A Day at the Office: Preparing for War
U.S. Marine Corps Infantry
A day on the range with a Marine Corps Infantry Team Leader
The Mission: Making (it like) War
My thoughts are racing, yet organized. I know exactly what is expected of those around me as well as what to expect of myself. Questions race through my mind at a cyclic rate as I constantly analyze the situation ahead of me. Where is the enemy? At what point have we completed an objective? Do we have enough supporting fire? Will I have cover to run to, or will I be left in the open? Are my marines where they should be, and are they doing their job? Regardless of repeated briefings, many things can be left unanswered until I get my boots on the ground. This rifle range should be just like combat.
The preparations begin early in the morning when the dew settles and the sun is barely thinking of cresting over the horizon. There is a subtle buzz in the tree-line that slowly crescendos as each platoon hurriedly prepares for what is about to come. The thick smell of gun oil mixes with the aroma of sweat procured from a seven mile hike to the current location and takes over the immediate area. Each body adds steam to the morning haze. As single rays of sun break through the clouds, the marines decide their plan of attack. Everyone is in a circle, answering the lieutenants’ questions as if in a high paced game show where ultimately lives are at stake.
The officers grill every marine over the mission details. They interrogate us asking, “What is the main objective? What is your squad’s responsibility? What happens if there is an injury? Who takes command of the squad if the squad leader gets killed? When do you shift your fire so that there is no friendly fire? What are the signal plans? What radio calls will you be using? What are the contingency plans?”
The questions come quickly until they are satisfied with what they hear. It is finally time for the assault. The armored assault vehicles roar to life, briefly filling the air with billows of black exhaust. The forest exchanges its silence and tranquility for yelling, rustling brush, the rattle of flak jackets and the crisp sounds of weapons being loaded. Everyone is geared up, and final inspections are done. It feels like just having finished a government version of Thanksgiving dinner. Explosives, pyro, hundreds of bullets, radio equipment, water, maps, bullet proof plating, helmets, medical gear, and weapons all contribute to the feast. Everyone looks forward to sleeping off this meal. As a helicopter thumps over the tree-line towards the objective, the officers shout their last orders to the troops, and we all cram into the armored vehicles.
The engines whine as we speed off into the open valley that contains an unknown amount of enemy troops. The 29-ton vehicles stop and go as they bound towards the enemy. I stare into the eyes of the marines on the opposite side, and we all collide with each other painfully as the colossal machine maneuvers. The air is intoxicated by the smell of diesel fuel and gun powder. The sounds of gunfire are felt inside the vehicle as the .50 caliber machine gun fires at the enemy. The brass shells hit the floor with an unusually clear ting that cuts through the noises of the giant war machine. There is a growing sense of just how much lead is actually being sent down range. After one final bound, everyone gets thrown to the front of the vehicle as if it is stood on end. Not a single person is left untouched by the adrenaline and energy of the assault as proven by the driver’s sporadic maneuvering.
The ramp, which makes up the entire back wall of the vehicle, drops to the ground, and blinding light beams in accompanied by a gust of fresh air. The massive ramp and our boots hit the ground simultaneously as we flood onto the battlefield. The helicopter is circling overhead and is engaging the enemy tanks outside our reach. The impacts from the inappropriately named mini-gun are felt just as easily as the percussion heard from its source hovering above us. Mortars begin landing on the enemies between us and the enemy tanks. Each impact reverberates in our heads as the smoke and shrapnel fill the air ahead of us. The crack of bullets breaking the sound barrier above my head is deafening, but not distracting.
My thoughts are racing. I know exactly what needs to be done. Not a moment goes by without a question forming as I analyze the battlefield. I systematically answer them to myself with clarity as if I was born on a battlefield. I can see the enemy now. Camouflaged in green, they pop up and down attempting to suppress our movements. They are my objective, and we will overtake them no matter what. A failed objective here means a failed mission. We have enough support. The Cobra attack helicopter has taken out all of the enemy tanks and circles nearby for the call for air support. Our armored vehicles race alongside us as we all sprint towards the enemy, their .50 calibers still pounding away. My marines are on both flanks. They are shouting over the gunfire and explosions. Their weapons are oriented downrange, covering each other as they take turns sprinting and diving into the rock surface. They are doing their job with a surgeon’s precision. I no longer have to worry about having cover to duck behind because we have the enemy practically in a full retreat.
As we approach the enemy, bound by bound, the battlefield appears chaotic. This all contributes to the fog of war. Though appearing unorganized, the subtle choreography of tactics works perfectly. Yet, there is no time for hydration or wiping the sweat off my face. The blurred vision and salty taste tempt everyone to slow down and stop for a break. The sharp pain in my side makes it seem impossible to shout commands, and my knees and elbows beg for mercy. Our bodies all ache from sprinting and diving for cover during the assault, insuring that we avoid enemy machine gun fire. The air is filled with smoke and dirt which manages to become palpable. The metallic tastes implore me to drink anything.
We are finally at the objective. The man-sized green plastic targets lay flat and are riddled with bullet holes. I order a search for enemy intelligence and radio to the commander using as many acronyms as possible and avoid long transmissions in order to catch my breathe. I convey over the net that the objective is seized and we have no casualties.
The rest of the company advances to their targets, and soon it is all over. The adrenaline subdues. The helicopter fades in the distance. No more gunfire is heard, only heavy breathing and the sound of my own heart beating rapidly. The armored vehicles wait patiently as we pack ourselves back into them. We open the hatches overhead and drive back to camp, watching the bullet ridden targets shrink in the distance. The wind dries the sweat off our faces, and we long to relax. Even so, my mind still races with questions. It is time for a detailed debrief and analysis of every marine’s performance. More gear inspections are required and weapons must be scrubbed clean of their carbon and sweat. At this point, everyone shares one common thought: how long of a break before we are ordered to attack again?
The mission is complete. We order the marines to rehydrate and prepare for the next battle. This same battle will be fought again later today, tomorrow, and in the night between. The safety regulations are never sacrificed, but there is a flirtation with danger during each range that makes it as realistic as possible. The pace, briefings, sights, sounds, emotions, and sensations are all real to war. A day will come when a real battle is being fought, and even the youngest marines will be expected to lead. The mission today was to teach those marines. Today we brought a war to our backyard and turned a range into a battlefield.