MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- One of the most experienced squad leaders serving with 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, said nothing prepares Marines better for the worst than having bullets whiz by to avoid being shot during training.
He referred to the simunition rounds, simulated ammunition that contains paint for marking purposes, the Marines used during the Urban Leaders Course conducted by 1st Marine Division Schools.
The training Sgt. Charles Lopez and his squad endured with the battalion’s Delta Company took place aboard a military operations on urban terrain facility here, Sept. 16 through 19, where they focused on counterinsurgency and urban warfare training and law of land warfare.
After classes and going through short training scenarios during the week, the Marines were evaluated in the final 24 hours of the evolution where their objective was to establish security in a building inside a notional unstable town.
As night fell Sept. 18, other Marines dressed in civilian clothes role-playing residents of the town portrayed a deviant identity, an organized insurgency.
They probed the security perimeter around the Marine-held building, testing the Marines in force escalation. Nonetheless, the Marines kept track with their mission to keep the building safe and secured and repelled any attempts the role-players made to enter their security bubble.
Although the mission was somewhat unorthodox compared to recent combat operations in Afghanistan, Lopez said he prompted his squad to think quickly, assertively and, above all, smartly.
“The focus was on defense. We wanted to prepare the Marines to have a defensive mindset,” said Lopez, a native of San Antonio.
He said the training during the course was unique but important in preparing for what the battalion will see in the future. He’s been involved in a plethora of missions in a combat zone during his eight years in the Marine Corps, all of which he served with 1st Bn., 1st Marines.
He joined First of the First during 2005 and deployed to Iraq where he served in combat operations in Fallujah, a battle-scarred city that was infested with insurgents after Marines arrived in 2004. He deployed to Fallujah twice during his first enlistment in the Corps – the second time serving in detainee operations at a prison east of the city.
As an eight-year veteran of the battalion, he’s seen many Marines come and go. Recently, Alpha Co. deployed to the Middle East for embassy security operations. The change in personnel required shifts in the regiment, and First of the First was reinforced with Marines from other battalions – specifically beefing up Delta Co.
The MOUT training during the Urban Leaders Course was one of the first multiday training evolutions Delta Co. conducted as a unit since receiving new Marines.
“The purpose of the training was to establish a baseline and see where the Marines in the company are in terms of unit cohesion,” Lopez said.
At daybreak the next morning, the Marines recognized that the environment turned kinetic overnight, and providing security for their building meant capturing or killing enemy combatants in the small town.
Marines noticed several role-players carrying rifles in a couple of neighboring buildings to them. The infantrymen identified the insurgency and executed a plan to move out of the building and smother the threat.
Captain Hector Contreras, the company commander, said the idea behind the training was to get the Marines to think, “Do I really need to shoot first?”
“Once you have positive identification of hostile threats, deadly force is authorized,” said the La Mirada, Calif., native. “Knowing how to use deadly force, especially if a platoon or Delta Company has to do some sort of kinetic fight, is one of our core competencies when it comes to conducting offensive operations.”
Lopez led his squad of Marines across the street adjacent to the secured building to an optimal vantage point. The rest of the platoon followed, continuously providing suppressive fire from their rifles loaded with paint cartridges. As the Marines swiftly crossed dangerous open areas, the insurgents gathered in a defensive position in the three-story building.
Once the platoon had a favorable position and the enemy on their heels, the Marines assaulted the building. The Marines moved floor to floor riddling role-players with paint markings and capturing one insurgent.
Lopez’s initiative in clearing out the building was supplemented by some of the junior leaders in the platoon.
“One of the things we stress to them is individual actions. We want those independent thinkers,” Lopez said.
After being on high alert the previous night, he said the Marines showed some signs of fatigue. But once the assault took place, the energy the Marines displayed was at a high level.
“I just had to go in there with that go-to attitude,” Lopez said. “I just looked at (the Marines) and said, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to hit this hard. We’re going to do a good job and we’re going to get everyone home safely.’ When the team leaders see it, then they continue to pass the same message.”
The training exercise ended after the Marines patrolled back to a notional safe zone where they debriefed and were provided feedback from instructors with Division Schools.
Division Schools’ mission is to increase the division’s combat readiness, said Capt. Nathan Fleischaker, the schools director. The battalion is preparing for a deployment to the Middle East where they’ll take over for Alpha Co. and provide embassy security.
“They’re mission is going to require special skills in urban operations, which is valuable for any infantry battalion to have,” said Fleischaker, a native of Carlsbad, Calif.
With a new task overseas on the horizon, Lopez said he takes tremendous pride in continuing to serve with 1st Bn., 1st Marines.
“Being a leader in the infantry is one of the things I definitely don’t want to get away from,” Lopez said.
He had an opportunity to rotate to a new duty station or assignment when he re-enlisted in 2009, but he chose to stick with the battalion. He changed jobs from infantry rifleman to antitank missileman, and he said he thought it was best to try out his new military occupational specialty with the same unit.
He soon deployed again as part of a battalion landing team with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, a Navy and Marine Corps force in readiness at sea in the Asian Pacific, and then once more during 2011 to northern Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Even as the Marine with the longest time in service at First of the First, Lopez said he still rather not be anywhere else.
“When it comes to being with (1st Bn., 1st Marines), I have tremendous pride being here,” he said. “I love this unit.”
The battalion continues to train for their duties in the Middle East and at the same time ensuring all Marines, no matter if they’ve been with the unit for eight weeks or eight years, is on the same page of training.