In any clime and place: From jungles to mountains, Marines train for all conditions
War is hell, even when you’re just training for the next contingency.
Ask the 3rd Platoon Marines of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, who spent six unforgiving months in Asia with killer snakes, mud, searing heat and snow during their Unit Deployment Program.
In this three-part series, Stars and Stripes reporter Matt Burke delves in the harsh, unforgiving world of Marine Corps training as he follows India Company across the Pacific.
During their rotation, these Camp Lejuene, N.C.-based Marines survived the thick foliage and unforgiving rain during jungle warfare training; the bitter cold during urban warfare training; and the bouts of boredom followed by high-intensity conflict during live-fire training in South Korea.
Welcome to the jungle
CAMP GONSALVES, Okinawa — The faded yellow sign read “Welcome to the Jungle” in large red block letters.
What was waiting beyond it was hardly welcoming – boot-sucking mud, an endless supply of water, foliage so dense you could barely see through it, poisonous snakes and lessons in running down the sides of cliffs.
India Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, based out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., arrived at the Jungle Warfare Training Center at Camp Gonsalves in February in Okinawa’s remote north for the start of its Unit Deployment Program.
The training regime, which brings stateside Marine units to Asia for six-month rotational deployments, slowed to a crawl during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but was jump-started again in 2012 as America plotted its exit strategy and began to shift its focus toward the Pacific.
For even the hardiest of Marines who endure, and even embrace, conditions that most people would find unbearable, the bush would be a worthy adversary.
“I’ve always wanted to go to the jungle,” said Lance Cpl. Kyle Littell, 19, on the eve of their arrival. “I think it’s going to be a good time.”
Learning from experience
The 3-2 Marines are nicknamed the “Betio Bastards,” based on their heroism and tenacity against an entrenched Japanese enemy in the Battle of Tarawa in World War II. Betio is the largest township of Kiribati’s capital city, South Tarawa, and the country’s main port.
The Marines reached the center in jungle fatigues and boonie hats, carrying heavy packs. Before they head back to the States, they will learn how to move, fight and survive in the jungle, just as Marines did in World War II as they island-hopped the Pacific.
After the jungle, they will endure the cold, mountainous terrain of Camp Fuji in Japan and the start of summer in South Korea amid the thunder of the Rodriguez live-fire range a few miles from the world’s most militarized border.
Many in the 3-2 are relatively new to the Corps, with a handful of battlefield veterans – not much older, but full of savvy — mixed in. Much as it did before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Corps relies on those experienced Marines to keep everyone around them focused and to share knowledge gleaned in the desert to prepare this generation for the next contingency.
Cpl. Donald Horn -- now a sergeant -- is an experienced squad leader with combat deployments to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013. The Alabama native, who has “Expendable” tattooed on his arm, is 24.
“I guess my experience does help me out a little bit because I know what can happen,” he said.
“It’s hard to get these guys to stay in that mind-set because there’s not a big shiny thing hanging in front of them, like, ‘Hey, we’re going to Afghanistan in six months,’ but with ISIS and everything going on, we could go anywhere at any time, so I try to keep them focused on ‘What if?’ because that way, they’ll be most prepared, “ he said using a common acronym for the Islamic State group. “Because it would be a really bad day to see somebody get killed or hurt knowing you could have prepared better for that situation.”
In one training exercise, a squad set up security with rifles at the ready as they awaited medevac by two MH-60S helicopters. Horn was crouched over a casualty when he broke out of the training scenario to share some advice.
“Does everybody know how to do a [tracheotomy] with what you got on you?” he asked. “Everybody get right here so you can see.
“The highest point of the Adam’s apple, go down one notch,” he said, sliding a finger down the throat of the victim, Lance Cpl. James Spooner.
“You’ll see that little gap. It’s got a thin membrane in it. Make a small incision,” he said, making a sawing motion with his finger.
“You need to leave that knife in there,” he said. “You need to have your [expletive] already ready so you’ll need some kind of tube.”
A Marine suggested a pen.
“That’s not enough air,” Horn said. “You want to breathe through an ink pen for two hours?”
Several Marines insisted it would work. This is where Horn’s experience showed.
“What’s everybody got on them?” he asked. “Take his CamelBak hose. Cut it. Take the brown [expletive] off. Make your incision. Turn the knife. Start easing that tube in there.”
Spooner tilted his head up, listening intently. The New Jersey native is using this deployment to Okinawa to figure out whether he will stay in the Marine Corps along with Horn or leave in November.
“I think Cpl. Horn is probably one of the best squad leaders in the company” because of his downrange experience, he said later. “... He knows the doctrine so well that it doesn’t matter what environment it is; it works. It’s really good having someone like that leading the squad.”
Less than a month after getting to Okinawa, the 3-2 headed a couple hours north of Camp Schwab into the remote recesses of the island.
The center and its vaunted final exam -- called the E-Course, for endurance -- are designed to test the wills of even the strongest of Marines. Established in 1958, it is the largest jungle training facility in the Defense Department and the only one in the Marine Corps.
