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Marines to Expand Tropical Training

Oct. 29, 2012 - 08:25AM   |  
By GINA HARKINS   |   Comments
Lance Cpl. Elias Martinez surfaces after making his way through the pit and pond underwater obstacle at the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Okinawa. Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, commanding general of Training and Education Command, said the Corps is looking at additional locations to train Marines in the jungle.
Lance Cpl. Elias Martinez surfaces after making his way through the pit and pond underwater obstacle at the Jungle Warfare Training Center on Okinawa. Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, commanding general of Training and Education Command, said the Corps is looking at additional locations to train Marines in the jungle. (Lance Cpl. Nicholas Ranum / Marine Corps)
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The Marine Corps wants to enhance its jungle warfare training program and make it more accessible to units based in the continental U.S.

Two factors are driving these moves: A renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region, and the federal government’s new fiscal austerity.

“It would cost a heck of a lot to get a unit over there to go through the jungle warfare training center and then come back,” said Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, commanding general of Training and Education Command, referring to the Corps’ existing jungle training facility at Camp Gonsalves in Okinawa, Japan. “So is there somewhere here in the Western Hemisphere where we can do it as well?”

TECOM’s goal, Murray said, is to develop a service-level jungle warfare training center. Officials are exploring whether to revamp what’s at Okinawa, build an alternate location closer to the U.S., or do both. And a good model for the desired instruction, he said, is the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif.

There, “we train in mountain climbing, we train in cold weather, but it’s not all that school’s about,” the general said. “It’s about small-unit leader training. … So it’s really more than just mountain and cold weather. And as we develop the jungle warfare training center, it’ll be the same thing.”

At this point, TECOM is gathering data and exploring options, said Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for the command. It’s too early to discuss possible courses of action, he added.

The effort is consistent not only with the U.S. foreign policy shift to the Pacific, but with Commandant Gen. Jim Amos’ focus on what he has called the world’s “arc of instability,” a band that stretches horizontally across the globe from Central and South America, across Africa and the Middle East to Southeast Asia. The environments in some of these regions will require that Marines bone up on training specific to the challenges they’ll face when operating there, Amos has said.

Already, military excursions to tropical locales have been more prominent of late. Members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, for instance, were in the Philippines for an annual exercise in October. Simultaneously, members of the 15th MEU conducted military-to-military training in Timor-Leste. And closer to home, personnel from Marine Forces South recently spent weeks tracking drug traffickers in Guatemala.

The existing experience

Maj. Jonathan Hayes was among the Marines going through the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa in August when Amos visited and gave a talk about the importance of what they were doing. Hayes, the commanding officer of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, spent 12 days with his Marines at Camp Gonsalves.

Their training started in the classroom, where they learned the basics of a jungle environment, he said. From there, they learned to tie different knots that might be used for rappelling, studied land navigation, went through an endurance course and dealt with a simulated casualty. Jungle warfare training is a good means for Marines to apply the basics they already know to different terrains, Hayes said.

“I think the biggest lesson was what a severe impact terrain can have on operations time,” he said. “We were not just in a jungle, but going both up and down the steep hills of the mountains. It would take us four to five hours to move 1,000 meters.”

Hayes said he wouldn’t mind having their time there doubled — especially when it came to the jungle survival skills portion. Nature proved their biggest obstacle.

“It’s so humid, you just never have a chance to dry out,” he said. “We had tents and bed nets, but you can’t take your socks off and dry them out. All the Marines were just wet all day, there’s just no chance to recover.”

Additional small-unit leadership training, like Marines do during mountain warfare training, would only improve the experience, he said. Hayes’ Marines received only some of that training toward the end of their time at the center, when they split off into smaller teams to run their own patrol bases for two and a half days.

“Our backbone in infantry, especially, are those squad leaders and platoon commanders,” he said. “Even in our company, they’re out there on their own, not always under a company command control.”

Relying on basic skills

The Corps used to send Marines to the joint Jungle Operations Training Center at Fort Sherman in Panama. Run by the Army, the facility was deactivated in 1999.

Master Sgt. Jim Richards, a former Marine grunt now in the Air National Guard, trained there as a reservist in 1995. At the time an anti-tank missileman and infantry unit leader with 24th Marines, he said the experience Marines benefited from most in Panama was the small-unit leadership Murray mentioned.

“You have to be able to operate independently there,” Richards said. “Visibility is so limited that you can’t even see five feet in front you. You have to learn to operate on your own because in a triple canopy setting, air support is usually not an option.”

Richards, who deployed as a Marine in support of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and twice more to Iraq with the Air National Guard, said the jungle doesn’t afford troops the open view one gets in the desert, so learning what they might encounter there is important.

There can be communication problems when trying to get wires above tall tree lines. And a lot of the terrain doesn’t support vehicles, he said.

“Land navigation, calling for fire when you can’t see the Marine ahead or behind you, administering first aid because you can’t call in medics — those are all challenges you might not have in the desert,” he said. “You have to be able to fall back on the basics in the jungle.”

Another really basic skill: learning to take care of your hygiene when you’re constantly wet and prone to infections, rashes, chafing and blisters. Richards described it as “just a different kind of dirty.”

An immersive experience

Recently, MARFORSOUTH has orchestrated training between Marines and militaries in Central and South America. A benefit in doing that is the instruction from local jungle experts, but not having access to American military infrastructure can be a challenge.

Lt. Col. Daniel Temple is the operations officer with 23rd Marines. He’s been through the jungle training on Okinawa several times and was with his Marines when they trained with the locals in Belize last October. The two experiences are vastly different, he said, but there are benefits to both.

“In Japan, you have permanent infrastructure out there,” Temple said. “There are barracks, medical facilities, supply buildings, trails and rope bridges. Belize is really just a jungle.”

Temple said the drive from the barracks to the jungle was about four hours. When the British train there, he said, they have a helicopter with medics available to tend to anyone who gets hurt, so the Marines had to do the same. They also had to make daily logistics runs to get the stuff they needed out in the field.

“The logisticians got a lot of training getting all the stuff out there,” Temple said. “But it makes it a lot easier when you have the infrastructure because you just show up and train.”

But having access to local trainers, guys who grew up in the jungle and understand the sights and sounds, offered a new level of expertise, he said.

“It’s all U.S. instructors on Okinawa,” Temple said. “If you’ve got Marines teaching the class, you’re going to get a more military-centric class. In Belize, it was more focused on the environment — they were able to talk more about survival skills, tracking animals through prints in the mud, what plants you could use for medical purposes or the types of people they might see in the area.”

Another real benefit, he said, was the ability to conduct live-fire training. The area is so large, he said, “you could basically go out there and fire in any direction.”

Temple said the experience the Marines had in Belize was truly immersive. For weeks, they slept in tents with bug nets and navigated the demanding terrain during horrible weather. He sees the benefit in opening a jungle training center with a more permanent infrastructure somewhere that is just a short flight from the U.S.

“That would give more Marines the opportunity to get this training,” he said. “It is a skill that we need to refresh ourselves on.”

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