MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
The sun had barely begun to rise over the hills surrounding Camp Las Flores early Friday morning when the sharp countdown cut through the air.
“Five, four, three, two, one!” yelled the Marine, holding a timer, as the first team took off running toward the hills, marking the beginning of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment squad competition.
“The route is about six or seven miles across some rugged terrain,” said 1st Lt. Zachary Duncan, the liaison operations officer serving with 1st Bn., 4th Marines. “They started as a squad and they finished as a squad.”
The weight of flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, assault packs and weapons combined with miles of hilly terrain pushed the competitors to their mental and physical limits.
“I’ve done plenty of hikes out here,” said Sgt. Cameron Fitzgerald, the maintenance chief for the battalion’s motor transport platoon. “This was very physically challenging because we were constantly pushing each other, trying to move as fast as possible.”
The Marines ran through the course and stopped at seven checkpoints along the way. Three represented physical obstacles while the other four were knowledge based. Marines fireman carried simulated casualties or performed 30 burpees at checkpoints.
Evaluators quizzed squad leaders on various skillsets, including five paragraph orders and medevac procedures.
“Some of the checkpoints were very mentally challenging,” said Fitzgerald. “After we’ve been fatigued from running and trying to round up the troops and keep them motivated, I was given a skeleton of the five paragraph order. I had to fill in the blanks.”
Fitzgerald said this was some of the most challenging training he’s experienced in the Marine Corps.
The course pushed every Marine, but its focus rested heavily on small-unit leadership.
“The intent is to really develop the squad leaders into what we call men of action,” said Duncan, a native of Santa Cruz, Calif. “It comes down to the squad leader who has an in depth understanding of his Marines, to be able to employ his Marines on an individual level properly and in accordance with their capabilities.”
With deployments to Afghanistan slowing down and the Marine Corps shifting focus toward its amphibious roots, the Marines are preparing for the future. Part of that training means focusing on unit cohesion and developing the next generation of leaders.
“As far as teamwork and leadership, I felt like this competition was definitely a step in the right direction,” said Fitzgerald. “I always feel when Marines are pushed past their limits they’re stronger and better for it.”
After the long course the Marines arrived back at Camp Las Flores exhausted and dripping with sweat. One Marine joked about sweating through his belt and flak jacket, while another one commented on how great sleep would be that evening.
In the end there could only be one winner, and Cpl. Kyle VanAlmkerk, a squad leader with Charlie Company, 1st Bn., 4th Marines, claimed the competition’s top spot.
VanAlmkerk may have won the competition but the training strengthened small-unit leadership across the battalion.
“The squad leaders are the strength and backbone of this battalion,” said Duncan.