Tag Archives: Jennifer Leonard

Marine Reserve unit hit hard in Iraq holds 10-year reunion

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Marine Reserve unit that suffered some of the heaviest casualties during the Iraq War reunited Aug. 15-16. Many of the vets still bore the physical and emotional scars left by the 2005 deployment.

Hundreds of Marines and family members gathered here at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base to pay tribute to Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines. Ten years have passed since the Ohio-based unit lost 22 Marines and a Navy corpsman while operating near Haditha.

Sharing decade-old memories with combat buddies was bittersweet, said medically retired Lance Cpl. Carl Schneider.

“It’s always good to see them; but it’s very hard, too,” he said. “I know it’s been 10 years, but it doesn’t feel like it.”

In January 2005, the 180 Marines of Lima Company, nicknamed “Lucky Lima,”  3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, with 180 men, mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom. They returned here without 23 of their men.

The deployment had a relatively quiet start, with Lima Company remaining unscathed for the first several weeks. But in May 2005, nine Lima Marines were killed — several in the same improvised explosive device attack. In July, two more Marines and a corpsman were killed in action. The following month, 11 Marines riding in an amphibious assault vehicle were killed by a roadside bomb attack.

In the decade since that deployment, many of the Marines have gotten married, raised children and grown beards. Almost all have left the Marine Corps to pursue other careers.

Some of them kept in frequent touch because they remained in the Columbus area, but others hadn’t seen each other in years. Even George “Doc” Wentworth, the company’s corpsman, who knew each member of the unit because he handled their medical paperwork, said it was tough putting names to some of the faces.

“It’s been five or 10 years since I’ve seen them,” he said.

While a decade has passed and some of the physical scars have faded, the memories have not.

Schneider said he learned to cope with the memories in part through his career as an occupational therapist. He was one of the Marines severely burned in the May 2005 IED attack. He underwent 15 surgeries, including extensive skin grafting, to repair his face and arms.

Schneider brought his wife, Charlotte, and their 9-week-old son to the reunion. It was the couple’s one-year wedding anniversary, but instead of a romantic date, they ate dinner with Lima Marines and families.

“This is how much we wanted to be here,” Charlotte Schneider said.

Schneider’s family joined other veterans and their families on buses Saturday for the 30-mile trip to the memorial service south of Columbus. They were escorted by a dozen police cars and about 600 motorcycles. Traffic stopped on Interstate 270, while drivers and local firefighters stood at attention and saluted the unit.

“These Marines here are just at that point in their lives now when they begin to process what happened,” said retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Orrin Bowman. “And that’s why we’re having this reunion — so these guys can reunite and reconnect.”

Bowman didn’t deploy with the unit, but instead had the difficult duty of making the 23 casualty assistance calls.

“We had nine funerals in five days,” he said.

Since his retirement from the Marine Corps in 2006, Bowman has been active as president of the Mid-Ohio Marine Foundation and was part of the committee that organized the reunion. Although the memories from 10 years ago still haunt him at times, he said, “being here is great. It’s good therapy for me.”

Robert and Cherie Hoffman sat in the front of the bus, staring out at the firefighters and motorists lining the highway. “I don’t want to be here,” Robert whispered to his wife. Cherie held his hand. Their son, Sgt. Justin Hoffman, died in an IED blast in May 2005.

Being around the Marines and hearing stories of their deployment has helped the sergeant’s parents find peace. Looking out for each other is what helped many of the Lima families, both those dealing with death and those dealing with being survivors.  After walking around the hotel ballroom where the families had gathered and talking to Sgt. Hoffman’s friends, Cherie Hoffman was smiling.

“I got eight new numbers tonight, and I’m going to invite all of these kids over for dinner,” she said.

During the memorial service at the base, Sgt. Maj. Dan Altieri, the top enlisted member of 25th Marines, read the final roll call of the fallen, but also noted that Lima Company’s deployment forged lasting friendships.

“We need to move forward remembering the good things,” he said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Dennis McCarthy, who led Marine Corps Forces Reserve during Lima Company’s 2005 deployment and served as the guest speaker during the reunion, agreed. He said the unit should not be defined by its loss.

“I think it’s not disrespectful at all to remember more than just the losses,” he said. “Don’t allow Lima’s legacy to be all about the losses.”

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The first US women in combat will find US women already in combat


On January 1, the US military will open all of its positions to women — including combat duty — unless the individual services prove they should be exempt from the edict. Many consider this a groundbreaking moment for female troops, but women have already served with elite combat units. The upcoming deadline has become, in some sense, more about acknowledging reality than imposing change.

In 2011, all-female Cultural Support Teams (CSTs) were deployed to Afghanistan as “enablers” who kept women and children safe during nightly raids, and served as important resources for gathering intelligence. But these female soldiers were not just communication facilitators — they were part of a team embedded with the military’s elite Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

Women have been officially banned from serving in combat roles since the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, but a 2013 announcement that required all positions to be fully inclusionary by 2016 effectively repealed the ban.

As the integration deadline nears, two women have advanced to the final phase in the Army’s Ranger School. Parachuting into the swamps of Florida and slogging their way out is now the last challenge standing between them and graduation from the elite school, which would make them the first women to succeed in the rigorous program.

“Even if only one woman were to pass, it would negate all those arguments that they’re incapable of keeping up,” Katherine Kidder, Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told VICE News.

As of now, these women would earn the prestigious Ranger Tab — a qualification earned by just 3 percent of the Army — yet even after graduating from Ranger School they will still not be allowed to join the 75th Ranger Regiment, which performs Special Operations missions, since that would violate the 1994 ban on assigning women to combat positions. Apparently that’s an entirely different thing than assigning women to positions that may entail combat.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News the January 1 deadline “would be a big barrier broken” that could erase the last barrier that prevents women from serving in the elite Ranger Regiment.

This not the first time female soldiers in the US have been in a position to demonstrate their mettle. While the combat ban was in place, nearly 200 female troops died while deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, including two who were killed while serving on CSTs.

The war in Afghanistan highlighted the important role women could play in fighting insurgents and operating within other cultures. Male troops couldn’t talk to Afghan women, roughly half of the country’s population, because of cultural and religious norms. By excluding women from missions, the US faced immense losses in intelligence gathering, and it took longer to find insurgents as a result.

The situation created a demand for female soldiers who could interact freely with locals. Women assigned to the CSTs were tasked with engaging with and talking to the female population, earning their trust, and finding out where insurgents were hiding. “Those teams were created because Rangers needed women to help them get the job done,” Lemmon said.

In an odd twist, the Taliban, known for its oppressive treatment of women, actually forced the male-dominated US defense establishment to do what many have been advocating for years: Allow women to be assigned to combat roles. “There’s a true irony in the system,” Kidder told VICE News. “The Taliban, who are repressing women on the one hand, in this strange way have opened the door for American women.”

The role of the CSTs hasn’t escaped the notice of senior Pentagon leadership in the broader debate about assigning women to combat roles. Admiral Eric Olson, then-commander of USSOCOM, appeared before Congress in 2011 and called the CST program “effective and long overdue,” and urged all services “to recognize the capabilities of CSTs as essential military skills.”

In addition to bridging cultural gaps on the battlefield, CSTs may have played a similar role within the Department of Defense (DOD). In January 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey made the historic announcement that women will be able to fight in combat positions. In a letter to Panetta, Dempsey wrote that for this initiative to be successful, the service branches “will need time to get it right.”

The 2013 announcement was important in that it opened up avenues for training and qualification that were previously unavailable, as the services sought to get qualified female troops fully trained and ready to step into their roles before the 2016 deadline.

At the Special Operations Forces Training Facility in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, CST recruits had to go through the Rangers’ infamous “100 hours of hell,” a physically and mentally intense Special Ops selection process.

In her book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, Lemmon tells the story of CSTs in Afghanistan — and makes clear that they were capable of not only keeping up, but fighting with a unit of elite Special Operations soldiers. “Sarah, like all the CSTs, understood that contact could come at any time on any night, on any mission — they were never safe, and they accepted that,” she wrote about one of one female soldier.

Another program blazed a trail for the CSTs years before they deployed to Afghanistan. In 2006, the Army created the gender-neutral Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), composed of groups of American social scientists that helped the military understand the foreign cultures and customs they were dealing with overseas.

But much as US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan had difficulty navigating local religious and cultural norms, the social scientists of the HTTs faced culture clashes while embedded with the US military.

While the HTTs were deployed to “win the hearts and minds” of the foreigners, they were not intended to gather intelligence, according to Cynthia Hogle, who was part of an HTT embedded with the Army in Afghanistan in 2012. But that mission and fighting a war were tough to combine. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defended the Human Terrain Teams in a speech in 2008, but by June 2015, the DOD officially announced the end of the program.

Hogle recalls how hard it was for her to gain the respect and trust of male soldiers. “The military as a whole is narrow-minded, not just when it comes to women,” she told VICE News. “But I think all these programs are going to have a ripple effect.”

Kidder believes that allowing women in combat positions is about something more important to the military than whether women are as capable as men. “It’s not necessarily a conversation about equality, but about how do we make our force as effective as possible — regardless of gender,” she said.


Published in conjunction with USA Today Logo

The US Army is increasing troop rotations and equipment in Europe

US Army Europe officers speaks to reporters at the Pentagon about their rotational training in Eastern Europe, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Amina Ismail/Medill NSJI)

US Army Europe officers speaks to reporters at the Pentagon about their rotational training in Eastern Europe, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (Amina Ismail/Medill NSJI)

Officers of the US Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment, currently stationed in Vilseck, Germany, stopped by the Pentagon last week to talk about their rotational training in Eastern Europe and the larger array of efforts in the region being held to reassure NATO allies.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea from February 2014, and his increasingly aggressive actions near NATO’s stomping grounds, the Pentagon has been beefing up its military exercises and rotations in Central and Eastern Europe to ensure what US military officials say is the security and stability of its NATO allies.

“I can tell you that the countries that we are training with are concerned with Russia as a threat to the stability of Europe,” Army Colonel John V. Meyer III, commander of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, told journalists at a roundtable. “We are working on strengthening the alliance. We want a strong Europe.”

The Obama administration’s European Reassurance Initiative was launched in June 2014 with a $1 billion budget for training and temporary rotations.

These rotations are less costly and less politically sensitive than permanently stationing troops in Europe because joint exercises and a temporary presence ensure the allied nation’s sovereignty and improve its military capabilities.

“It is not perceived at all that the US is trying to expand its influence,” Meyer said. “Our host nations, our allies helped sustain us.”

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commanding general of US Army Europe, hinted at the long-term goal for the army in a promotional video. “Being able to rotate units to come over to train, but also have an in-depth understanding of the culture, the history, the geography, the infrastructure… This is going to be a permanent part of how the army operates,” he said.

One of the things that proves a regular hindrance for US crisis response is sending hundreds or thousands of troops overseas who don’t know the people, language, culture, or terrain of the country where they’re expected to be fighting.

Meanwhile, local forces have little or no experience working with US forces, procedures, or practices. By cycling troops through a region, it gives local forces ample opportunity to practice with US forces, while giving a wide range of American forces at least a basic working familiarity with the area.

For more than a decade, the US and NATO have avoided deploying permanent troops and military equipment to NATO’s newer member states which, during the Cold War, were part of the Soviet bloc, or even the Soviet Union.

This has been avoided in part to minimize tensions and prevent friction with the Kremlin, and is in keeping with the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security “to give concrete substance to their shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful, and undivided Europe.”

Apart from that more peaceful rationale, the US Army had actual wars to fight elsewhere anyway: Afghanistan and Iraq called for the majority of US troops to be in, going to, or coming from the Middle East and Central Asia.

Last month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the army — for the first time since it downsized its presence in Europe — would store tanks, heavy weapons, and infantry combat vehicles in Eastern and Central Europe, a bold move that may be viewed as a violation of the essence of the treaty, which states that NATO members and Russia should not consider each other adversaries.

Carter’s decision was part of the European Reassurance Alliance and Operation Atlantic Resolve, a training program launched by the US Department of Defense in May.

Operation Atlantic Resolve is the European counterpart to the Pacific Pathways model introduced last fall. In September, the US Army Pacific deployed about 1,200 soldiers for the month-long Garuda Shield training exercise in Indonesia. This joint effort with the Indonesian military served as the pilot program, and was the first time the army deployed troops for rotational training exercises with multinational partners.

The move to expeditionary-style forces in many ways dates back to the end of the Cold War, which marked the beginning of a steady decline of US Army presence in Eastern Europe and pre-positioned Overseas Material Configured to Unit Sets (POMCUS). The last US tanks, stationed in Grafenwöhr, Germany, were pulled out of Europe in March 2013, just one year before Russian tanks began moving into Crimea.

After heavy speculation and rumors about the US decision to store such equipment, and before Carter’s official announcement, Putin responded at an arms fair west of Moscow.

“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defense systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year,” he said.

Considering Russia’s satellite nuclear warning system will be out of service until November, this addition to Putin’s arsenal — and his public announcement — leaves the rest of the world hoping he will become neither brash nor desperate enough to make use of it.

Under Operation Atlantic Resolve, smaller companies of about US 100 soldiers are deployed to the Baltic States, while larger battalions of troops deploy to Poland to engage in rotational training exercises with allied armed forces. These so-called Regionally Aligned Forces are units that rotate into the country without bringing equipment, but instead use the European Activity Set, which contains a combined-arms, battalion-sized group of vehicles, and pre-positioned equipment permanently stationed in the US Army’s training area in Grafenwöhr — the exact location where only two years ago soldiers marked the end of an era, as the last US tanks withdrew from European soil.

The current US operations throughout Europe have a Cold War precedent. NATO’s annual REFORGER — Return of Forces to Germany — exercises filled a similar role: proving to both NATO and Russia that the US is capable of moving a large, decisive combat force quickly into the region in the event of war.

According to the official fact sheet, “Operation Atlantic Resolve will remain in place as long as the need exists to reassure our allies and deter Russia from regional hegemony.”

But is this rotational presence really going to send a clear and strong message to the Kremlin? Magnus Nordenman, an analyst with the Atlantic Council, thinks it sends “somewhat of a message.”

“The preference is to have permanently based forces, but if we can’t have that, then certainly rotations are better than nothing,” he told VICE News.

Both Marine General Joseph Dunford, the nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his prospective vice chairman, General Paul Selva, bring not only experience in strategic mobility, but also described Russia as a greater threat than China, North Korea, or Iran during their confirmation hearings, and encouraged deployment of heavy weapons in Europe to defend NATO allies.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who initially disagreed with Dunford and Selva, was alarmed by Putin’s comments. “Nobody should hear that kind of announcement from a leader of a powerful country and not be concerned about what the implications are,” Kerry said.

The short-term objective of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s training now seems obvious. “It provides us with operational mobility to maneuver throughout the alliance, and that is an incredible capability that we have inside Europe now,” Colonel Meyer said.

“A lot has been said over the last weeks about whether or not Russia is a threat, and what I can say is, I am training the formation to deal with any of the threats we can be faced with,” he added.

That same type of training has already occurred in the Pacific. Garuda Shield, along with the other training operations in Malaysia and Japan, were framed as a “Pacific Rebalance” — the current bureaucratic moniker of the Obama administration’s 2013 Pacific Pivot. The official Army Pacific Command website calls these efforts a “tangible demonstration of US commitment to Indo-Asia Pacific region security and stability.”

This operation, like its European equivalent, aims to train US forces with allied forces and familiarize the troops with the region.

Interestingly, the US Army is also focused on increasing its maritime and expeditionary capabilities, and appears to be reassessing its roots and fundamentally rethinking its structure and responsibilities.

With the implementation of this new, lighter-footprint form of power projection, some of the highest-ranking army officers envision a smaller, more flexible force capable of doing the strategic job of a much larger force. European commander Hodges would like “30,000 soldiers [to] achieve the strategic effect of 300,000 soldiers.”

“I don’t think he was being literal,” army spokesman Joseph Buccino told VICE News. “In a literal sense, it is impossible to replicate 30,000 [troops] with 300,000.”

But at least one commander sounded a word of caution.

“Rotating presence is no substitute for permanent forward presence,” said General Philip Breedlove, commander of the US European Command, which controls all military forces in that theater, in a Pentagon press briefing in April. But, he added: “Genuinely and fully funded rotational presence can play an important role in helping meet the requirements in our theater.”

This is ultimately the rub. This sort of “virtual presence” is a good way to extend limited peacetime resources, but is still just a placeholder for non-existent troops that will be sorely needed should conventional deterrence fail and war break out.

Published in conjunction with Vice News Logo