Tag Archives: marine corps

Crossfit event remembers fallen troops with ’31 Heroes W.O.D’

Former Marine P.J. Kellogg is bringing together Crossfit athletes to remember 31 U.S. service members who lost their lives in 2011 when their Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan.

Kellogg is the general manager of Crossfit MetroCenter in Washington and organized the “31 Hero W.O.D” on Aug. 1 for Uprise Fitness’ three Crossfit gyms. He was inspired to bring the commemorative workout to his own gym after realizing the event honored a mission in which his friend had been killed.

“After losing a friend in the actual happening of the 31 Heroes, I had no idea that there was actually a workout that other gyms and affiliates completed and raised donations for,” Kellogg said. “It means a lot to me because I understand it on a personal level.”

The Boeing CH-47 helicopter was transporting a group of quick-reaction troops, including members of the Navy SEALS, Naval Special Operations personnel, Air Force Special Tactics airmen, National Guard and Army Reserve, when it was shot down. Everyone on board was killed.

“They knew what they were doing when they did it, and they’re heroes for doing it,” Kellogg said. “They didn’t want any recognition. They would probably hate how much they’re missed today because they feel like what they did, even though they lost their lives, was something that’s meaningful to them.”

Athletes who completed the workout remembered these troops, as well as loved ones who had served, to keep them motivated through the 31-minute workout. Kellogg plans to continue hosting the event annually.

“As someone who has been in that field and seen guys selflessly risk their lives for complete strangers is just awe-inspiring,” Kellogg said. “I never will have an excuse not to try my best to participate in these workouts and try to get as many people involved as well.”

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Marine vet honors fallen female troops with 160-mile run


When Marine Maj. Bridget Guerrero (ret.) set out to run a mile for each of the 160 female troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, she never thought that one of their moms would show up to support her along the way.

After training for months, Guerrero set out to run 160 miles around Washington’s Puget Sound from Thursday through Sunday. When she noticed a stranger among the crowd that came out to support her along the four-day trek, Guerrero introduced herself — and quickly realized the woman was the most important person there.

Re McClung, the mother of Maj. Megan McClung, an accomplished triathlete and the first female Marine killed during the Iraq War, had come to wish Guerrero well. She gave Guerrero her daughter’s service coin, which Guerrero kept duct-taped to her arm for the remainder of the race.

“To know she is running for my daughter … and to know that she is running with Meg’s coin and to know that funds she raises will pay forward to the daughter of another Marine — it’s overwhelming,” Re McClung wrote on Facebook.

In an interview Monday after she completed the run, Guerrero, who retired from active duty in 2000, said meeting McClung and running with her daughter’s coin made the purpose of her mission all the more salient.

“She said that Megan would be sitting on my shoulder the whole run,” Guerrero said. “I think we joked around and I said I hoped she wasn’t too heavy.”

Guerrero’s Valor Run honored McClung and the other 159 female service members who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. She hoped to raise $5,000 for various charities, including the U.S. Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which dispenses money in McClung’s honor.

Guerrero said she ran to highlight the sacrifices of servicewomen.

“The media very rarely recognizes female losses, so when the average American thought of those losing their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’d automatically think they were men,” she said.

She also hoped her run would highlight the inroads female Marines are making as new opportunities open to women in the Corps.

“A lot more occupational specialties are available to women, and with that comes a risk of losing your life — and there are 160 who have,” she said. “We want to honor the sacrifices that our sisters have made, and all of us are willing to make, just as much as the men are.”

Guerrero’s race was the second Valor Run since Navy Reserve Capt. Nancy Lacore founded the organization in 2014. Lacore said she hadn’t envisioned her race as something that would inspire followers, but was thrilled that Guerrero was taking it bicoastal.

“It validates for me that this is the right thing to do,” she said. “I never thought someone else would be crazy enough to do it.”

Guerrero, 47, enjoyed robust support along the 160-mile route, which began Thursday in Oak Harbor, near McClung’s hometown, and ended Sunday in Tacoma. At various points along the way she was joined by retired and active-duty service members, family members of deceased troops and in one case a very old friend.

Matthew Denney, a retired Marine who ran alongside Guerrero at amphibious warfare training in the mid-1990s, flew from his home in Bend, Oregon, early Saturday morning and met Guerrero along the third leg of her race. They hadn’t seen one another since 2001, but Denney ran 30 miles by Guerrero’s side.

“I originally tried to come up with a good reason why I couldn’t go run with her,” Denney said. “But this is something that warrants attention and support.”

Guerrero, a lifelong runner who served as a communications and intelligence officer with 4th Reconnaissance Battalion, was a member of the Corps’ marathon, super-marathon and pentathlon teams.

She lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her husband, Dan, son, Sam, and twin daughters, Claire and Ella.

Published in conjunction with Marine Corp Times Logo

VIDEO: Howitzer Artillery System still vital in today’s ground combat


TWENTYNINE PALMS, Ca. — After seeing a decade of heavy combat in two major wars, the lightweight M777 howitzer continues to be an integral piece of the U.S. military’s artillery strategy – as it looks forward to facing a range of new threats.

With the capacity to fire up to five 155mm rounds a minute, the M777 provides artillery units with pinpoint accuracy in long-range-fire for up to 18.6 miles, and the capability to transport the equipment quickly between locations.

At the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, training prepares troops for scenarios when long distance precision fire is needed in support of maneuverable forces. These training operations take place on the Marine’s largest live-fire base with nearly 600,000 acres, aptly located in the desert and mountainous region of Southern California.

The Marines at Twentynine Palms were the first to receive the M777 when it became operational in 2005. Soon after it was used by the U.S. Army and Marines in Afghanistan in 2007, and Iraq in 2008.

“We provide fire support to the maneuverable forces,” said Lt. Col. Charlie Von Bergen, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion 11th Marines at Twentynine Palms. That often means pinning down the enemy so U.S. troops can move.

Von Bergen spends just under a month training his battalions to locate enemy targets and aid forces to maneuver safely between checkpoints. During Von Bergen’s current training exercise they are working with three M777 howitzers, but would typically have six in combat.

“We do things to produce a certain effect out on the battlefield, whether it is to delay, destroy, divert, suppress or neutralize somebody,” said Capt. Andrew Reaves who oversees the howitzer sections for the battalion.

The 3rd battalion is practicing with high explosive white phosphorus, smoke and alum flares round. “It’s like flipping on a light switch,” said Capt. Richard Whalen of the alum flares. During the exercises, Whalen’s unit maps the known enemy targets and locations of impacted rounds, as well as ammunition levels of each type of firepower.

To continue to be effective in evolving warfare, the newest M777 system weighs in at less than 8,000 pounds, the first howitzer to be less than 10,000 pounds and almost half the weight of the previous iteration.

Col. Don Paquin says he remembers primarily using the M777 for its forcible entry fire support capability to attain footholds and wait for follow-on force to expand their ground in the Middle East. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, he said the artillery weapon is “pretty dog-gone good.”

“It’s iterative and its constant,” said Paquin, a light artilleryman studying National Security Strategy at the National War College. He believes the current M777 A2 model accomplishes exactly what it was designed to do.

“With toad systems you always want a faster way of emplacing and displacing the system,” he said. When he first joined the military he used the previous M198 howitzer, which required a crew of nearly twice the five-man crew of the M777.

With the recent A2 upgrade to the M777, the howitzer now has increased digital capabilities. “The howitzer always knows where it is,” said Paquin, who does not believe there is a need for concern in relying solely on digital GPS for aiming the weapon. “We trust the technology.”

Paquin said that there are backups to the digital technologies allowing troops to trust the equipment they have.

While strategic warfare’s complexity grows with the use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, the M777 howitzer artillery system will have many years left in modern warfare.

