As the sun sets across an open expanse of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere south of the Equator and east of the International Date Line, a fleet of gray-hulled ships cruise against a horizon brought into sharp relief by the setting sun. The day’s end marks only the beginning for some of the Marines embarked on those ships, Soldiers of the Sea at the forward edge of the nation’s defense. Within the Corps, a few sit high on a pedestal amongst the U.S. military’s elite – Marine Reconnaissance.
They walk and talk as no others walk and talk. Their uniforms alone set them apart, an embodied symbol of the years of experience and training that give them a hard edge – fire retardant outer layers, with assorted gear attached to the webbing of tactical ballistic plate-carriers. Though they dress the part of elite warriors, a man is not defined by his outward appearance alone. The Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Maritime Raid Force distinguish themselves in ways ordinary men may consider foolhardy, dangerous, or even mad. It’s just another day at sea for these Marines, a chance to sharpen the skills that place them at the tip of the spear of American military might.
The tip of that spear is sharp and the whetting stone is repetition. Repetition builds muscle memory. Muscle memory allows fluid action. And action is repetition, until each muscle fiber is primed to react without conscious prompt. In a sense, each member of Marine Reconnaissance is a vital limb of a physically fit beast with a dive bubble and jump wings on its chest – pinned emblems of shared sacrifice during reconnaissance training at the Combatant Diver Course and Airborne School. They live to train, train to fight, and fight like hell when called. But before the fight comes reconnaissance, of which they are the experts.
The setting sun greets several dozen of the armed and helmeted warriors - many just a few years out of high school, others veterans of America’s recent battles - standing along the hull of the Bonhomme Richard’s main tower. At 844 feet, the BHR hosts a variety of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, deck hands and vehicles. The heat and exhaust fumes of several of those aircraft wash against the reconnaissance Marines, chasing away the humidity of the balmy South Pacific, whose waves fall silent beneath the pulsing roar of helicopters idling only yards away. The Marines stand in queue, waiting for the Navy deck handler’s signal to file-off toward a waiting MH-60S Seahawk helicopter. Tonight’s mission: low-light fast rope with full kit, aided by night vision goggles.
In other words, a green tinted rush out the door of a hovering aircraft, down a rope to the bobbing ship below. A green chemical light marks the end of a deceptively long ride from aircraft to deck-plate.
The rotor wash of the Seahawk pushes down and away from the hovering aircraft, some 30 feet above the flight deck. The fast rope’s path dangles from the troop compartment of the helicopter, coiling as it sits on the flight deck below.
For the uninitiated, fast roping, as it is colloquially known within the Marine Corps, is a “tactical insertion” of troops, weapons and gear. It gives Marines a capability unknown before rotary-wing aircraft broadened the reach of America’s Marines. Tough-trained, callous-handed warriors ride in the dark. At their designated target, the Marines hurl a heavy three inch rope from the cabin, intent to strike quickly from the sky, with no time gifted to unsuspecting enemies to mount a defense. “Fast rope” describes form meeting function - fast and by rope. Fast rope. Two words don’t do justice to the complexity of the maneuver.
Take an average man, say 185 pounds, and add 1) a tactical plate-carrier, with two 15 pound woven Kevlar plates; 2) a tactical helmet, streamlined to avoid neck and head fatigue, but still several pounds of hard plastic and soft lining; 3) an M4A1 carbine, the fully automatic variant of the 5.56mm M4 issued to most Marine infantrymen; and 4) night vision goggles, affixed to a helmet. Plus whatever specialized gear each man chooses to carry – saws designed to cut through steel, machine guns, flash-bang grenades – tools designed to assault an underway ship.
Take eight to 12 men clad as such and pile them inside the cabin of a fully-fueled helicopter. The pilot and crew ascend to circle in a wide arc across an inky black sea. What is left of the day’s light is flaming out over the western horizon, giving way to a star filled night on an open sea. At the end of the arc, the ship is again below, with Sailors waiving glowing batons, passing precise hand signals between themselves and the bird in the sky.
The approach made and the aircraft only a few meters aloft, the Marines take their cue. Goggles? Check. Helmet? Check. Weapon, gloves? Check and check.
The only thing left is a long, dark drop.