Erika I. Ritchie
The Orange County Register
All the squads of young Marines at Camp Pendleton’s School of Infantry knew was their training scenario had them tossed from a Navy boat to swim 300 meters to the shore of an island.
Achieving the mock invasion set in the South China Sea as a group was up to them.
Dressed in full combat gear, they pushed through the water. Stronger swimmers went ahead to secure and set up sentries, while some swam back to help Marines who were struggling. By thinking and working together they successfully completed their mission.
The exercise was among the last this group of 138 Marines was evaluated on during their 14th and final week of a new course being piloted for them to become infantry Marines and earn the title of rifleman. Teamwork is a key element as the Marine Corps tries to develop infantry Marines with more varied skills, students are now learning information in bits and pieces and then translating the information in action — using as much brain as brawn, officials said.
And, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger sees the watery Indo-Pacific with its small island chains as one of the future regions where the Corps will likely be needed, necessitating a change to how young Marines are taught so they can work more with the Navy versus in recent decades spent in the deserts with the Army.
In this new course debuted on the West Coast, infantry Marines were trained to swim for the first time. By the end, and just in time for the amphibious exercise, 90% had shown they had the necessary skills to survive in deep water.
“In the beginning, my swim skills weren’t very good,” said Lance Cpl. Tyler Haar, of Temecula. “But the way they designed it, you got what you put into it. Each week my skills got progressively better and in the end, I had no second doubt.”
The swim component also follows recent new protocols instituted after an amphibious assault vehicle sank during a July 30 training exercise off San Clemente Island. Eight infantry Marines and a Navy corpsman died. Several Marines had poor swimming skills and were not trained to get out of a sinking vehicle, an investigation said.
“This is totally different than how we trained for the last 70 years,” said Lt. Col. Walker Koury, an infantry Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and headed up the pilot.
“We need to make sure they are confident in every way in the water,” said Koury, also a platoon commander during the 2004 First Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. “Coming in on an AAV or Osprey is the old way. The idea now is we can toss them into the water and we have a Marine that is flexible. We don’t train them to a specific thing; we train them to be confident for anything.”
The newly-minted riflemen platoons will be kept together as units to maintain their new-found cohesion but sent to infantry units across the Marine’s three divisions. In June, a second pilot will start and will include three women who graduated on Thursday, May 6, in the first integrated recruit class at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Feedback on the students’ success at Camp Pendleton’s school and another on the East Coast will be reviewed before the program is finalized next year.
Developing the curriculum
To create the new course, instructors tuned the curriculum to skills that this new generation of Marines already has.
“We recognize our students are no longer Millennials; they’re Gen Z Marines and we looked at what makes this generation tick,” Chief Warrant Officer 3 AJ Pasciuti, the school’s battalion gunner, said of working with Koury to develop the course. “They are faster, more capable, more adaptive than any previous generation because they are more connected to the world.
“From infancy, they’ve had more thrown at them and they can adapt,” he said. “We just gave them bits of information and told them how to do it and they go along.”
By breaking the Marines into small squads, there was more ownership among the members. Students had pride in their leader and the sergeants had pride in the trajectory of their students.
“We made small teams of people who trust each other,” Pasciuti said.
Classroom use was minimal.
After instruction on a topic, students were given complex situations to test their skills. Providing itemized gear lists and marching from location to location are gone.
During the first nine weeks, Marines were taught individual skills such as weapons manipulation, land navigation and radio communication. The next four weeks tested their new knowledge as the students worked in squads and patrolled complex terrain, fired weapons and practiced maneuver tactics.
For Lance Cpl. Aaron Carrera, of Riverside, the training really made sense. He had been partway through an earlier course before he was plucked to participate in the pilot.
“With smaller teams, everyone understood why we were shooting the way we were,” the 19-year-old said. “Guys that were better moved aside and let others who were struggling get more time.”
And, along with being taught the standard M27 rifle, students learned how to operate multiple weapons including machine guns and anti-tank missiles.
“The idea is that if only 12 guys are on an island, they’re all proficient on all weapons,” Koury said.
For their final test, students had to string together everything they learned over the past 14 weeks.
The capstone event began with a 72-hour force-on-force operation. Here students used their tactics to patrol and fight against a thinking, breathing enemy.
“In the past, we operated in an environment where we were absolutely superior,” Pasciuti said. “Mistakes that we got away with then — with help from air superiority or nearby coalition forces — we might not be able to get away with in the future. This teaches tactical prowess to out-think and hunt your enemy.”
Following the recon and attack missions, students had just three hours before getting ready for the amphibious assault exercise.
Pfc. Jake Sanchez, of La Mirada, was somewhat confident.
“I grew up surfing at the beach,” he said, adding that the swim component was his favorite. “It’s important because we need to be versatile on land and in the water in case of a mishap.”
But when Sanchez got into the pool, with all his gear, he said he realized the experience would be a lot different than hitting the waves on his board at San Onofe State Beach.
“I didn’t think it would be that hard,” he said.
The week ended with a 32-kilometer trek. As squads neared the finish line, yellow-greenish smoke surrounded them and emerging from it they looked in disbelief to see tables set up with chow.
“That day, we were slayed,” Haar said. “We were sitting at our tables enjoying our meals and the regimental commander came out and quoted the Jungle Book: ‘For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.'”
“That really put it into perspective,” Haar said.
For, Koury who will retire later this year after 20 years in the Marines, this opportunity stands out as a highlight.
“We’re dinosaurs passing the torch,” he said. “It’s an awesome experience.
“These guys are way better trained than the Marines I lead,” he said. “The future fight will be much more complex.”
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