CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Regimental Combat Team 5’s gun nuts have a haven for letting loose with everything in the arsenal from 9 mm pistols to M-1A1 Main Battle Tanks.
Welcome to Eagle Range, the latest in “train-as-you-fight” forward thinking in the forward-deployed combat zone. Marines here now have a range complex that rivals some of the best at stateside Marine bases. It’s designed to shoot everything Marines bring to bear against insurgents in the fight on terror and to keep Marines dinging targets out to 1,000 meters. And there’s still room to grow.
“When we got here we literally had a grid coordinate and an azimuth for a direction to shoot,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Keith, a 37-year-old range chief for the regiment. “We started building it with the basics, and it grew into a monster.”
Eagle Range complex now boasts eight separate ranges, including ranges for acquiring battle-sight zeroes for iron sights and rifle combat optics and running Enhanced Marksmanship Program courses, ranges for rockets, machine guns, 40 mm grenades and an unknown distance range. The complex also houses a hand-grenade pit and an elevated mound with a simulated guard tower for Marines on sentry duty to practice shooting from elevated positions.
Mortars, TOW missiles and tanks can even be shot. Marines mounted in humvees can even shoot on the move to simulate attacks while on convoy operations.
It wasn’t always this way. The ranges were built just past existing ranges located by the now-closed Camp Mercury. When Regimental Combat Team 5 arrived, there were four basic ranges. It was a humble, expeditionary range.
“All it was those four ranges, Alpha through Delta Range,” said Keith, from Houston. “You had to bring your own targets. There was no targeting. There was nothing for machine guns, for the gunners to use their traversing skills. It was nothing more than pulling triggers. That was the extent of the range.”
The genesis of the idea for improved ranges came after Chief Warrant Officer 4 Gene A. Bridgman, the regiment’s Marine gunner, noticed a trend in Marines shooting hundreds of rounds in firefights without seeing effects of enemy killed. It was traced back to the fact Marines didn’t have the chance to refresh their skills.
“People were out here for five months and never firing,” said Bridgman, a 43-year-old from Garden City, Kan. “We wanted something to sustain our skills.”
So Bridgman and Keith got to work.
“We started out with functionality and started adding to it,” Keith said. “We dragged tank hulls out there and then started building some of the shorter ranges.”
One of the functionality improvements Bridgman and Keith pressed to implement was a range where Marines could fire everything they carried on a patrol outside the wire.
They could fire M-2 .50-caliber machine guns, but had to move to another range to fire the MK-19 automatic grenade launchers that were on the next vehicle in the convoy.
“There’s a MK-19 in pretty much every patrol,” Keith explained. “The unit would have to schedule two ranges and they couldn’t employ them as a group. We put it together so the unit could train together.”
They even went a step further, adding to the realism. Aside from adding a maneuver box for vehicles to move while gunners let loose with bursts from the guns, they designed the range so gunners could shoot across the entire zone.
“We wanted them to be able to drive and fire from the vehicles out to 1,000 meters,” Bridgman said.
“Normally, you’re discouraged to shoot across the range,” Keith said. “Here, we encourage it. There’s no saying where insurgents are going to be firing from out there, so that’s how we want to train.”
“It’s what Bridgman called a “big boy” range. He took a look at the range regulations and agreed to accept a certain level of risk because combat is inherently a risky venture.
“My experiences are that live-fire ranges are too sterile,” Bridgman said. “We want them to think … communicate and identify targets. We’re in a war zone. We need to make this as realistic as possible. We’re sustaining. It’s always going to be safe, but combat’s not that safe. I’m willing to take that risk.”
The ranges are named after eagles such as Pallas and Whitetail and are used for shooting anything from 9 mm pistols and small arms to rockets. Boneli was designed specifically for BZOs and shooting EMP courses as well as shotguns and pistols. Golden is the unknown distance range, designed for Marines to use the RCOs with 30 steel targets at distances from 75 to 900 meters.
“I was given a tract of land to a build range complex on from scratch, and like a painter with a blank canvas, I could construct ranges that I always wanted to shoot on when I was a young infantryman,” Bridgman said.
Even better, Bridgman didn’t have to deal with environmental and other concerns that plague construction of ranges at U.S. bases, such as endangered woodpeckers, civilian and military aircraft or noise concerns.
“The colonel gave me 700 meters wide and 7,000 meters long,” Keith explained. “We put something in that you can fire anything from the 9 mm to a tank.”
