Tag Archives: United States Marine Corps

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.”

Published in conjunction with Marine Corp Times Logo

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

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?”

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