Combat Outpost Akashat, Iraq --
Akashat is literally the end of the line in western al-Anbar Province, as the town is the last railroad stop for the train from al-Qaim.
The train rarely comes to Akashat anymore, but Marines from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, are inhabiting the once-bustling terminal. Company G’s mission is to maintain the security and stability of Akashat and the surrounding area, and to guide the Iraqis along the path to self-government, according to Maj. John Fitzsimmons, commanding officer, Co. G.
Whenever they aren’t conducting security patrols, scouring the desert for weapons caches, performing maintenance on vehicles or attending key leader engagements with the local city council, the Marines at this austere outpost keep busy with athletic activities and competitions.
A rifle competition was held Dec. 25, 2008 – Jan. 7, organized in part by Staff Sgt. John Tacopino, 30, the platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon from Freehold, N.J. As the platoon sergeant, Tacopino is in charge of the morale, discipline and patrol schedules for his young team of Marines and sailors.
In spite of his heavy workload, Tacopino said that facilitating the shooting competition was a labor of love for him. Tacopino’s experience with marksmanship, as a graduate of the Marine Corps’ Combat Marksmanship Program Instructor Course, and as a police officer when not mobilized with 2nd Bn., 25th Marines, made him the ideal organizer for the event.
Contest participants fired their M-4 or M-16 service rifles from both stationary and moving positions, from distances of five to 50 meters. The targets were small circles, squares, diamonds and triangles taped to a standard silhouette target. Water bottle caps also demanded precise aim and marksmanship from the five-yard line.
The “rifle range” was designed by the battalion gunner to create a venue for sustainment training to keep the Marines’ combat skills honed.
Lance Cpl. Eric Rondeau, 20, a Co. G rifleman, won the rifle competition for the company.
“It’s a boost for the morale, big time,” said Rondeau, a Woonsocket, R.I. native who joined 2nd Bn., 25th Marines as an individual augment from the regiment’s 1st Battalion. “Being reservists, we don’t get this kind of training that often back home. When you’re out here practicing, you just keep getting better.”
Although he has had extensive marksmanship practice during his four months in Iraq and hopes to join a scout-sniper platoon when he returns to his battalion, Rondeau has yet to see a shot fired in anger.
“This tour is different in a lot of ways,” said Tacopino, who is currently serving his third tour in Iraq. “In 2005, we were in firefights just about every day, and now there’s not much going on, in terms of actual combat. It’s a slower pace this time.”
In addition to the shooting match, Tacopino has organized an ongoing fast-pitch wiffle ball tournament with 12 teams from the company. The Marines used 1st Platoon’s staging area, which had served as a train station courtyard in earlier times, for the wiffle ball playing field. Games are held as the operational schedule allows, with one or two games a week in the afternoons, after the Marines finish their daily work routine.
In his weekly four-page company newsletter, Tacopino posts scores and team statistics for all competitions. He also includes caricatures and humorous vignettes of daily life on the outpost.
Tacopino explained that if not given the opportunity to participate in organized events, many of the Marines are more likely to stay in their rooms while not on duty, watching movies, playing video games or other ways of trying to avoid boredom. These sedentary activities, combined with the winter cold outside, can have a detrimental effect on both the mental preparedness and well-being of the troops and the company’s security mission.
Other company activities include dart tournaments and weightlifting competitions.
“These events were originally designed specifically to be done during the holiday season to keep the morale at a constant level and take the Marines minds away from missing their families at that time of year,” said Fitzsimmons. “As operational tempo allows, we do this as much as possible.
“Competition builds camaraderie and battles complacency,” Fitzsimmons added. “Even with strategic overwatch of Iraqi forces as Coalition Forces cease unilateral operations, we are still in a combat environment, and we have to remain vigilant.”