Twentynine Palms: The Best Training (But the Worst Social Life)

  • Pfc. Ryan May on the right with Pfc. Jonathan Saldivar taking a break from heavy artillery training. (Niccole Kunshek/MEDILL)
    Pfc. Ryan May on the right with Pfc. Jonathan Saldivar taking a break from heavy artillery training. (Niccole Kunshek/MEDILL)


TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. – Getting stationed in California should sell itself: Sun, sand and mountains. But that’s not the case for some Marines assigned to Twentynine Palms Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command and Combat Center — an hour northwest of Palm Springs in Southern California.

The base is centrally located between the mountains, ocean, Las Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles, but all are several hours away. The nearby town of Twentynine Palms – population 26,000 — offers few entertainment options, especially for young Marines without a car.

Some Marines describe Twentynine Palms as a “difficult duty” station because of the limited free-time activities. Others see the isolation as a tradeoff to get the exceptional training offered at the base.

“I did not pick it, but you know you’ll be the best if you go here,” said Pfc. Ryan May, who works with heavy artillery. “So, you can’t really be mad about it.”

May and others said the opportunities to hone their training are almost as boundless at Twentynine Palms as the base itself. It is slightly bigger than Rhode Island, offering Marines the chance to do live fire exercises daily.

“That’s what the Marines like to do: Make things go boom,” said Mike King, a former Marine who served 15 of his 20 years at Twentynine Palms. “You can’t do the things we do here on this base anywhere else so it’s practical application of what they’ve been trained to do.”

The U.S. government created Twentynine Palms in 1949 because more live-fire ranges were needed for training. Many Marines not stationed there often cycle through it for training. The Integrated Training Exercise is a month long program focusing on warfare maneuvers for global operations. Currently, the base is used for pre-deployment training for missions in the Middle East. The desert terrain at Twentynine Palms mimics conditions troops will face in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Exercises also are conducted in a mock Middle Eastern village on the base.

The size of the base allows Marines to do more than just shoot large guns. The desert space also gives tank units room to practice moving their machines, which can be limited on other bases. Fewer space restrictions give the Marines more opportunity to see how the tanks perform, move and break down.

Tank mechanic Staff Sgt. Adam McPherson chose to be stationed at Twentynine Palms because of the hands-on experience it would provide.

“The tanks get used a lot,” he said. “We go to the field quite often out there and mechanics get that first-hand experience fixing them.”

McPherson believes because there are so many field exercises at the base he has more knowledge about his vehicle than a Marine who has not been stationed at Twentynine Palms.

The base also features the largest urban warfare training center, Range 220, in the Department of Defense, not just the Marine Corps, according to King.

“When you’re talking Range 220 here in Twentynine Palms, 1,500 buildings compose the size of about downtown San Diego. There’s no other place on the planet you can get this type of training.”

But after the training ends, the boredom begins – at least for some Marines. Most are males between the ages of 19 and 24, according to King. About 7,000 of the 10,500 Marines are single, said Capt. Justin Smith, the base’s public affairs officer. Drive around the city of Twentynine Palms and you will find many tattoo parlors and barbers, but you will not see any of the strip parlors that cater to many other military bases.

“Twentynine Palms, the city itself, is more family-oriented,” said King.

With limited entertainment options round the base, boredom can drive Marines to extremes. There is a saying at Twentynine Palms: Marines either become drinkers, gym rats or find religion.

Capt. Jonathan Zarling admitted single Marines can struggle with their social lives.

“You’ve got to travel to it,” he said. “Single guys on the weekend are usually wondering, ‘What do I do?’”

“We have each other out here to hang out with,” said Cpl. Jacob Evans. “We’ll just hang out at each other’s houses and grill, have a few drinks.”

For some, the desert has advantages for entertainment.

“I actually enjoy it because I’m a dirt bike rider,” said Sgt. Ricky Bajo. “There are a lot of dirt places here.”

Bajo has spent six years at Twentynine Palms and rides his dirt bike almost every weekend. Other Marines said they found the seclusion of the desert and base comforting.

