Marines fight silent enemy

17 Feb 2007 | Lance Cpl. Ryan C. Heiser 2nd Marine Division

Pfc. Nicholas J. Cook slowly makes his way toward the city’s edge. He winds his way out of the forward operating base, past the concertina wire toward the bleachers outside the empty town. He passes several plywood signs with warnings to intruders on one side and helpful reminders to troops on the other.

Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 2, reviewed classes on Iraqi culture and practiced their mounted patrol procedures, vehicle check point operations, and vehicle and personnel search techniques. The exercises were part of their pre-deployment Mojave Viper training in the California desert.

“This type of training is great for Marines because we need to be able to know (the Iraqi) culture in order to interact and better train the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police when we deploy,” said Cook, a rifleman with the company.

The Marines spent the entire morning receiving classes on cultural awareness, urban mounted movement, mounted patrol operations, setting up vehicle check points, or VCPs, checkpoint operations, countering vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, and vehicle and personnel searches.

“For junior Marines who have never deployed, this is as close to real-life scenarios as they will get,” said Cpl. Oswin T. Burnett, an instructor controller with the Urban Warfare Training Center at Mojave Viper. “We have people who speak Arabic, life-like buildings and streets, basically everything you will see in Iraq. It’s all the same.”

Burnett said the reasoning behind all the simulated real-life training was to make sure Marines understood not only what they are doing for every possible situation, but also why they do it.

“The classes and technology here (at Mojave Viper) are making our training better and making us a lot more efficient,” said Cook, a Valatie, N.Y., native. “We know more and are more prepared for different situations. This is where you realize it’s real, and that in a little while you will really be in Iraq.”

To help solidify this fact within the Marines’ minds, many of the classes, such as cultural awareness and searching procedures, are taught by Iraqi role players like Loay F. Alkhafaji.

“I teach them these things because, as I am helping them, so do I expect them to help my people,” said Alkhafaji, a linguist and Iraqi role player at Mojave Viper.

Alkhafaji, an Iraqi native who now lives in Pasadena, Calif., came to the United States with a dream of a new, safer, country where his family could live a better life. He feels it is his duty to his country to help the battalion’s Marines before they deploy in March.

“I think they will do good. I know they help a lot, I hope,” Alkhafaji said as his eyes grew distant, “because they must.”

Like many of his fellow role-players, he regularly talks to his family in Iraq, and gets reports on what Marines in their areas are doing. He uses this information to better teach the Marines in his classes and improve their situational awareness.

“Recently,” the Iraqi laughs, “the big thing has been teaching them to use the door, instead of crashing through a window. Imagine, you are eating with your family and several large, armed men jump through your windows. It can be terrifying.”

Alkhafaji said the best tool for cultural awareness is the Marines’ mind. He asked each Marine to think about what he does, and what if it was their family in the house.

Cpl. Jeremy T. Cole, a squad leader with the company, likes the new Mojave Viper training.

“If we can handle it here, it sets a good foundation for operations in Iraq,” said Cole, a Lakewood, Ohio, native.

Cole, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, deployed last time without the additional training Mojave Viper provides, but seeing the improved reactions of his squad members has made him a believer in the training.

“Their situational awareness has improved, and they can react to anything because they have already seen it before here in the desert,” he said.

Cole added the training creates initiative and eliminates hesitation because of the muscle-memory it instills. He said without a new type of training, Marines would run the risk of growing stagnant and complacent with their actions.

“I’ll be honest, none of us want to be here but it is exactly what we need. I wouldn’t want to go back (to Iraq) without coming here first,” said Cole.

After the classes, the vehicle searches, and the personnel searches, the Marines worked their way back to their FOB, looking forward to a meal and a warm bed. As they made their way back through the winding entrance they passed the warning signs once more. One sign, larger and more ominous than the rest, is decorated with a black skull-and-crossbones, and reads: Complacency Kills.

In the seemingly endless desert of California, the Marines of 1/2 are doing their best to prepare themselves to fight this silent enemy.