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Functioning on flexibility: ‘America’s Battalion’ bolsters air-ground task force capabilities for Afghanistan

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Waist-deep in a row of fighting holes, teams of sweat-starched infantrymen labored without shelter from the unforgiving desert sun. Scoop by scoop, they slung rocks and dirt from their dusty chasms, hewing out defensive positions to prepare for the enemy’s inevitable night attack.

Joined by aircraft, tanks and tracked vehicles, the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, assaulted a simulated enemy force during Exercise Clear, Hold, Build 3 on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., from Sept. 21 through 22, 2011.

The two-day evolution — part of the Enhanced Mojave Viper training exercise — enabled “America’s Battalion” to improve its capabilities as the ground combat element of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force. The exercise is their final pre-deployment training event before deploying to Afghanistan’s Helmand province next month to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

Sheltered beneath a blanket of stars, team and squad leaders with India and Lima Companies moved between fighting holes to control the defense. They bellowed commands through the noisy assault, painting their Marines a picture of the enemy’s size and location. In response, the entrenched machine gunners and riflemen drowned the advancing enemy in a hail of gunfire.

Cpl. Matthew Ortins, a squad leader with Lima Company, 3/3, said his biggest challenge of the night fight was commanding and controlling the men in his squad.

“I couldn’t have eyes on every single one of my Marines,” Ortins, 21, from Beverly, Mass., said. “My team leaders mitigated the challenge by helping adjust rates of fire and keep our ammunition spread-loaded.”

From the flanks of India and Lima’s defensive positions, Marines with Weapons Company’s Combined Anti-Armor Teams 1 and 2 supported a tank company in the defense. In a light show of destruction, they fired heavy machine guns, anti-tank missiles and 81mm mortars to help quell the enemy’s simulated mechanized assault.

At dawn, the Marines launched their counter-attack.

Maj. Sean Carroll, executive officer, 3/3, said shifting from the defense into a planned assault forced the Marines of 3/3 to retain the initiative and gain momentum against an enemy by executing a rapid offensive action.

Breaking onto the battlefield in amphibious assault vehicles, the Marines of Kilo Company, 3/3, secured the battalion’s first objective with the support of CAAT-2. Simultaneously, CAAT-1 supported the tanks to cripple their second objective.

Supported by the Marines of India and Lima Companies on 7-ton trucks, CAAT-1 and the tanks rolled forward to secure a third enemy objective.

Carroll said working with outside attachments tested the battalion’s flexibility as part of a MAGTF. He said this allowed 3/3’s Marines to practice small but critical parts of a combat environment including casualty evacuations, logistics re-supplies and downed vehicle recovery — each necessary for what they may encounter in Afghanistan.

“My team of Marines is ready to fight,” Pfc. Dan Wood, a team leader with Lima Company, 3/3, said. “I don’t have combat experience yet, but I’m prepared to handle my team and assist my squad leader because of how we handled ourselves here. This translates to our squad and builds upward from there.”

After eight months of training, Wood’s squad leader, Ortins, said his Marines are excited to take their knowledge to Helmand province’s dusty roads. On patrol, they’ll build rapport with the local populace and leadership — and they’ll do so with a view to the future.

“We’re going to root out the enemy activity to make our area of operations a safe place,” Ortins said. “In doing so, we’ll free up Marines to continue to the next fight and help our brothers there.”

Article by Cpl. Reece Lodder, 3rd Battalion (3/3)