An unforgiving hell-scape of water, mud, sheer rock faces and poisonous Habu snakes, it is designed to prepare Marines and joint forces for combat in dense jungle. No showers, no electricity, a hole in the ground with a toilet seat on it, one change of uniform and one kitchen-prepared meal per day.
The Marines usually sleep on the ground in bivy sacks, a snug sleeping bag that covers the face but isn’t always waterproof. Here, they felt blessed to have tents, although those hardly protected them from the rocky ground.
“I’ve heard it’s a lot of obstacles that involve crawling through mud and water,” said Littell, a skinny, baby-faced Marine who was homeschooled in New Hampshire. With a brother in the Army, he always knew he would join the military. He joined the Corps because it seemed more difficult and “better.”
As he progressed as a Marine and became more confident in his role in the squad, he let out more of his sense of humor. And no matter how difficult the training was, Littell put his head down and focused, quietly completing each task.
“I expect to learn a lot,” he said.
Here comes the rain
Their first day in the jungle focused on a training class that went long into the night. The Marines learned how to call for fire, evacuate a casualty using a helicopter’s lift and read the jungle to track an enemy.
There would be no sitting on the sidelines for Horn’s squad. Littell jumped in to make sure he knew how to tie a casualty into a sled for evacuation. Others took careful notes.
Reveille followed before daybreak. Ominous droplets of rain pelted down as they moved into the lush undergrowth. Some lost their footing in the mud as they hiked downhill.
At a clearing, they learned how to set trip wires and make traps to catch prey. They also learned how to make a lean-to and build a shelter elevated off the ground.
Even though it was his first time in the Pacific, Horn didn’t shy away from his responsibilities. He began to show Littell and platoon corpsman Seaman Josh “Doc” Melancon how to tie certain knots.
“You’re like a never-ending source of knowledge,” Melancon told him. “He knows everything. Jack of all trades.”
The Marines moved to the next station, learning methods to capture rain and filter dirty or stagnant water. They moved again, learning several ways to start a fire.
“Someone get a knife, make a nice pile of shavings right there,” said Horn, who began sawing away ferociously at one piece of bamboo with another. It began to smoke.
Horn’s squad moved to the Habu station. An instructor pulled out a fat snake with tongs and pinned it to the ground. It bit at the blade of a machete placed by its mouth.
“The way you can tell he’s poisonous is, he’s got these little pouches on the back of his head,” an instructor shouted as the Marines crowded around. “These are venom sacs. That’s where he gets his diamond-shaped head.”
They proceeded to cut the heads off a few snakes and passed them around. The Marines took turns peeling the skin off and ripping out the guts.
“This right here is good,” the instructor said, holding up the wriggling mass of white meat. “He’s got a lot of meat on him.”
The Marines were disappointed they didn’t get an early lunch.
Lightening the mood
The Marines moved to a knot-tying class and were told their lives depended on their proficiency. The sky opened up and buckets of rain fell as the men were handed a rope and told to show what they had learned.
“Knot-tying was a little easier than I thought,” Horn said. “You do it a few times, repetition, and it gets pretty easy to remember.”
Afterward, they were taken to a three-rope bridge and a two-rope bridge, both slick with rain. They had to go across a gorge on one, then return on the other. Their knots would be the only thing to catch them if they fell.
The rope bounced up and down with each step, left and right with each jerky hand motion. The heights were dizzying.
“You’re above the trees,” they shouted, laughing. “Hey, look down. It’s only 90 feet.
The rain intensified as they arrived at their next station at the top of a rock face. Drenched, their misery was palpable. Some shivered while trying to be stoic.
For Marines, the more miserable the situation, the crazier they act. Passing gas, belching, smoking, dip-spitting, cursing, complaining, laughing or slinging crude jokes at one another lightens the mood.
Then they snap back to business. They were ordered to the edge of the slick cliff and told to do a “hasty rappel” — lean forward and run down the side with no safety harness.
“No way this is safe,” one Marine said.
They began to hoot and holler as they strapped on Kevlar, pulled on gloves, grabbed a rope and took their turns.
The Marines taunted each other, like friends often will, when some fell and were slammed against the rock.
“He’s going to eat it … here,” one said. Laughter erupted when the prediction came true.
“You see it coming and you know it is going to hurt,” a Marine said as he arrived back at the top of the cliff to do it again.
“Timber!” another yelled as a Marine fell.
Cold and wet
The next couple days brought more driving rain, mud-caked boots and drenched uniforms.
After land navigation classes, the Marines were split into small groups, taken to a starting point and told to find coordinates in the jungle.
Horn, Littell and Spooner were joined by two others. They could barely see each other as they trudged through dense foliage, stopping to refer to maps and compasses, constantly on lookout for Habu.
“I can’t imagine fighting in this,” Littell later said, referring to his Marine Corps forefathers during World War II.
However, the New Hampshire native was clearly at home in the terrain. He dove in, easily traversing the peaks and valleys, disappearing into the thick undergrowth.
“Found it,” he shouted as he discovered one of the points. The others dubbed him “Ranger Rick.”
They found all three points. The first two were marked by wooden boxes attached to trees. But there was no box at the third; the jungle had swallowed it. After almost an hour of searching up one hill and down another, they returned to the classroom.
Next came a water challenge. After following a chilly stream, they came across a Habu that had to be killed before they could move on.
“Get out the water,” a Marine yelled emulating a hysterical child. They all laughed.
Then they reached a waterfall where they were tasked with making rafts out of their ponchos and packs. One by one, the two-man teams tossed the rafts into the pool below and jumped.
The Marines also had to complete a timed rope course to test their knot knowledge and prepare them for the E-Course the next day. Failure to do any of the obstacles meant running to a “pole of shame,” then re-entering the course.
Cpl. Michael Church fell almost five meters from the top of a rope ladder. The sickening smack of his Kevlar hitting the ground echoed far and wide. Everyone stood up gasping, then grew quiet.
The Marine got up, then fell back down. A medic rushed to him, fearing a concussion.
Church would be fine, but they were all growing weary of the cold and wet. At night they changed into dry clothes. Their feet looked like prunes from wet boots. Their bodies were chafed raw. In the morning they put on their wet gear and headed back out.
The JWTC E-Course is the Marines’ final test of jungle proficiency, a physical and mental challenge.
The course is four miles long, with more than 30 obstacles — including ropes, cargo nets and walls — strung out in the thick jungle. It can take hours to traverse the cliffs and hills, chest-deep mud and trenches of murky, stagnant water teeming with poisonous reptiles.
Since it was timed and scores would be compared with recent classes and other squads in the platoon, the jokes mostly ceased. They rooted each other on as they tackled two- and three-strand rope bridges and steep hasty rappels.
They ran through the thick undergrowth and used a rope to scale a steep rock face.
At the next hasty, 1st Lt. Matthew Mannion took one look and laughed. It was nearly straight down. He paused for only a second before running down head first.
Nearly everyone fell, some harder than others.
Then it was back through the mud and undergrowth and another hasty rappel into a river. Littell came down with speed.
“Slow down,” Horn cautioned softly as he neared the bottom. Littell pulled back at the last second and avoided a fall. Horn patted him on the back like a proud father.
They ran 100 yards or so through the river to a tunnel that was almost completely underwater. A drop-off on the other side was meant to submerge them.
They wound farther and farther through the foliage and mud and over logs suspended from the trees by rope. Then they got to a 10-foot wall. As the last man was over, they ran through mud and water to the next obstacle, whooping and hollering.
They ran up “Energizer Hill,” a winding trail through tall grass, saplings and trees, went down another hasty, up another hill. The men sucked in air.
Down another hasty; they were nearing the end. But the worst was saved for last.
With gunfire blaring over a loudspeaker, the Marines crawled low through trenches filled with mud, water and debris, their rifles at the ready.
“Come on Marines, move,” an instructor yelled from overhead. “Low profile. That means you will be on your belly the entire time.”
They got to a long concrete pool filled with murky water and covered with sheets of plywood. There was barely enough room above the water to breath. There were barriers in the water below the surface as well.
A good portion of the Marines looked at the obstacle in disbelief.
“You’re going to have to get under,” the instructor shouted.
Those who tried to hold their breath and swim through didn’t fare very well. The plywood sheets bounced up and down with their panic as they nearly drowned. They came out the other side gasping. Those who used a combat glide technique of walking with their lips facing the plywood generally had more success.
“Let’s go!” one instructor shouted, his voice almost going hoarse. “Hurry up!”
The exhausted Marines filed through one by one. The sounds of coughing, choking and gagging were constant; as they got out, some regurgitated the putrid water they had just ingested.
The next obstacle was mud- and water-filled trenches that funneled them to a pool covered in razor wire. They had to work together to get each man through, lifting the wire with their rifles. Nearly every group saw a grunt get tangled up in the wire.
At the end of that obstacle there was a box barely big enough for a Marine’s body to fit through lying down. They had to pull each man under the barbed wire and through it. If they disturbed the Plexiglas on top, they would have to start the obstacle over.
“Hold your breath and I’ll pull you out,” Lance Cpl. Romeo Sarmiento said. “Trust me.”
Next, they had to build a stretcher out of sticks and their blouses and carry one of their men up and down hills, through chest-deep slop dubbed “peanut butter mud.”
“I love being a Marine,” one said with a thick Southern drawl as he neared the mud. It was infectious. “Oh yes sir, I love being a Marine,” another chimed in.
Assertive earlier in the week, Horn now took on a support role.
“Towards the end, I kind of just hung back and just let them go,” he said. “A few major friction points I had to interject myself, but it was nice to watch them just go. You watch a whole work-up and you get to see your guys go on their own. You get a feeling of satisfaction.”
When the Betio Bastards got out of the jungle, they were exhausted but jubilant. Littell was proud because 3rd Platoon had been a top performer.
After being blasted with a firehose, they stripped, dipped all of their clothes and gear in a water-and-bleach solution and got to take their first shower in a week. They took doxycycline pills to fight the bacteria.
There is a certain amount of pride in being a grunt and doing things that most would consider impossible or too miserable to contemplate. They wear it like a badge of honor.
They had come, and they had conquered.
Videos on YouTube: