ABOARD USS BONHOMME RICHARD (LHD 6), Pacific Ocean --
Bang. Bang. Bang. The last rifle rounds crack through the ceaseless wind atop the USS Bonhomme Richard. The smell of gunpowder lingers across the flight deck of the enormous amphibious assault ship while Marines wait for their next instructions, surrounded by occupied Sailors scampering across the deck of the LHD 6.
A line of sergeants stand 15 yards from a line of targets silhouetted against the horizon. The sergeants – infantrymen with years of experience behind the trigger – look down at directions to a course of fire unknown to the rest of the Marines.
The sergeants call for 35 Marines to quickly get back up to the firing line- Move! Move! Move!
Lance Cpl. Benjamin R. Cartwright, an infantryman, hustles with his full combat gear and M4 carbine to the first open target he sees. He is entirely unaware of the physical and mental conditioning he will endure.
The sergeants begin yelling commands one after the other.
“Hammer pair, standing! Stand by… targets!”
The chaos begins.
The Marines are with Kilo Company, the helicopter raid specialists of Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Their primary missions include raids and vertical assaults. Anytime they’re given the opportunity to send rounds down range, they take it.
On this bright June day the company’s junior Marines believed they’d be conducting marksmanship drills at close quarters – a monthly ritual for the infantry rifle company. Cartwright described the surprise combat conditioning that followed as intense and vital.
“I really wasn’t expecting the intensity of it,” said Cartwright. “As soon as I put that weapon over my head, I knew the course was going to take a lot from me physically.”
“Failure to stop, standing!”
Cartwright looks through the scope of his rifle and shoots two rounds to the “chest” and one to the “head” of his target. The first few seconds of yelling, firing noises and confusion catches Cartwright by surprise, but not off-guard. After all, “It’s what we do,” he thought.
Cartwright sprints about 50 yards to an M240B medium machine gun. A sergeant sprints beside him and, while yelling in his ear, orders Cartwright to hoist the 25.6-pound weapon over his head. Already breathless, he pumps it skyward ten times.
The purpose of the conditioning was to give the Marines confidence in how they’d react in combat, where exhaustion, shortness of breath and uncertainty are the norm said Sgt. Jordan D. Vicars, a squad leader with Kilo Company.
“No one can truly simulate combat,” said Vicars. “That’s something you experience when the time comes. We get as close as we can by putting the Marines in a stressful situation with loud noises, people screaming, physical exhaustion and having them react quickly and accurately so that in a real combat situation they can suppress the enemy.”
As part of BLT 3/5, the Ground Combat Element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Kilo Company can be called to combat at any time. Vicars was proud to know he can rely on the Marines from his company when the call comes, he said.
“As a sergeant, they definitely met my expectations as infantrymen,” said Vicars. “It’s a good feeling when you see your Marines working hard, knowing that they love doing what they do.”
Gas! Gas! Gas!
Cartwright, like most U.S. service members, knows the warning. He reaches reflexively for his gas mask, with eyes pinched tight, holding his breath. He paws down to the pouch strapped around his thigh. His hands fumble while attempting to take out the mask.
So, this is why we practice, Cartwright thought.
“The only thing going through my head was ‘I need to go faster,’” said Cartwright. “The goal during this simulation for me was to train as if my fellow Marines are relying on me to outpace the enemy. If you are slow, Marines could die.”
Panting, Cartwright removes his vision and air-restricting gas mask, exposing a face dripping in sweat and a wide grin.
As the Marine Corps’ only continuously forward deployed unit, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit is prepared to respond to a wide range of military operations, from humanitarian assistance missions to limited combat operations, at a moment’s notice.