Even better, the range didn’t cost the Marine Corps one single shiny dime. Bridgman and Keith built the range with whatever they could find or make right here on Camp Fallujah. Much of it they constructed with their own two hands, filling more than 600 sandbags to reinforce the grenade pit.
The two dragged out the hulks of the former Iraqi Army’s tanks and BMP troop transports. They reclaimed 55-gallon drums and even worked with Combat Logistics Battalion-5 to get man-shaped steel targets cut, a feature Bridgman uses to provide instant feedback to shooters so they know they’re on target.
Bridgman encourages Marines to walk downrange and look at the effects their bullets have on the three-quarters and half-inch thick steel. At 300 meters, the rounds tear through the steel. At 500 meters, the 5.56 mm round penetrates through more than half the metal. Heavier rounds still punch through.
“It shows what the bullets do,” he explained. “It’s education. They can see the devastating effects of the round.”
Eagle Ranges is already paying off for the regiment. Earlier this year, Bridgman brought units out to shoot 72 TOW IIB missiles. Of those, 20 malfunctioned. One missile had been in theater since the Marines’ push to Baghdad. Other shoots identified that some non-infantry units didn’t have working traversing and elevating mechanisms for their automatic weapons. They weren’t reported. Bridgman identified it and got the needed replacements.
“Now we can identify bad ammunition or weapons that are malfunctioning,” he said. “We’re making it more safe for Marines by firing on these ranges.”
So far, Marines are impressed with the improved training complex. Gunnery Sgt. Chris M. Shilling, the commander for RCT-5’s Personnel Security Detachment, served tours as an instructor for the School of Infantry and Special Operations Training Group. He’s got more time on ranges than some Marines have in their enlistments. Eagle Ranges, he said, exceeds what he can find back at his home base in California.
“Compared to Camp Pendleton, this is far and above what we asked for,” said the 35-year-old from Whitehall, Ohio. “The best part is you can do live-fire immediate-action and remedial-action drills. You can pretty much do what you want, accomplishing multiple tasks with driving and shooting.”
Shilling added the unknown distance range allows Marine to practice using the RCO for what it was designed, estimating and ranging distance to targets.
“It builds confidence in the shooter,” he said.
Sgt. Christopher C. Ritchie, a 24-year-old vehicle commander from Crandall, Texas, assigned to Shilling’s PSD, said the ranges are a vast improvement over what was available to his Marines when the regiment arrived in February.
“It’s about as realistic as you can get,” Ritchie said. “It’s limited to your imagination what you can do out there.”
Ritchie said his favorite parts of the range are the unknown distance range and the liberal range rules. He appreciated being able to employ all his guns on one range against multiple targets.
“In the real world, we’re not going to fire in a line,” he said. “We’re going to fire what we have to until the target goes down. We can do talking guns and practice our drills. It allows us to get as realistic as we can.”
Sgt. Jerrad J. Monroe is a 28-year-old machine gunner from Valentine, Neb., who knows the value of good gunnery skills. The section leader assigned to the PSD served as a machine gunner with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Ramadi in 2004 through heavy fighting. He said his Marines need as much time as they can get, no matter how long they’ve been in theater.
“Ranges like that are absolutely necessary to do,” Monroe said. “The majority of our gunners are not machine gunners by trade. Because of these ranges, they have a foundation of knowledge to use that weapons system.”
Plus, range time is always good for bragging rights.
“There’s always that pressure to beat the next guy,” Monroe added. “That’s just being a competitive Marine. It adds a little stress, and anytime you can put stress on a Marine while he’s shooting is good. When the bad guys are firing, all you think about is killing that guy. It’s all instinctive and automatic.”
That’s the sort of range Bridgman and Keith wanted, a range where Marines wanted to shoot, rather than had to shoot.
“We tried to build for them a range where they would want to come out and fire,” Keith said. “Just about every Marine is firing on their off-time. We wanted to make it worthwhile for them to come shoot.”
The proof the ranges are a hit is on the constant traffic. The entire Coalition Force spectrum has been through Eagle Ranges. Iraqi Police, soldiers in M-2 and M-3A3 Bradleys and even Special Forces units have taken space on the ranges.
“We wanted to support every weapons system and all the skills sets in an infantry regiment,” Bridgman said. “There’s someone out there seven-days a week, for at least six-to-eight hours a day. We’ll have three or four units roll in and roll out, shooting at the same time. It shows there’s a need.”