CAMP BUEHRING, KUWAIT --
Cpl. Matthew Wright stood in a hard-packed clearing between the sandy dunes, intently cleaning his weapon with a Marlboro cigarette hanging expertly from his left hand. He cleaned his weapon often, and rarely seemed pleased with the results. He joined the Marine Corps three and a half years ago to learn a job he has never done. Instead of maintenance management (a non-combat job that handles supply and repair requests), he provided convoy security for 13-months during his last stint in Iraq. Manning an M2 .50-caliber machine gun is intimately familiar to him; manning a desk is not.
"A Marine is a Marine. I get shifted wherever I'm needed,"said Wright, a 24-year-old Louisville, Ky., native, with a trace of a Southern drawl, and smoke curling from the corner of his Southern smile. His mouth smiled, his eyes did not.
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) Command Element removed a group of 24 Marines from their humdrum rear-echelon comforts and sent them to experience the combat side of the Corps recently.
They formed a Personal Security Detachment (PSD), which is a team of Marines organized and trained to transport the 22nd MEU's key leaders and senior officers through a combat zone safely in a timely manner. To accomplish this end, the hodgepodge of Marines attended a two-day course in squad infantry tactics, aggressive convoy maneuvers, Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) and coalesced into a team worthy of realistic live-fire missions.
The morning of Sept. 20 started at 3:30 AM. They began early to beat the mid-day heat. Long before the sun peeked over the rolling horizon, the students filled the dry air with the pungent odor of spent gunpowder. They warmed their weapons and senses by blasting a few thousand rounds of 5.56 mm ammo then moved to the squad assault course, also known as"Hogan's Alley."
Hogan's Alley is a slim rectangular shooting range with long sandy ridges running along either side. The impact end features a pair of one-story buildings containing a number of automated humanoid targets, enemy and civilian.
"We'll give you your score when you finish and don't go shootin'any friendlies," said one instructor during the safety brief.
The instructors led each fire team on instructive dry runs before letting the team leaders take control. When the Marines had patrolled into the kill zone, targets materialized in windows and doorways, on the rooftops, and out of the dusty ground. They killed as many enemies as possible while moving away from the ambush in synchronized teams.
"I was on the first relay, and those guys jumped right up in front of me. It made me jump back a couple feet and say to myself,'hey, they're right there already in my face, I'm about to get shot!'" said Cpl. Steven E. Watson, a Shelby, Mont., native. "It reminds you that the target isn't but 25 feet away, moving, and they can come out of nowhere."
Watson, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, has spent most of his Marine Corps days wrangling a forklift with the dexterity of a surgeon; however, this day he covered the maneuvers of his fellow team members with suppressive fire, while they returned the favor.
"Running anywhere with live rounds when people are shooting around you poses a great threat to anybody,"said Watson. "This course definitely teaches the importance of teamwork and communication."
As each team finished Hogan's Alley, they clustered around a single table to clean their weapons, guzzle water and swap stories. Though memories of the Alley were still fresh, anticipation grew for the next objective: the convoy assault course.
The Marines soon filled humvees and rallied down the road for a quick convoy brief. The rules were simple; they were to employ techniques to keep aggressive vehicles out of the convoy and keep the VIP (or principal) safe.
"There are a lot of techniques we use to make sure a foreign vehicle doesn't get into our convoy or anywhere near the principal,"said Wright, "to make sure he gets there in one piece and alive."
The Marines used defensive driving and a heavy machinegun offense to stomp the simulated enemy assault.
"It's realistic training, and it's especially good for some of the younger Marines, because it's good motivation and it lets them see what goes on when we go in-country,"said Watson. "Everybody can run their mouth here, let's see what happens there," he said pointing north toward Iraq.
Amid the roars of the trucks and dust-covered operators, one young Marine's smiling face was out of place.
"It's not every day I have an opportunity to get in a turret behind a machine gun, obviously, but it was thrilling,"said data network specialist Lance Cpl. Nicole E. Carver, a Newark, Ohio, native.
Dust clouds thickened and blurred the horizon as each vehicle ripped over the desert floor. The convoy stayed tight as instructors tried to move between their vehicles in a quicker, more agile sport utility vehicle. The engines roared as the convoy moved through the desert wasteland while the SUVs stalked them like cats on the hunt.
Watson drove one of the five tan up-armored humvees through the round-a-bouts and obstacles, he said. The constant threat of an improvised explosive device-triggered ambush definitely tuned him in to his hazy surroundings.
