CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan --
In 24 hours, only 20 Marines were left marching, gasping and sweating under the Okinawan sun. Their heavy packs swayed with each new step and the lack of sleep and physical exertion was more evident on their bodies as time passed on. What was thought to be their final destination was only just the beginning.
Fifty-one Marines with Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, participated in the battalion’s scout sniper screening course here, April 29 to May 1.
On the first day, Marine instructors tested the candidates’ physical abilities by having them complete a Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test, which consists of a max set of pull-ups, abdominal crunches and a 3-mile run. Immediately followed came the Marine Combat Fitness Test which tests speed, strength, and agility through various exercises and obstacles. Finally, a second PFT completed the evolution.
“There’s a lot of physical activity; it’s a shock to the body,” said Lance Cpl. Kevin Lopez, a rifleman with Company F., BLT 2/5, and a native of San Diego. “I like the new things I’m learning, I can use this toward my normal billet if I’m not able to make it.”
While enduring this and other strenuous physical activities the new sniper applicants were exposed to a variety of classes, testing their mental endurance. Instructors taught the Marines lessons on how to conceal themselves, spot long-range targets and construct a hide-site. Furthermore, each candidate was expected to fully understand and retain the information, and at a moment’s notice the instructors could pop quiz them on technical details or sniper history.
“The candidates are tested on their ability to adapt and overcome the stresses that we put on them,” said Cpl. Evan M. Hodges, a scout sniper screener with Weapons Co., BLT 2/5, and a native of Wylie, Texas. “They are evaluated one hundred percent of the time on their morale, physical capabilities and their mental strength.”
The next day started off like the last. With minimum rest during the night, the Marines ran from one end of base to the other with their main packs full of gear. At the end of the run, they entered a tall grassy area where, still fatigued, more classes began.
“They were given a class over ‘hides,’ where they build up an area in the brush and hide in it,” said Hodges. “Usually we’ll do it at night, but since this is their first practical application we’re doing it during the day so they can get a feel for what to do.”
The candidates also worked on spotting with an M49 Spotting Scope. Random military objects were dispersed in a grassy area where the applicants had to find them and annotate the details, simulating a scenario in which they would have to look for inconsistencies in an area that might provide information about the enemy. These were just a few techniques and skills in a scout sniper’s repertoire that the candidates were being given a taste of, according to Hodges.
Even if the Marines finish the sniper screener, the remaining candidates must complete a thorough interview process and be chosen to join the scout sniper’s platoon.
The screener tests potential snipers on their physical and mental strength. It mimics what it is like to carry gear, weapons and ammunition while moving on foot for what could be days before an actual operation occurs. However, snipers are also required to operate unseen in proximity to enemy locations, providing reconnaissance, overwatch and long-range precision shooting.
“Even if all these guys don’t make it, that’s not something to hang your head on,” said Sgt. Jeffrey C. Ocheskey, a scout sniper team leader with Weapons Co., BLT 2/5, and a native of Jefferson City, Missouri. “Starting from 51 and finishing a rigorous screener (with 12 remaining), that says a lot about your mental and physical toughness.”
By the end of the course, 12 completed the screener and 11 of those were selected to join the platoon as professionally instructed gunmen. The Marines are now slated for additional training once the battalion returns to its garrison in California to prepare them for the scout sniper school.
The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force of choice for the Asian-Pacific Region and is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU.