MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Family support has helped Pfc. Telley D. Vestal get through a lot in life – job layoffs, family traumas and hopefully, a six-month tour of duty in Iraq next spring.
“I know it’s going to be dangerous, but with this training we’re getting, I’ll get through it,” said the 28-year-old Marine rifleman. “My plan is to keep praying and keep ties with my family and friends.”
Vestal is one of more than 1,000 Marines and sailors from the Hawaii-based 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment undergoing a month-long pre-deployment training exercise in California’s Mojave Desert appropriately dubbed, “Mojave Viper.”
The battalion will be part of the 20,000-plus troops of the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which will replace the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II MEF as part of a regular rotation of military forces in Iraq early next year.
Now three weeks into their training cycle, the Iraq-bound Marines of “America’s Battalion” are busy here learning skills they’ll need to conduct security operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province – arguably the country’s most insurgent and IED (Improvised Explosive Device)-active area.
But Marines here are receiving top-notch training designed to prepare troops with the harsh realities of daily operations in Iraq, according to Marine Corps officials.
From reacting to deadly improvised explosive devices to conducting searches through a civilian-populated Iraqi town, the Marines are learning and rehearsing various “real life” scenarios they will encounter in Iraq.
“They’re being taught all the force protection and immediate action drills they’ll use out there,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Kline, director of the Urban Warfare Training Center here.
To add authenticity to the training, the Marines spend more than a week conducting security operations within a 300-plus building mock Iraqi town - complete with a market, town center, homes, and even a mosque where daily prayers are given over a loudspeaker in Arabic.
More than 210 Iraqi role players and an additional 50 Iraqi linguists fill the town’s buildings and streets. There’s even a market square where Iraqis attempt to sell passersby everything from newspapers to fruit.
“There’s a lot of tactical likeness…the city is laid out like a real (Iraqi) city,” said Kline. “The different sights and sounds add to it all.”
Marines have to interact with the locals while conducting their movements through the town. Sometimes crowds are friendly and cooperate with the Marines, other times they’re not. The Iraqis’ demeanor heavily depends on how the Marines approach and react to the contact – all part of the training to prepare them for what they’ll face in the Middle East.
“Things change out here and when the enemy adapts, we adapt,” said Capt. Andy D. Lynch, company commander for the battalion’s India Company and 30-year-old Chicago native. “This is exactly what a Marine will see the first time they get into country, so we want them to see it here first. It keeps Marines from getting complacent.”
“If we see (the Marines) make a mistake, we can correct them,” said Alan Qadar, 22. Qadar is one of the 50 Iraqi linguists hired to add a touch of Iraqi culture to the training scenarios.
“Yesterday, I was searched in my car. Now, I am an Iraqi police officer,” said Qadar, who left Iraq nine years ago with his family to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The training here is divided into several areas Marine officials consider crucial in preparation for duty in Iraq– integrated mechanized vehicle and ground infantry movement, cordon and knock tactics to investigate suspicious activity and people, and reacting to improvised explosive devices.
Each scenario is designed to be unpredictable, forcing the Marines’ small-unit leadership to make on-the-spot decisions to avoid casualties and achieve specific objectives.
In one scenario, a Marine squad crosses bridge is struck by an IED. The squad leader, among other simulated casualties, is killed, leaving the decision of what to do next to the remainder of the Marines.
A block over, another squad receives sniper fire while on a foot patrol. Scrambling for cover and screaming commands to one another, the Marines discover the source of the fire – a sniper located in a three story building directly to their north. After returning fire with machine guns and their M16 rifles, they secure and enter the building, discovering several weapon-less Iraqis. After a coordinated clearing of each floor, they discover the dead sniper on the third floor.
“When you’re being fired at, you don’t have 15 minutes to come up with a plan,” said Sgt. Ted Ramos, a squad leader with 2nd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines.
Ramos knows all too well the importance of small-unit leadership on an urban battlefield. The 29-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, deployed with the battalion last year to Afghanistan, where his Marines – mostly between the ages of 18 and 22 – occasionally had to make decisions on their own.
During one scenario, Ramos became a mock casualty, providing no assistance or guidance to his Marines while they were under fire. So far, he’s pleased with the progress his junior Marines have made at Mojave Viper. If they make mistakes, he said he’d rather have them make them here vice in Iraq, where a wrong decision could be life threatening.
“I always emphasize, ‘You need to make a decision,’” he said. “They have to understand that they may have to take my position and replace me. They have to lead.”
Second Lieutenant Eric B. Montgomery, a platoon commander for Lima Company’s 2nd Platoon, couldn’t agree more.
“They have to be able to think and act under pressure,” said the Cary, N.C., native, while observing a squad of his Marines patrolling through the town. His Marines encountered an IED which detonated underneath a broken down car on the side of the road, and were forced to scramble for cover behind a building when they received accompanying sniper fire.
“You’re never going to have all the intel you want, so you have to make a decision,” said Montgomery, 24. “You have to stay sharp.”
In Iraq, the Marines will also be responsible for training Iraqi Security Forces. Eleven-man teams of Marines will spend their six months in Iraq eating, sleeping, and living with Iraqi military battalions. They will have to provide the Iraqis many of the same urban warfare and security skills the Marines have spent the past three weeks learning here.
“I think every Iraqi out there wants a proud, stable Iraq,” said Maj. Robert Salasko, 37, one of the Marines who will spearhead one of the 11-man teams responsible for training the Iraqis.
Salasko, like many of the Marines from 1st MEF who are heading to Iraq after the holiday season, is returning there for a third tour of duty. He said he volunteered to return to continue helping the fledgling democracy in Iraq.
“Most of their people want to make a difference,” said the Princeton, N.J., native. “That’s all you need – men who want to make a difference.”
“America’s Battalion” is scheduled to complete the Mojave Viper training package and return to Hawaii before Christmas. From there, they’ll wrap up their pre-deployment training and spend time with family and friends before deploying to Iraq.
Many of the battalion’s Marines seem very positive about their forthcoming deployment to Iraq. The training they’ve received during the past few weeks has bolstered confidence levels. Before long, the Marines will be ready to play their part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Marines like Vestal will be the furthest away from home than any other time in their lives, but most know that deployments to foreign countries – including combat zones - comes with the territory of being a Marine.
“I take life one day at a time,” said Vestal. “I pray a lot, and I just go with it. We all just have to stick together (out there).”