"When I'm driving, I'm definitely watching to see if any cars are acting funny, or seeing if any people are acting fishy,"said Watson. He added that noticing those things that are out of place can make the difference between a good day and a bad day. "Lucky for us, we're already good at paying attention to those little details."
The Marines finished the convoy course beneath the panoramic view of a golden red sunset, waves of heat still radiating from distant sands. They took an early night's sleep in return for the day's work.
"Out here, we hit the rack early and wake up early,"said Watson.
The dark morning of Sept. 21 began with a trip to MOUT town. The PSD Leathernecks practiced the fundamentals of Close Quarters Battle (CQB) and Close Quarters Marksmanship (CQM) until they harmonized into faultless teams. They began by rehearsing each movement in sandbagged squares, called glass houses, under instructor observation. When deemed proficient, the team would move to rooms with three-foot plywood walls known as corrals. Only after running through each stage 30 to 40 times would a team graduate to the shoot house.
"Everyone was in mass confusion at first, but the people who did have experience would guide them, and if there were any questions we would ask the instructors,"said Wright.
Most of the Marines in the group are on their first deployment. Only two or three boasted any combat experience, said 1st Lt. Doug E. Hsu, PSD commander. For many, this was the first time they had performed infantry maneuvers in a long time.
"The last time I did this was at (Marine Combat Training), and after I left I thought,'I'm never going to use that stuff,' but here I am," said Cpl. Jesus J. Murillo, a food service specialist from Los Angeles. "It's not as rough as what the grunts are doing up north, but it's a little taste."
Murillo, clad in a high regulation haircut and tight black mustache, often worked 16-hour days within the blistering galleys of the USS Kearsarge, he said. Not only has this course given Murillo a greater understanding of ground combat, but greater job satisfaction.
"It's like they always say,'everybody supports the grunts,' but now we're being supported," said Murillo. It was a nice change of pace from being the one supporting to the one who is supported, added Murillo.
The Marines continued MOUT training until they could coordinate their movements like a vengeful defensive line out for blood. Only after they could effectively enter rooms and engage targets safely would the instructors grant them the privilege of live ammunition.
"The live ammunition puts a lot of leadership back into every Marine, because they know a live-fire is going on, and that their life could be a mishap if something did go wrong,"said Wright.
Wright saw a huge change in the Marines as they progressed through the training, he said. By the time the teams made it from the glass house to the shoot house, the change was complete.
"When we actually went into the shoot house, you could see that everyone knew exactly what was going on because nobody wanted a mishap,"said Wright. "There were people asking over and over and over again, 'what's your job?' 'What are you going to do this time?' 'If this situation comes up, how will you react?' It improved 100 percent, and I'm very confident in my stack."
Yet, like any school, there was still one final hurdle before graduation -- a final exam. Thick white smoke poured from 15 smoke grenades and quickly covered the battle space in a choking fog; it had begun.
"On the final test, all the trucks went down in a massive IED,"said Watson. "We had to use all the skills we learned."
In the cloud of confusion, one Marine would come to learn the meaning of trust.
"Adding live ammo was nerve wracking at first. You have to trust all the people behind you and make sure you're not going to get shot,"said Carver. "Getting our chance to show off everything we had learned in the past three days was great. After you work hard for something, it's good to finally see what you've done."
They had to learn close quarters marksmanship, execute a 360-degree live fire house, execute aggressive driving, practice fire and maneuver and complete a wide variety of what are typically infantry tasks, said Hsu. Hsu spent his two prior deployments as a platoon commander on the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi, Iraq, with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.
"They formed a common bond, which is all you would want in a good team,"said Hsu. "Here you've got Command Element Marines, and they're usually stuck doing support so they don't have a lot of experience or a whole lot of training in the infantry field. But, for their final evolution, they were executing new tactics and complex maneuvers that infantry units spend entire workup periods training to do. I couldn't have been more impressed with them."
Hsu was not the only veteran who understood the substantial development and change that these 24 Marines had undergone in only 48 hours.
"When I saw some of the supply Marines and others who haven't been to combat, or even deployed yet, actually taking a role and getting excited about it, I knew that learning had occurred,"said Wright. "Once I saw stacks of Marines actually clicking and going into a house and taking out their targets and taking accurate shots, I knew that people can learn, and that every Marine is a rifleman."
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) is currently serving as theater reserve force for Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations on a scheduled deployment. It consists of its Ground Combat Element, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (reinforced); Logistics Combat Element, Combat Logistics Battalion 22; and its Command Element. To learn more about the 22nd MEU(SOC) visit the unit's Web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.