Marines train for Afghanistan war in Waimanalo

Marines prepare for Afghanistan in Waimanalo “village”

By Gregg K. Kakesako

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 15, 2009

Sgt. Michael Osburn cautiously led his squad of Kaneohe Marines into the remote village.

With him was Lance Cpl. Robert Bacigalupo. Like many in his squad of 14 Marines, this was Bacigalupo’s first time in a combat zone. The town was littered with plastic bottles, discarded car tires, rags, trash and items Marines call “battlefield clutter.” Loud music from a nearby mosque echoed through the town square.

Osburn, relying on his experiences from earlier Afghan and Iraq combat tours, reached for a pack of Marlboros in his combat vest as he began his “meet and greets” with the locals in the town square. He’s learned that cigarettes were the quickest way to prove that his squad’s intentions were friendly.

As he met with the town’s leaders, an insurgent sniper cut down three of his Marines. Osburn quickly apologized to the mayor for his abrupt departure and turned to handle the crisis.

The crisis and the Afghani village, however, were not real, but rather a combat drill at the Marine’s two-year-old urban warfare training site in Waimanalo last week.

Here Kaneohe’s “Lava Dogs” were preparing for a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan.

Before they leave for Afghanistan, Osburn and the more than 900 Kaneohe Marines belonging to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, will be participating in numerous battle drills and combat scenarios at Kaneohe Bay, Waimanalo, Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., about halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

This will be the battalion’s fifth combat tour. It went to Afghanistan in 2006 and was sent to Iraq in 2004, 2007 and again last year.

Osburn, who deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, said parts of the country resemble the training areas in the mountains near Kahuku.

Last week Bravo Company, with about 180 Marines, completed part of its first phase of training at Bellows Air Force Station, where shipping containers have been used to replicate an Afghan town. The containers are painted tan with windows and doors cut into them. Some are stacked on top of one another to transform them into two-story buildings, which are supposed to be Afghan schools, government offices and shops. There was even a turquoise wooden dome added to one of the shipping container complexes to make it look like a mosque.

The Marines get a quick critique after each exercise. After one session, Staff Sgt. Lee LeGrande, an exercise controller, praised Osburn for using cigarettes to get closer to the “villagers” and for apologizing to the mayor before breaking off his courtesy visit.

However, LeGrande also criticized the squad for failing to get approval before firing on the “mosque” where the Marines believed the sniper had been hiding. He also cautioned the squad to be more careful before aiding the wounded Marines or they could end up becoming a victim of the sniper.

Chief Warrant Officer Craig Marshall, a battalion gunner who has done four Iraqi combat tours, said during the first phase Marines are taught basics of the culture where they will be deployed; procedures and techniques necessary to man a vehicle checkpoint and conduct patrols through villages and towns; and ways to identify the various homemade bombs used by insurgents.

Nearly 50 Afghan nationals were recruited in Southern California and brought to Hawaii. They not only participated in checkpoint and village exercises but also prepared Afghani dishes for the Marines to sample.

The Kaneohe Marines will spend a couple of weeks at Pohakuloa later this summer where intense live-fire exercises will be held. They will then return to Waimanalo and live and work for several days in the same training area, which will be turned into an Afghan forward operating base. In September the 1st Battalion will spend nearly a month at Twentynine Palms before going on leave and deploying to Afghanistan at the end of the year.


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