The road to Afghanistan is long and arduous, both figuratively and literally. In the figurative sense, the journey is one of training and preparation. Almost without exception, every unit, Marine and sailor deployed to Afghanistan for combat – as well as any civilian deployed in support of them – completes a comprehensive pre-deployment training program (PTP).
The majority of Marines going overseas are stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., or Camp Pendleton, Calif. – both camps have comprehensive programs in place. Whether the PTP is for an individual or a unit, these programs – matured from nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq – ensure that every soldier is prepared to accomplish their mission and return home safely.
The PTP begins months before the deployment. The program brings together all personnel assigned to the unit, much like a sports team at the start of preseason. Soldiers start with individual training and basic drills, like the rifle range or first-aid training. This helps solidify the foundation upon which the remainder of the training will be based.
Like players on the Patriots, blocking, tackling and catching have to be practiced until they become second nature. More complex training follows, such as practicing attacks while firing live ammunition and maneuvering convoys through rough terrain. All PTPs finish with an evaluated exercise where all the skills must be brought together.
As a professional football team capitalizes on the regular season to be ready for the playoffs and, hopefully, the Super Bowl, Marines use this time to solidify teamwork and develop an inherent understanding of those who will fight alongside them.
By the end of PTP and the start of deployment, the experienced and the novice have melded together into a synergistic team capable of just about anything – ready to play in their own Super Bowl.
Marines, sailors and civilians who will deploy to Afghanistan as an individual rather than a member of a unit must also be certified before being allowed to go. Taking advantage of the latest technology is done at the individual’s pace. Yet there are also numerous “hands-on” qualifications that demand face-to-face instruction from experts. In my case, as an individual civilian deploying in support of Marines, I traveled to Camp Pendleton for six days of intensive instruction. Marines from headquarters of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force conduct the course every few weeks, depending on the ebb and flow of soldiers to Afghanistan.
When I arrived, I learned that the course would be large, over 100 Marines from different units, who will all be deployed over the next few months. After everyone had signed in and sat down, the makeup of the class was easy to see. The majority was relatively new, with less than two years in. Consequently, most had not been to combat in the Middle East. Despite the easy smiles and confident swaggers, there was a gripping level of attention given to each instructor that was uncommon for a group of 20-somethings that underlay their awareness of why they are there and where they will go.
Although none had a Ph.D., each instructor quickly demonstrated their field of expertise. The Marines in uniform were veterans of multiple tours. The civilians were mostly former Marines, with as much or more experience than their uniformed counterparts, who have left active duty through end of service, retirement and sometimes injury. The most impressive of these civilians was a former explosive- ordnance disposal technician on the fourth day of training. He discussed the latest challenges that Marines will face from improvised explosive devices. Few people have not heard the term IED. These devices may be “improvised,” but have become increasingly sophisticated during the conflicts in the Middle East. They remain the greatest casualtycausing event we face.
The instructor’s initial “attention gainer” with the students struck home. He declared that the insurgent who will employ IEDs against them was not sitting in some cave in the Afghan mountains texting his friends. That insurgent, he guaranteed, was listening closely to various ways to camouflage the IEDs, correctly set the triggers, and detonate the bombs in such a manner as to keep himself alive. So before beginning his class, he warned the students to put their own cellphones away. He followed his declaration with PowerPoint slides on the latest tactics, techniques and procedures being used to emplace IEDs. It was the most intently watched slideshow I have ever seen. This portion of the training closed with a couple more hours outside to see the techniques firsthand.
The most interesting instructor spent two days with us discussing the culture of Afghanistan. Since fighting successful counterinsurgencies in the Philippines and Central America in the early 20th century, Marines have understood the critical nature of respecting the insurgent and the population they operate within. It is all about protecting the population. The 50-something former Afghan citizen came to help develop that understanding. Now a citizen of the United States, the barrel-chested, bearded man proudly informed us to be patient with his English – it’s his sixth language.
In keeping with the “been-there, done-that” credibility of the other instructors, Khalig’s combat experience only consisted of fighting the Soviets when they invaded his home in 1979. Since then, he completed college and served in the Marine Corps as an interpreter. As he charmed the Marines with personal vignettes of his travails, he also effectively conveyed how they can work with Afghans that they come across. He reiterated again and again that the Marines must understand the Afghan culture. Yet, also as important, was to never surrender the standards and requirements expected of them from the Marine Corps. The Afghans will respect them back. His lively comments kept the young Marines engaged and learning throughout the 16 hours of instruction.
The training for combat would not be complete without instruction by a lawyer on the rules of engagement. It might seem excessive for a group of young men and women with no combat experience to receive instruction better suited for a third-year law student. Yet, the impact of anyone doing the wrong thing, killing someone they should not, can have strategic implications for the nation’s efforts. Spending a few hours to ensure each Marine knows the difference between right and wrong is essential to all combat evolutions.
These are not topics that can be limited only to discussions by the lawyers. The result of the class is for each Marine to have an understanding of where the rules come from and why they are important.
This instruction is then melded to the final day of training: weapons qualification. Every Marine spends several hours on the firing line.Mostwillcarrybotha9mm pistol and an M-16 rifle into combat. The purpose of this training was to reinforce combat shooting skills for the Marines. The shooting drills were from as far away as 25 meters, to as close as 7 meters. Every drill involved quickly bringing their weapon to bear against a target. Many included pivoting in close quarters with the Marine to either side of you, ensuring to keep the barrel of the weapon always “down range” so as not to cause a friendly casualty. My 200 rounds are not nearly as closely “grouped” together as the Marines to either side of me. As the PTP for all of us came to a close, I guess that was a good thing, as the young soldiers around me would be the ones who would be called upon to put these skills to work.
With my training complete, the figurative portion of the long and arduous trip to Afghanistan was also done. Now I was ready to begin the literal part of the journey.
The author – a Jamestown resident – is a retired colonel in the Marine Corps who was recently deployed by the Naval War College for a three-month tour at U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan.