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Iraqi Freedom vets prepare for third deployment

8 Jan 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

When Lance Cpl. Joseph T. Fischer learned that he would be deploying to Iraq this year, he knew coming back alive was going to depend on some solid training from his battalion’s combat veterans.

Fischer is part of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, a force of 1,200 Marines and sailors based in southern California undergoing a 30-day combined arms exercise called Mojave Viper.

“I am mentally tougher and I am confident with my training that I will come back in seven months,” said the 20-year-old machine gun team leader from Decatur, Texas. “I’m getting a lot of hands-on training and techniques to employ the machine gun.”

The battalion is gearing up for its third deployment to the Middle East since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The training is crucial for Marine battalions headed to Iraq and Afghanistan as it consists of a barrage of classes and urban warfare tactics based on what they will face in combat. The Marines are taught everything from Iraqi culture to reacting to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). They even patrol through a mock Iraqi city complete with 300 Iraqi role players, who add realism to the training.

Marines who have not deployed to a combat zone, such as Fischer, are acquiring a wealth of knowledge from the battalion’s OIF veterans. Fifty-eight percent of these Marines have been to Iraq at least once, while nine percent - about 100 Marines - are returning for the third time.

Vets such as Sgt. Jorge O. Santiago, one of the battalion’s platoon sergeants, provide first hand accounts to the unit’s first-time deployers of what they will encounter in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province.

“One of the most important things for them to learn is geometries of fire and that involves knowing where everybody is at all times,” said the 25-year-old from Bethlehem, Pa. “The only thing missing from the training they’re receiving today are rounds coming back at them.”

The vets muster every opportunity to instill in the first timers how quickly they need to react upon encountering problems by running vigorous weapons drills and teaching them to solve problems under pressure.

The vets present different scenarios to the less experienced Marines, such as dealing with casualties and intense enemy fire.

The less experienced Marines know there will be little room for fatigue, complacency and mission failure, said Private First Class William D. Hyden, a machine gunner from 3rd platoon, Alpha Company.

“It’s a big confidence boost when you know your Marines have been to Iraq and you have people around to guide you and look out for things,” said Staff Sgt. Jason C. Neale, 1st platoon sergeant, Alpha Company.  

The morale amongst the company is high and the reality of deploying to Iraq in the coming months is prominent in the first timers’ minds, Fischer attests of his comrades.

The dry desert environment of 29 Palms is similar to the environment in Iraq – dry and cold in the winter, and dry and hot in the summer. Perhaps more importantly, the training the Marines endure here is structured to put them in an environment similar to that which awaits them in Iraq. The training's realism can be seen during the urban warfare portion of the exercise, which includes a host of Arabic-speaking role players who are actual Iraq-born natives.  

Mojave Viper gradually progresses from simple combat techniques, such as effectively employing machine guns and rifles against still targets on firing ranges, to clearing entire buildings and pitting the Marines' ingenuity against that of enemy role players in a mock town. These exercises are a chance for the Marines to see how all of the weapons in the platoon come into play. This is crucial because the Marines must understand the capabilities –and limitations - of every weapon in their inventory, said Santiago.

From direct combat operations to dealing with Iraqi locals, the Marines must remain on the alert while remaining sensitive to local Iraqi customs and courtesies. Some tactics and techniques require employment of all of the ground troops’ weapons at once, while others - such as pushing through a group of Iraqi civilian protesters - require more nonlethal and investigative tactics to get the job done.

Perhaps the most valuable experience the first-timers are learning from the vets is maintaining situational awareness in order to avoid friendly fire, said Neale, the 30-year-old Sugarland, Texas native.

Maintaining situational awareness is important because you need to know where your teammates are located at all times in order to avoid accidents, said Neale.

Learning the techniques to adjust immediately from one scenario to the next is also crucial to saving lives, said Santiago. In Iraq, the ability to react quickly to an attack – such as an ambush or IED – can mean the difference between life and death.

With the majority of the unit's team leaders under the age of 25, the battalion's noncommissioned officers - small-unit leadership - who will ultimately be making what Marines call "on the ground" decisions. In the coming weeks, it's the battalion's small-unit leadership that will be leading the daily patrols and other operations through Iraq's Al Anbar Province.

“It’s important that one does not hesitate to communicate when there’s a problem,” said Hyden, a 21-year-old from Little Rock, Ark. “Many of the newer guys hesitate when there’s a problem and that can get you killed.”

Mojave Viper is a good opportunity for the platoon sergeants to correct any deficiencies in the squads so that the Marines know exactly how to operate when the real thing comes around, according to many of 1/7's leaders.

Following numerous field fire exercises, the Marines will move into the next evolution of the training - urban warfare. This is when they will operate inside the mock Iraqi city and learn how to put to use what they'ved learned so far.

"It’s a more accurate picture of what the Marines will be doing on a daily basis," said Santiago.

The urban warfare training is where the Marines will put their combined fire skills to use on the streets of a mock Iraqi town, where dozens of insurgent role players are waiting to test the Marines’ combat efficiency. This is the portion of training the Marines consider the most crucial, according to the platoon sergeants. In the coming weeks, the Marines will learn crucial skills they’ll need to operate and survive in Iraq, such as respecting host nation culture and utilizing their Arabic translators to search Iraqi homes and buildings for weapons and insurgents. They’ll also learn life-saving tactics, such as how to conduct a medical evacuation and react to the latest improvised explosive device techniques. 

Perhaps most importantly, they’ll learn how to rely on each other to get the job done and get home safely.

“It’s all about teamwork and keeping your Marines out of danger,” added Neale.

First Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment’s deployment to Iraq is part of a scheduled rotation of military forces in Iraq. More than 20,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers of the Camp Pendleton, Ca.-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force will relieve the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based II MEF in the Al Anbar Province in coming months.

Email Cpl. Rosas at antonio.rosas@usmc.mil