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Marine Recon adapts to growing mission in Iraq

17 May 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

Cpl. Jason L. Campbell pulled his Kevlar helmet off his head and struggled to get free of his body armor.  Its tangle of ammunition pouches, ceramic plates, radios and grenades. 

It’s not an uncommon load for an infantryman here in Iraq.  But Campbell’s not an ordinary infantryman.  He’s a Reconnaissance Marine and he’s performing a mission that just 10 years ago would have unthinkable in Iraq.

“I thought it would be more ‘snooping and pooping,’” said 21-year-old Campbell, from Twinsburg, Ohio.  “I thought we’d be doing more traditional reconnaissance.”

The thing is, in Iraq, nothing is traditional.  It’s a 4th Generation War – a guerilla war – where there are no front lines for Recon Marines to slip by.  Terrain and the counterinsurgency mission don’t call for deep reconnaissance. 

Marine reconnaissance is changing.  Helmets and flak jacket were unheard of before Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Duty in Marine Recon meant boonie covers, bulging rucksacks and long range foot patrols into the enemy’s back yard just a few years ago. 

No longer.  Recon Marines are wrapped in the same armor as every other Marine, mounted in humvees and firing heavy M-2 .50 caliber machine guns.  The heart and soul of reconnaissance work has fundamentally shifted.

For good or ill, Marine Recon will never be the same.

Campbell, assigned to B Company, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5, admitted this isn’t the sort of work he trained for when he completed Amphibious Reconnaissance School.  In fact, he’s never performed a traditional reconnaissance mission in Iraq.

“The only time I did a traditional recon mission was at ARS,” or while deployed with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, he explained.  “Not in combat.  I’ve never gone out to do just reconnaissance.”

Still, there’s no shortage of work for Marines with specialized reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering skills.  Just because Recon Marines aren’t lying in a hide, counting enemy troops doesn’t mean they’re out of a mission.  In fact, they ran smack dab into the middle of what seems to be the definition counterinsurgency operations.  Marines gather their own intelligence, coordinate and create targets and prosecute their own missions, with hard hits on specific targets.

“It used to be in reconnaissance, if you fired a shot, you failed your mission,” said Gunnery Sgt. Kenneth A. Westgate, a 35-year-old platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon, B Company, from East Wareham, Mass.  “Now, we’re expected to make contact.  It’s not that we’ve lost a mission.  We’ve gained more mission.

“We’re collecting, analyzing and prosecuting almost all at the platoon level,” Westgate said.  “The mission we’re tasked with now is different.”

Some of what Recon Marines are doing in Iraq, Westgate said used to be traditionally left to Combined Anti-Armor Teams.  They perform mounted vehicle patrols with heavy guns and grenade launchers.  Westgate – who has 15 years as a Marine – said his early years in Recon never called for humvees.

“I was the guy 10 kilometers in trying to find a route for the humvees,” he said.  “When I first started it was boonie covers and heavy rucks.  Now it’s humvees and heavy machine guns.  For the older guys, we’ve seen the change.  But we’ve got a whole generation of Recon who thinks reconnaissance is humvees and flak jackets.”

Westgate isn’t saying that the Corps abandoned traditional reconnaissance, rather the mission has to adapt to stay relevant to the war Marines are fighting. 

“The pace of warfare has changed,” Westagate said. 

The nature of this war – the 4th Generation where insurgents do not openly confront Marines in classic force-on-force warfare – means the Corps is relying on the skills of Marines just like those in 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.

“It’s still the same principles,” said Cpl. Brandon M. Stair, a 25-year-old from Utica, Ohio, assigned to B Company.  “We’re still working in our teams, but moving more toward platoon operations.  We’re still thinking out of the box.  This is still a guerilla war.”

Snipers in Recon units are still making precise shots against insurgents, but gathering intelligence and packaging that information is happening at an arm’s distance instead of hundreds of meters through binoculars.  Marines patrol villages – micro urban areas – talking with villagers, finding out what they know.  Recon Marines are part beat cop, keeping the peace.  They’re part investigator, putting together the puzzle and part SWAT, kicking down the door to snatch the bad guys. 

That’s required Recon Marines to learn new skill sets.  To be humvee-mobile, Marines need to learn humvee maintenance.  Heavy guns once foreign to Recon teams are a now standard package.  It makes them more lethal and more mobile, but requires more flexibility and ingenuity.

“We now have our own built-in fire support,” Westgate explained.  “We have much more supply with us on the humvees instead of what we used to carry in our rucks.  We can move longer distances quicker.  The disadvantage is there is a greater logistics train and we’re sometimes restricted by terrain.”

Marines don’t feel they’re at a disadvantage as the taskings are forcing change either.  They take the skills they have and apply them differently.

“For me, it’s seamless,” Campbell said.  “This sort of mission is what I expected to do anyway.  It could be a great advantage for us because we are a small unit and have the flexibility.  We can still do reconnaissance and can act on it ourselves.”

The shift in the definition of reconnaissance from what was considered traditional to observing, gathering, processing and prosecuting their own missions has morphed Recon Marines into a unit that’s more independent, faster and deadlier.

“What we’ve done is put another tool in our toolbox,” Westgate said.  “But we’ve also put another mission in our pack.”