CAMP HANSEN, Japan --
Sergeant Jacob Fernandez, like everybody else in his unit, wanted to go home after six months in the Asia-Pacific region, but first he had to battle it out amongst hundreds of Marines in a fierce competition where the stakes were set extremely high.
The winning company of the competition gets home before everybody else.
Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, hosted a battalion-wide competition here Nov. 10.
“I’m ready to go home, it’s been a long time,” said Fernandez, an infantry squad leader with Company K, BLT 3/5, 31st MEU. “Going into this competition, I know Kilo Company is going to take it.”
Battalion Landing Team 3/5, also known by their nickname “Darkhorse,” ran through their deployment without missing a step, hopping over obstacles as they came. They had a long list of responsibilities as the 31st MEU’s ground combat element and the challenges that came with it, although based on the unit’s storied history, this was nothing new.
Arriving in the middle of May, BLT 3/5 welcomed several attachments to the battalion to increase their ranks to more than 1,000 Marines.
“Training with the [31st] MEU is unique because you have everything at your disposal and you can do more here than back in California,” said Lt. Col. Robert C. Rice, the commanding officer of BLT 3/5, and a native of Richland, Washington. “Prior to coming here, we weren’t a BLT, we were just an infantry battalion. Now we’re a battalion landing team with additional attachments: we have own artillery, we have our own engineers, we have our own ‘amtraks’.”
The Marines of BLT 3/5 maintained a very busy training schedule during their time on Okinawa. They trained to fast rope from a CH-53E or MV-22 Osprey, both with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), 31st MEU. They survived the Jungle Warfare Training Center by crawling through mud and rappelling down slick cliffs. The different companies also conducted several training missions: Company L silently attacked from the sea aboard combat rubber raiding crafts; Company I stormed the beaches in AAVs; Company K partnered with the pilots and crew of VMM-262 (REIN) to quickly insert and extract after successful missions; Weapons Company found their targets with their heavy armament of machine-guns, mortars, and missiles; and Headquarters and Service Company supported it all.
“We learned expeditionary warfare, the total (Marine Air Ground Task Force),” said 1st Sgt. Javier Duarte, 1st Sgt. of H&S Company and a native of Miami. “We also learned how to integrate foreign (tactics, techniques and procedures), into shoot, communicate and maneuver on the enemy. It all came together in the Fall Patrol where we integrated our training with other countries and the Navy.”
Once embarked on the USS Germantown (LSD-42) and USS Peleliu (LHA-5), the Marines completed Amphibious Integration Training and Certification Exercise(s). In the Philippines, BLT 3/5 successfully unloaded and loaded tons of equipment from the ships and trained in places such as Palawan, Ternate and Crow Valley. There they partnered with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in several realistic training scenarios. The culminating live-fire event there included aviation delivered ordnance, artillery, and mortars while hundreds of Marines and Filipino service members assaulted their objectives on the ground.
“One of my most memorable moments was doing [small boat] raids with Lima Company,” said Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz, BLT 3/5 sergeant major, and a native Buckeye, Arizona. “Then there was the time I was in a track with 20 Filipino Marines for about an hour and a half; we learned a lot about each there. We had a lot of success in the Philippines.”
Throughout their deployment, BLT 3/5 partnered with service members from several other countries. For one month, Lima Co hosted a platoon of soldiers from the Japan Ground Self Defense Force as part of the Japan Observation Exchange Program. A group of South Korean Marines visited and learned about the BLT’s capabilities and how to operate as part of the MAGTF. Small groups from BLT 3/5 traveled to Australia and Taiwan where they interacted with the host nations’ service members and exchanged tactics and ideas and made new friends in the process. And throughout the several training events in the Philippines the Marines and their Filipino counterparts reaffirmed their commitment to each other.
“The commandant’s guidance is for us to be forward deployed and forward engaged,” said Rice. “It’s an important part of who we are. That allows us to be a partner of choice. If there is a crisis somewhere, we are not just responding unilaterally as Americans, but we can operate with other ally nations.”
Now at the end of their deployment, BLT 3/5 celebrated with a traditional cake cutting ceremony to commemorate the 239th Birthday Ball before starting the competition to decide who goes home first.
Multiple events were conducted around Camp Hansen - there were football games, softball games, basketball games, a tug-of-war and weightlifting contests and more where each win could bring them closer to home.
At the end, the winner of the competition was Kilo Co, also known as the Battalion’s “Sledgehammer.” They’ll be getting the first tickets out.
“I have a lot of pride in my company…we’re the best!” said Fernandez.