“I like it here because I come from a small town where I was already isolated,” said McPhearson, who also has spent six years on the base. “The quiet is nice. I don’t like the hustle and bustle of the city, so for me it’s OK.”

The base offers discount entertainment options. There is a movie theater where Marines can see first run movies, restaurants, a fitness center, clubs, concerts, sporting events, stories, classes and seminars. Different commands throughout the Marine Corps also host various functions depending on the amount of recreational funds they receive, including day trips to popular destinations said Smith.

King advises young Marines to save money to buy a reliable car so they can take advantage of the ocean, mountains and big cities all a few hours’ drive from the base.

“If you cannot find something to do, you’re not trying hard enough,” he said.


The Marines: Training for war with virtual combat


TWENTYNINE PALMS, Ca. — The United States Marines are not afraid of relying on computer technology when it comes to saving time and resources in combat convoy training. Saving thousands of dollars per exercise, Marines at this sprawling base here are using a Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer to practice maneuvering through a foreign landscape while in a military vehicle convoy.

The Lockheed Martin Corporation developed the VCCT system in 2004. Before it, the military would train its Marines and soldiers with classroom lectures and videos.

With this technology now in use at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Ca., units are able to train to whatever scenario they might encounter on an upcoming deployment overseas. “You can come in here and tell me, specifically, this is what we want to train to and I am able to build whatever you want,” said Ryan Brown, former Marine and the Electronic Maintenance Technician for the system at the base.

“So what they’re doing is training to move multiple vehicles from point A to point B, keeping a distance, keeping a speed and doing check points and radio communications the entire time,” said Mike King the operations officer for the Marine’s more than half-million acre base..

The system is not meant to eliminate actual convoy training completely, but simulating missions saves time and fuel while creating practical experience, King said. When Marines and Navy sailors used to go through the training, King would put them in vehicles, send them onto the course and watch as they’d make a mistake, have to back up, refuel, and get briefed and set up again. “In here,” he says, “all Ryan has to do it hit a couple buttons.” The VCCT is an opportunity for Marines to practice common procedures such as discovering an improvised explosive device in the road, and setting up a perimeter of the area to safely move around the area until it is discharged.

Within the training, Marines operate Humvees, communicate with others in the convoy, and carry electronic weapons to fire at enemy combatants. The system trains Marines to keep a safe following distance between vehicles in case of an IED explosion.

With 360-degree screens in the room, the training can appear to be a glorified shoot and kill video game. But Brown and King say Marines can spend hours in the simulator without firing a round.

Brown sees the VCCT as an opportunity to focus on fixing weaknesses within the unit without holding up the larger battalion. “That’s the point of coming here,” he says, “you make the mistakes here before going out of the country” The simulator has detailed databases that can mimic the conditions of key Iraqi battlegrounds like Fallujah, Baghdad and Tikrit, as well as others that serve different purposes.

The system is currently set up to focus on Middle Eastern regions, but Brown said it can be reconfigured to look like Ukraine or similar terrain if that is what a unit needs training for.

“A simulation never fully replaces live training, but we can come close here,” said Brown.

The Marines are currently seeking to extend their contract that allows them to use the Lockheed Martin technology.

As good as the advanced technology is, overreliance on it could compromise the basic skills that Marines need in the field, like reading a map and compass, Brown says, “What happens when the technology fails?”

Howitzer brings front-line training to Marine camps

Without seeing the target nearly 15 miles away, the M777 howitzer and its team of eight Marines can deliver a high explosive shell within one meter of the mark. The history of the weapon goes back to the invention of gunpowder during the Tang Dynasty in ancient China. Over 1,000 years later, the M777 is celebrating its 10th year as the flagship weapon of the Marine Corps artillery.

In the middle of the Mojave, Marines make millions off bullet casings and bomb fragments

  • Piles of bullet casings sorted for recycling at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s Qualitative Recycling Program Range Sustainment branch. (Amina Ismail/MEDILL NSJI)
    Piles of bullet casings sorted for recycling at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s Qualitative Recycling Program Range Sustainment branch. (Amina Ismail/MEDILL NSJI)

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — On a stretch of California desert the size of Rhode Island at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, thousands of Marines train for combat each year. And the casings, shells and bomb fragments fired in these exercises are making the Marine Corps millions of dollars each year.

“You have tank parts, you have 120 tank rounds that are made up of aluminum, you have 40-mm rounds. Everything that’s made out of aluminum is sitting back there in that pile,” said Jay Jones, work leader for the seven-person team at the Qualitative Recycling Program’s Range Sustainment branch. “Believe it or not, an airplane crashed out here one year, and it stayed out there. Once the investigation was over, we went out and got it brought back. Someone’s probably driving around a car in it now.”

The Qualified Recycling Program started in 2000 and collected over 5.6 million pounds of range residue last year. The recycling program manages trash and household recyclables as well as exploded munitions and hazardous materials from across the base. Items are collected, sorted, processed and recycled or sold to government-approved contractors for profit, saving the base removal costs.

Range Sustainment

Heaping piles of shells and casings lay sorted in material-specific containers at the Range Sustainment branch, which processes some 900,000 pounds of spent munitions from across the base each year.

“Everything that’s been shot at, shot up, blown up, that’s what we recycle in here,” Jones said. “The Marines themselves bring it in, plus we have contractors that go in and they bring in the bigger pieces of gear. The blown up tanks, the airplane.”

Every unit that trains at the base’s live fire ranges must return expended ammo to the Range Sustainment branch. Staff members sort them into piles by raw material and conduct quality assurance checks for live ordinances

Norman Troy, an explosives ordinance specialist who supervises the Range Sustainment branch, said he identifies each spent munition by sight based on its fusing system and does not consider his job a risk to his life.

“We make sure nothing is live,” Troy said. “It’s once in a very blue moon does something unexploded come in that’s dangerous. And if it does come in, then we call the explosives ordinance disposal, and they come down. And they’ll hopefully go blow it up somewhere.”

Hazardous Materials

The hazardous materials branch acts as the Qualified Recycling Program’s innovative hub. Branch staff process and recycle hazardous materials from across the base, including oil, grease, paint and anti-freeze. According to Patrick Mills, program manager for hazardous materials, the major cost-saving components are the recycling of anti-freeze and the reconditioning of batteries.

Every piece of military rolling stock uses batteries worth $300 to $500, Texas company PulseTech donated machines that recondition the batteries by using an ultrasonic technology that breaks up phosphates that cocoon the lead plates within the batteries. These machines cost $5,000 a piece, but using them saves the Marine Corps up to $1.5 million dollars a year.

Projects like this have caught the eye of think tanks that work with Mills and his team to maximize their technologies.

“DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is one of the many different think tanks,” said Mills. “They find technology, they try to do a cross application to a [Department of Defense] use, for example, and then they would find guys like us who like to step out on the edge of that limb. And that’s what I do.”

Maximizing technology is a key driver of innovation for the branch, which reduced the amount of hazardous waste shipped off-site in 2014 by 192 tons compared with the previous year.

“We are going through a fiscal tsunami right now,” Mills said. “We just fought two long sustained wars. Not one, but two. And we’re still fighting other different neo-intensive operations. There’s ISIS.”

“The think tank, basically they’re trying to get us out of a stone age into new cutting-edge technology. The battery’s one example,” Mills added.

Profit Management

An environmental award submission to the secretary of Defense cited a variety of issues the base faces, including budget reductions, increased environmental requirements, greater public scrutiny and pressure to privatize commercial-like functions. But despite these pressures, the base’s recycling business is thriving.

Last year, the Qualified Recycling Program amassed $2.5 million in profit. Half of this amount went toward labor, maintenance and upgrade costs for the recycling program, and half went to the base’s Marine Welfare Program.


The recycling program staffers aren’t the only ones who see the lucrative potential of the Marine Corps’ leftovers. The Marines training at Twentynine Palms from dawn until dusk have turned the arid sand into a goldmine of metals primed for scrappers, who sneak onto base property illegally, collect discharged munitions, and sell them for profit to local recycling centers.

“They have the ability to just pick up as much as they can pick up,” Troy said. “They’re looking for high-value material. So our brass is a high-value material.”

Besides latent threats these scrappers face like unintentionally stumbling across a live fire training exercise, Troy said there are also risks of unexploded ordinances in the field.

“There have been a couple of incidents where they’d go out and find somebody. They found a couple scrappers that had died near their vehicle. They found a few vehicles that had been stranded out there that had materials in the back that were unsafe.”

Troy said the recycling center cooperates with San Berdardino County Sheriffs Office and conservation law enforcement officer Russell Elswick to prosecute scrappers who have illegally taken metal materials from the base.

For its environmental efforts, including recycling and water reclamation, the Twentynine Palms MCAGCC was awarded the 2015 Secretary of Defense Environmental Non-Industrial Installation Award.



Philly VA pushes back on investigation


WASHINGTON — The Philadelphia branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs has already fixed some of the problems noted by federal inspectors who said the office altered quality reviews, violated claim policies and had stacks of unopened mail, a top VA official said Monday.

Last week’s report by the VA inspector general’s office is the latest blow to an organization routinely accused of chronic mismanagement, cooked books and retaliation against whistleblowers. The investigation began in June when the inspector general’s hotline received numerous complaints about the Philadelphia VA regional office. According to the report, many of those callers were VA staff concerned with reprisals against employees who raised problematic issues with management.

VA Under Secretary of Benefits Allison Hickey told reporters in a conference call that while she agrees with the findings in the VA inspector general’s report, recent restructuring has already solved most of the regional office’s problems.

“The report that was released by the IG, from my perspective, reflects conditions as they were over a year ago, and we knew that,” Hickey said.

The VA inspector general’s report was released last Wednesday. It documents numerous problems in the way the office operates. They include confirmed cases in which the Philadelphia VA violated claim processing protocol and, in at least one instance, concealed bins of unprocessed mail. The report also expressed concern for employees at a VA call center, who routinely complained about a lack of bathrooms, leaking roofs and insect and vermin infestations.

Hickey claims that the report does not reflect changes made last summer, including improved claim dating procedures, new call center facilities and mass retraining of VA staff. She also noted that the VA encourages employees to report problems without fearing reprisal.

“We are inviting our employees to tell us when they see something that causes them concern,” said Hickey when asked what will happen to those employees who reported the Philadelphia and National Call Center problems.

“The majority of [problems raised by the report] have already been fixed,” she said.

Hickey is overseeing a parallel internal investigation of the Philadelphia VA that will be completed at the end of June.

Many veterans’ groups were unimpressed with Hickey’s assurances.

Joe Davis, director of public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, viewed the Philadelphia VA’s story with skepticism.

“When the VA says they’ve fixed everything, you better make sure somebody goes in there and does fix everything. And that’s a trust problem that the VA has,” Davis said.

Davis also pointed to the culture of the VA, which he believes is out of sync with the military it serves.

“The problem with the VA is they forgot who they work for,” said Davis. “They don’t work for the next line supervisor, director, hospital manager or regional office director. They work for the veterans.”

The Marine Corps’ Archeological Treasure Trove

An Afghan soldier, second from left, and U.S. Marines respond to an explosion inside a mock Afghan village during a training exercise on Sept. 23, 2008, at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. The U.S. Marine Corps recently licensed another 300 square miles at Twentynine Palms from the Bureau of Land Management.

An Afghan soldier, second from left, and U.S. Marines respond to an explosion inside a mock Afghan village during a training exercise on Sept. 23, 2008, at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. The U.S. Marine Corps recently licensed another 300 square miles at Twentynine Palms from the Bureau of Land Management.

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — The Twentynine Palms Air Ground Combat Center is a 1,100-square-mile training facility for U.S. Marines where infantry units hurl grenades, aircraft drop bombs and artillery batteries pummel the earth with 100-pound shells.

But buried beneath the ground in this large swath of California’s Mojave Desert are brittle pieces of stone technology dating back 12,000 years.

So before Marines can start training, Defense Department archaeologists have to ensure that the cache of prehistoric Native American artifacts scattered about are surveyed, catalogued and collected. The Marines recently licensed another 300 square miles from the Bureau of Land Management, and the archeologists already are on the ground there.

“We have more than 2,000 sites on the base,” said John Hale, one of the three full-time archaeologists who work at Twentynine Palms, “and we’ve only surveyed about 50 percent of it.”

Hale’s team has completed the initial phase of archaeological assessment for the new acquisition, which involves systematically walking around the land and noting areas of interest and possible past habitation. But the real work begins once sites have been singled out for excavation.

John Hale is one of three full-time archaeologists who work at Twentynine Palms. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

John Hale is one of three full-time archaeologists who work at Twentynine Palms. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

“We’re looking for areas that have a potential subsurface component,” said Leslie Glover, another of the base’s archaeologists. “When you start to see relationships between objects over horizontal distances, that’s when things really get interesting.” For example, if scientists find stone shavings in one spot and burnt seeds nearby, they begin to see the patterns of a rudimentary economy.

But discerning these kinds of ancient geographical relationships takes time, and work can continue on a dig site for months and sometimes years. Given that the Marine Corps has been fighting for usage rights to the BLM-managed land for almost a decade, this is time the military says it does not have.

“We need the land for brigade-level training, which is essential,” said Capt. Justin Smith, a public affairs officer at Twentynine Palms. “This is the first time the base is going to be able to do live fire exercises on such a large scale, with 15,000 Marines and sailors working together.”

The military archeologists’ first responsibility is to accommodate the training needs of the Marines, but it’s only part of the job. “The other 50 percent comes from our own evaluations of what has to get done from a cultural perspective,” Smith said.

After the excavations are completed, the team members begin what they call the mitigation phase of their work, looking at the potential impact of various activities on or near the site, moving targets and cordoning off sensitive locations.

“We put a lot of things in boxes and prep them for display,” said Charlene Keck, collections manager for the department. “That’s often the best thing we can do to preserve the heritage here.”

The preservation sites at Twentynine Palms are numerous enough to fill an on-base museum full of projectile points, milling slabs and rock art panels, some types of which are unique to the region. There are two main display areas, rooms for examination and a storage facility packed to the brim with artifacts.

An on-base museum at Twentynine Palms features projectile sites and milling slabs. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

An on-base museum at Twentynine Palms features projectile sites and milling slabs. (Tobias Burns/MEDILL)

The artifacts are thought to be mostly Serrano, one of the indigenous peoples of California, but other migratory populations are likely represented as well.
At one site on the base, Dead Man Lake, charred bits of ancient mesquite pods have been found, as well as pictographs and rock drawings as old as 10,000 years.
The base also has more-recent archaeological evidence to consider and collect. Much of it relates to early American homesteading and mining operations. There are old American military roads and airstrips, as well.

But the heart of the archaeology office at Twentynine Palms lies in the prehistoric past. “I have a particular fondness for some of the oldest artifacts,” Glover said, referencing some domed scraping tools used by the Serrano. “I have the incredibly scientific view that they’re really, really cool.”

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Current testing is make or break for new Marine Corps Amphib

Photo by Wikipedia

Amphibious warfare capabilities, the ability to project military power onto a hostile shore, is a unique tactic exclusive to the Marine Corps. Since 1972, the Marines have used Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs), a sort of hybrid between a boat and tank, to safely transport Marines directly from ships and up onto land.

