FALLUJAH, Iraq -- A maxim exists in Marine Corps infantry platoons and loosely paraphrased, says if a squad leader falters, freezes or fails, all paper-smart strategic plans are worthless.
Cpl. Chris W. Adair, a 20-year-old native of Custer County, Colo., knows about this adage from experience.
Adair is one of many squad leaders with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines Regiment, who are on their second deployment to Iraq. Last year, Task Force 2/7 was part of Regimental Combat Team-7 and worked at Hit. This time around with Regimental Combat Team-8, the “War Dogs” operate in and out of Fallujah. This is the third Operation Iraqi Freedom deployment for the unit from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif.
“Not often do you find 20-year-olds tasked with critical life-or-death decisions on a daily basis in the civilian world; but in the Marine Corps, they become men who are depended on and expected to come through in different kinds of military operations on the streets of Fallujah and the communities that surround it,” said Gunnery Sgt. Scott J. Baker, E Company gunnery sergeant.
Adair, who has the look and demeanor of Tom Berenger's character, Staff Sgt. Bob Barnes in the 1986 movie "Platoon," knows a thing or two about being a squad leader. He entered the Corps in 2003 after graduating from Custer County High School in Westcliffe, Colo. He completed recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and Marine Combat Training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., before he arriving for 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. He became a squad leader for 1st Platoon in February 2004 when he was still a lance corporal and was promoted to corporal a month later.
“A squad leader is responsible for the accomplishment of squad missions, but he’s also responsible for the lives of a dozen other Marines,” said Adair. “That’s the basic concept that you learn from day one at boot camp and it’s reinforced in (Marine Combat Training) and when you get to your unit.”
That basic concept of leadership might be instilled from "day one," but it is quickly tested here in real-life operations.
“There’s a lot of preparation that goes into just going on a simple mounted or foot patrol,” Adair explained. “Everything must be preset, ready to go – any special equipment for the task, weapons or ammo, vehicles, individual task assignments and rehearsals if necessary. But most of all, you’ve got to make sure your Marines are ready,” explained Adair.
Squad leaders must know how to both give and take orders, and how to deal with immediate situations but not lose sight of the overall mission. All of this is done during military operations in the complex and dynamic environment of Iraq's Al Anbar province.
Patrols are daily and each one is unique. They may be distinguished by time, location, and method of movement -- as day or night, urban or rural, foot or mounted. "Each type of patrol brings with it differences in the way you prepare for it," explained Adair. But according to Adair, the most important thing to prepare for is the unexpected -- and the young Marines here have learned to expect it.
"A grenade thrown from a three-story building into the back of an up-armored vehicle, a suicide bomb attack on a convoy, a buried IED detonated on a patrol route -- these are some of the situations we’ve faced," Adair said calmly.
“Our job is to guide and direct our Marines, make tactical decisions for the squad and enforce the rules,” said Adair. Squad leaders for the battalion ensure their Marines receive serviceable gear, good living conditions, physical conditioning, proper training and supervision, according to Adair. In Iraq, squad leaders are responsible for the very lives of their Marines, directing them through the phases of daily operations.
“Their lives depend on your decisions and how well you handle yourself under pressure,” Adair explained.
The Marines chosen for this burden are well prepared for the challenges they face. During their time as riflemen, Marines are observed for a special blend of infantry skills, experience, toughness, intelligence, selflessness and communication skills, according to Baker.
“Experience is the teacher,” added Baker morosely. “Sometimes young squad leaders are baptized by fire, but you can trust that the experiences here prepare them for just about anything imaginable.”
“The more you’re in the position, the easier it becomes,” said Adair matter-of-factly. "Confidence is the key. You've got to know that you can make things happen."