., and a maintenance management clerk. "It allows everyone to sleep peacefully knowing someone is in the towers watching and making our presence known." A good night's rest means a lot to the Marines here, since most of them work at least 16 hours a day. Their typical day begins when they wake up for their guard shift. Each Marine stands an eight-hour post -- in the guard towers around the base, at the different entry control points, or as part of the quick reaction force, or QRF. After the first eight hours -- often longer depending on how long it takes their relief to get into place and how long their debrief is -- the Marines head off to their work sections, where they put in another eight hours tending to their usual tasks. After a third of the day in their respective staff sections, the Marines are released for their rest time, which usually amounts to about six or seven hours. Then they wake up and start the whole cycle over. Naturally, the Marines have adapted. "At first I had to get used to [the shifts]," said Ganes. "But we know what has to be done. I would rather slack off in my job than slack off in security. If I mess up in my job, what is the worst that could happen? My [proficiency and conduct] marks may go down. But if I slack off on security, someone could die." The Marines work their shifts seven days a week, and while the tempo will not likely slow down before the deployment ends, Johnson said that Marines build reservoirs of stamina at home so that they can endure once deployed. "I am not worried about the Marines getting burned out," he said. "We will mix it up a bit, but it is up to the leadership to make sure this doesn't happen. And that goes down to the lowest level. The [non-commissioned officers] should never allow the Marines to let their guard down." The natural inclination to take for granted lulls in enemy activity is Johnson's greatest concern. "The biggest challenge the Marines are facing is complacency," said Johnson. "They should not be thinking this is routine-- a routine patrol, a routine convoy. The fact of the matter is, this is anything but routine. In a matter of seconds, complacency kills. If you are not ready, you will get hurt." But so far, the Marines have not allowed themselves to relax much. Johnson and Barrett walk around the base each day, stopping and talking to the Marines and sailors, mostly to simply see how they're doing. Johnson said it is clear they are more focused. "They all recognize the threat and have seen [Marines get hurt]," he said. "This makes them pay more attention during their classes. You can tell they understand their heads are in the game because they're cleaning their weapons religiously without being told." The Marines are also regularly training, reinforcing the skills they learned in boot camp and honed further at Marine Combat Training."We never stop training," said Johnson. "We are always learning from each other. That is the secret of success, learning from each other. This is just a different type of classroom." Johnson added that with knowledge and training come individual confidence and unit cohesion, an observation shared by Cpl. Ernest P. Villegas, 20, a Las Vegas native and signal intelligence communicator, during the debrief following the security patrol. "The patrol was definitely a learning experience for us," Villegas said. "We have so many people who were trained so many different ways, but that is sometimes a good thing because it brings something new to the table." For Lance Cpl. Sarah A. Beavers, a combat photographer from Atwell Mountain, W.V., filling the role of a rifleman is something she hoped for but never expected to do. "I think this is awesome," she said. "Out on post, I have seen hundreds of tracer rounds [in the distance], and minutes later I could smell the smoke from them. It makes you realize how close you really are. I enjoy standing post almost as much as doing my job." Villegas believes most of the Marines, while initially apprehensive, have stepped up to the challenge. "Everyone is a rifleman first, and no one here wants to fail," said Villegas. "This makes a lot of them buck up to the challenge. It makes them feel like a real Marine." And it makes their commander feel better about his options. In sparing the MEU's infantry battalion the task of providing security for the Command Element, the Marines patrolling in and around Kalsu constitute a force multiplier. "Every Marine is able to do this. This is a combat saver. We are adding teeth and reducing tail for the [Marine Air-Ground Task Force]," said Johnson, referring to the ratio of fighting forces to support personnel. A 25-year veteran who last year helped plan the Marines' drive north to Baghdad, Johnson is convinced today's Teufelhunden are every bit the riflemen whose fighting ferocity stunned the Germans at Belleau Wood in 1918. "We are no different than the Marines of World War I," he said. "These Marines aren't doing this job for the glory or for fame. They are doing it because they believe in what they are doing and believe in being U.S. Marines. And when it matters most, they come through every time."