Nonstop war duty tests Marines

Nonstop war duty tests Marines

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
KANE’OHE BAY – Less than four months ago, Lt. Col. Norm Cooling and his 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines were getting ready to leave Afghanistan after a seven-month deployment.

Many of the 1,000 Hawai’i Marines humped heavy loads through remote mountain valleys, camping for days on patrols.

Parts of Paktia Province fell to 20 below zero, and one 3/3 company operated practically in arctic conditions at 11,000 feet.

Their reward should have been seven months’ “stabilization” in Hawai’i. Instead, they’re on a hectic and compressed training schedule for a return late this winter or early spring to combat – this time in Iraq.

It’s the same tempo for some other units at Kane’ohe Bay, and the same story across the Corps – Marines preparing for repeat deployments with minimal breaks in between, and families fretting anew at home.

Cooling, 41, will be on his third war deployment in three years – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq.

The 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, which fought house-to-house through Fallujah last November and lost 46 Marines and sailors to the Iraq deployment, is in California receiving mountain warfare training for a deployment to Afghanistan in January or February.

The CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter community, meanwhile, is preparing for squadron-sized rotations to Iraq, although a deployment order has not been received.

Sgt. Ted Ramos, 28, a 3/3 Marine, has a training schedule for Iraq that includes several days a week spent in the field; “fire and movement” range practice; road marches; trips to Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island, and a full month to be spent on desert training at Twentynine Palms in California between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Then the Afghanistan veteran goes to Iraq.

“At times it is stressful, and you almost want things to slow down to where you can catch your breath,” said Ramos, of San Antonio.

But the India Company Marine also says the high tempo is necessary to be prepared.

“It’s not just me that I’m worrying about. I have my Marines underneath me that I have to keep at the same pace,” Ramos said. “If we were to start to slack off, and slow the tempo down to where we’re not getting as much as we should out of training, I think it would really affect us when we got on the ground over there.”

In some respects, the Iraq deployment has been easier to prepare for than Afghanistan, Cooling said. Then, the battalion had only 3 1/2 months notice before heading to Afghanistan.

Still, Cooling describes the training regimen as “fast and furious.”

All companies stay in the field Tuesday through Thursday in the Kahuku training area, at the Kane’ohe Bay Marine Corps base, at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, or at Dillingham Airfield.

The Marines practice live fire at Ulupau crater at the Marine Corps base, at Pu’uloa near ‘Ewa Beach, at the Army’s Schofield Barracks and, last year, at Makua Military Reservation – a use they hope to repeat.

There’s a lot of cooperation with Schofield – and some training schedule juggling. Because of Stryker Brigade projects at Schofield, some ranges are closed until 4:30 p.m., and the Army is using Marine Corps ranges, officials said.

Dan Geltmacher, the Marine Corps Base Hawai’i training area manager, said the Marines “are doing an awful lot of training in a short period of time.”

“There are challenges, just like any place,” he said. “But they are getting it done. They are doing their weapons qualifications here and they do maneuver training here. They do their basic annual qualifications that are required, combat or no, and then they go to California and get the final touches.”

Cooling said going to Twentynine Palms gives his battalion the opportunity to spend a full month in a desert training environment. There’s also a Military Operations on Urban Terrain site.

“The disadvantage is that’s another month of deployment away from our families,” he said. “It’s very hard on the families, but we’ve got to strike a balance between the training that’s necessary to get their husbands and fathers prepared for a combat zone and the time that they rightfully need to prepare their families (for a deployment).”

Approximately half the battalion that was in Afghanistan moved to different duty stations, 124 Marines extended to go to Iraq, and as much as 35 percent are new recruits.

Better training could come to O’ahu in the form of an “urban terrain” facility that would have mockups of European, Middle Eastern and Asian city blocks, an elevator shaft, a sewer system that could be navigated, and a prison.

A Military Operations on Urban Terrain site, planned for nearly 40 acres at Bellows, could cost up to $35 million but hasn’t been funded. It remains the Marines’ No. 1 priority for a training area improvement on O’ahu.

Ramos, who has a girlfriend in Texas who’s not at all happy he’s going on a second combat deployment, joined the Marines in 1996, got out in 2000, and re-enlisted in 2004 because he felt “it was a duty of mine to come back to the Marine Corps and do my part” for the country.

The two combat deployments and the intensive training in between haven’t been much of a problem for Ramos, but he isn’t pledging any longer term commitment to the Corps beyond this enlistment – at least for now.

“I look at it this way,” he said. “It all depends on how things are when I come back from Iraq. With the blessing of God I’ll come back with a good straight head and everything I left with, and then I’ll determine (my future) from that.”

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