In 1988, the Marines decided to initiate an Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAAV) program, which in 2003 was renamed as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program.  In 1996, the Marine Corps awarded General Dynamics a contract to build 573 of the vehicles with full operational capability by 2025.

This 13 billion dollar project substantially upgrades the previous AAV models.  For example, the original AAVs’ high speed in water is about 8 knots.  They carry a 50 caliber machine gun and must be deployed less than two miles from shore.

“In today’s day and age that’s a troubling aspect to have to operate in when missile defenses and rogue terrorists are able to get a hold of shoulder mounted weapons,” said Emanuel Pacheco, public affairs officer of the U.S. Marine Corps EFV Program Office.

The new EFVs can deploy from their mother-ships as far as 25 miles from shore, can reach up to 25-30 knots in the water and come equipped with a stabilized 360 degree turret and a 30mm cannon that can reach targets up to 2,000 meters away.

“It’s a night and day difference,” said Pacheco.

But the program has received strong criticism both from Congress and defense experts, mainly due to an initial testing phase in 2006, which showed various problems associated with the new vehicles.

The Congressional Research Service has expressed concerns about the vehicles vulnerability to IEDs in its report, The Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV): Background and Issues for Congress, released Sept. 1, 2011.

The report states, “The improvised explosive device (IED) threat that has plagued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was not envisioned in 1988 when the EFV program was initiated. The EFV’s low ground

clearance and flat bottom make it particularly vulnerable to IEDs; this has raised congressional concern that the EFV, as currently designed, would provide inadequate protection to transported Marines.

Other main problems included the frequent jamming of the 30mm cannon, and the average time between operational mission failures was very low, only 4.5 hours.

But Pacheco said important lessons were learned from the initial testing and the whole program has been basically redesigned.

Part of the reason for the high failure rate, he said, was that the vehicles had been put through the equivalent of 20 to 30 years of testing at the bases before actually going through the operational assessment.

So when the EFVs go through the second phase of testing scheduled to begin in November to see if these problems have been resolved, they will evaluate seven brand new prototypes, rather than the originals they used before.

“I think it’s fair to say that this is the litmus test to see if the program goes forward,” Pacheco said.

The testing will last until the end of January.  Each vehicle will have to endure 500 hours of mini-missions and operate 16 hours before experiencing mission failure in order to pass.

“We’re optimistic we’ll be in the low 20s [of hours] just based on all the early testing that we’ve done,” Pacheco said. “We’ve had a lot of success in high water testing and we put more time and effort into the turret system in these new prototypes just to ensure that we work out a lot of the bugs early on.”

But Lawrence Korb, defense budget expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the EFV program is too costly and is a misuse of tax-payer dollars.

“It’s not that you don’t want them [Marines] to be able to project power from the sea.  They’ll still be able to come ashore and do various things, but you don’t need this expensive vehicle,” Korb said.

Over the past 25 years, the Marines have conducted 106 amphibious operations, most of which have been humanitarian crisis support missions such as those in Rwanda, Somalia and most recently in Haiti.  The Marines also used their amphibious capability to evacuate American citizens from Lebanon in 2006.

“When are you going to do an amphibious landing under fire again?” asked Korb.  “We haven’t done that since 1950.”

But Pacheco says that doesn’t mean the Marines don’t need the capability.

“We’re not going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our history.  There’s trouble brewing around the corner somewhere and we have to continue to be most ready when perhaps that the nation is the least ready,” Pacheco said, echoing a Corps slogan.  “And part of that requires us to get back to those roots, to be a force in readiness and to be ready to deploy.”

In June 2010, the Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of more than a dozen defense experts, published Debt, Deficits, & Defense: A Way Forward, a report that recommends canceling the EFV program and refurbishing the older AAVs instead, which it says would save $8 billion to $9 billion between 2011 and 2020.

Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to fully fund the President’s FY11 EFV budget request, but their support, along with that of the Secretary of Defense, will likely end for the next defense budget submission due in February if the EFVs don’t pass this upcoming test.