CAMP GONSALVEZ, Okinawa, Japan --
Marines slip and slide down red clay slopes. They trudge through neck-high, insect -infested water. They belly-crawl through muddy trenches, wriggle underneath concertina wire, hop over concrete walls, submerge face first into a peanut-butter like sludge and drag themselves through obstacles.
These were the conditions the Marines and sailors with Company K, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, had to endure during an endurance course at the Camp Gonsalves Jungle Warfare Training Center, June 14.
The Jungle Endurance Course is the culminating event of the Jungle Skills. Each company within the BLT is scheduled to rotate through the course. Staff instructors at JWTC spent a week giving the Marines classes on various survival and operational skills aimed at instilling confidence in jungle warfare, according to Sgt. Jordan T. Webb, a JWTC instructor with III Marine Expeditionary Force.
“The first part is to build a skillset that the Marines can use without hesitation,” said Webb, a native of Memphis, Tennessee. “We taught them how to hasty-rappel, how to build an improvised stretcher, build a bridge made of cables and how to navigate through the jungle while looking out for snakes, insects and wild boar. All of this leads to the endurance course in which they are challenged mentally. The trick is overcoming your fears.”
Approximately 60 Marines split into teams of eight for the course. Their day started with hasty-rappelling down cliffs and slopes as high as sixty feet. They also traversed across ravines using rope bridges where jungle shrubbery shrouded the ground hundreds of feet below.
Hours into the course, the Marines faced even more obstacles that tested their mettle. Marines pushed themselves through a winding, mud-filled culvert that ran under sharp razor wire and through deep trenches.
“It was a challenge because there was muddy water coming up to my neck when standing straight up,” said Lance Cpl. Blake E. Raulsome, an infantryman with BLT 3/5, 31st MEU, and a native of Seattle. “We hear stories of snakes and stuff swimming in there—‘Hell no!’ I said (to myself). But I still pushed on, overcame my fears and got a chance to lead. It was a good confidence builder.”
After this obstacle, Marines would crawl underneath wooden bridges and razor wire, keeping a low profile to avoid simulated machinegun fire cutting the air above them. The course is designed to keep the Marines on their bellies or submerged completely for most of the day.
“My favorite part was the commando crawl,” said Raulsome. “I don’t know anybody from where I’m from who has gone through an experience like that.”
After two-and-a-half hours of traversing over brutal terrain and through several obstacles, the Marines suffered a simulated casualty. The Marines were required to construct a stretcher out of available materials such as two wooden sticks, utility blouses and rope.
“When we crossed the danger area, the Marines posted security right away,” said Sgt. Joseph E. Lechnar, a squad leader with BLT 3/5, 31st MEU. “They treated the casualty, built the stretchers, made a (medical evacuation) request, called for fire and swiftly got out of the kill zone.”
With the stretcher and their injured Marine on their shoulders, the Marines dove into the jungle fraught with natural hurdles; hurdles that would test the overall teamwork of the squad.
“Every step we took in the peanut-butter mud tried to suck us in,” said Lechnar, a native of Joliet, Illinois. “At one point, I got stuck, and the stretcher was on me; I was like, ‘crap!’ It’s a good thing we had other people go in front and take the stretcher.”
The path was choked between two slick cliffs, filled with waist -high water and sticky mud to swallow the Marines’ every step. The end of the gully was up two more sheer cliffs where carrying one or two casualties seemed impossible.
“I liked the stretcher part,” said 1st Lt. Michael J. Stelma, an infantry officer with the BLT, 31st MEU, and a native of Boston . “In order to be successful, small unit leaders had to take charge and be in control of the situation.”
And take charge they did. When held down in the mud, other Marines stepped forward to assist. When faced by steep hills, they used a hand over hand method to hoist the casualty.
The jungle soon gave way to pavement, marking the end of the course. For some Marines, completing the course mattered most. For others, like Lance Cpl. Dylan Perry, an infantryman with BLT 3/5, the camaraderie and cohesion built from the struggle with nature was more important.
“We got through the course as a team,” said Perry, a native of West Palm Beach, Florida. “When we were stuck, we found a system that was best for the situation and worked together. It was a challenge, but at the same time, it was fun. It brought us closer as a unit.”
Third Bn., 5th Marines, known as “Dark Horse”, is currently the ground combat element of the 31st MEU.
The 31st MEU is the force of choice for the Asia-Pacific region and is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU.