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Real life helicopter-borne insert puts video games to shame

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The Marines of 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, executed the type of operation most people only see from the backside of a video game controller. From that perspective gamers only see the firefights and the destruction of targets to achieve some notional mission. What game enthusiasts don’t see on their flat screens are the logistical challenges, social constraints and cultural considerations the Marines of 1/5 overcame to accomplish their mission.

Intelligence and surveillance told the Marines that a small compound on the east side of the Helmand River was being used as an enemy command and control center. Enemy fighters cross the nearby river, and are dispatched throughout the area to survey and harass coalition forces with small-arms fire and other guerrilla warfare tactics throughout the Northern Sangin green zone.

“It was like a coordination point for them. They would cross the river from the west side to east and link up at that coordination point,” said Capt. Ryan Hunt, the commanding officer of Company B. “At the coordination point, some type of (insurgent) commander would basically issue areas of operations for the men. ‘You folks are going here today, you two are going here to work today and you are going way over there.’”

Unlike the briefs gamers get, the Marines receive their final marching orders huddled around a chow hall table as they scratch down the timelines, radio frequencies and grid coordinates in their notebooks. The Marines knew the mission was straightforward, show the enemy fighters that Afghan- Marine partnered forces can present themselves anywhere, anytime throughout the area of operation despite the rough terrain.

Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464 flight crews operated the dual CH-53E Super Stallions that supported the operation. The initial lift inserted supporting elements from 1/5’s Scout Sniper Platoon and Weapons Company into blocking positions across the Helmand River. The remaining 1st Platoon Marines piled onto the helicopters and took an unexpected detour to Camp Bastion’s flight line where the Marine Corps Air Station New River-based helicopter squadron is deployed to. The two-hour delay and refueling at Camp Bastion is just one part of the logistical side that gamers don’t experience. The Marines rolled with the last minute changes.

“Going to Bastion first actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise and was well worth the time,” said Hunt, from Grand Coulee, Wash., and a 2003 alumnus of Washington State University.

Hunt went on to explain that the pit stop enabled the helicopter pilots and small-unit leaders to talk face-to-face about the operation, how the pilots and crew chiefs could best support the Marines of Bravo Co., and get them where they needed to go.

Once inserted near the objective the Marines hit the deck loaded down with enough water and meal rations to last them the two days they would be operating. A character in a video game will carry an endless supply of ammunition and weapons with no discernible effect on the character or video gamer effortlessly manipulating the controller. A video game does not replicate the more than 85 pounds of gear carried by Marines when humping a full combat load and packs. There is no sprinting to the objective in real life, the Marines move swiftly but methodically to the target compound, sweeping for improvised explosive devices as they go.

When the Marines reached the compound they didn’t kick down doors, throw any grenades, they didn’t even shoot anything or anyone like depicted in the games. They posted security for the Afghan soldiers who cautiously walked into the compound. The Afghan soldiers had to enter the houses and conduct the searches to observe and respect the socially accepted norms of the Islamic culture.

“With clearing operations they (Afghan soldiers) are always the first ones in the buildings, but usually we are more involved,” said Lance Cpl. Chase L. Vuchetich, a machine gunner. “It was more important for them to be searching the buildings and interacting with the people.”

Fifteen compounds were searched during the operation.

First-person shooter style video games incorporate intelligence collection in the form of easily collected objects and tasks strewn throughout a level. For the Marines of Bravo Co. completing their tasks and collecting information wasn’t as simple. They followed in trace of their Afghan National Army counterparts to collect valuable biological data to help distinguish local residents from enemy fighters. Collecting fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition data bogged the partnered forces down but was important to the Marine’s mission in Afghanistan.

“The biometric data was a big ticket success of this operation,” said Hunt.

The operation took place during Ramadan, when most people are close to home and spend time with their families. Ramadan is the Islamic religious month of fasting and reflection to focus believers on the spiritual realm vice the world needs of the flesh. It meant the Afghan people could not eat during the daylight hours so more people tend to stay in their homes.

Waiting in helicopters full of hot exhaust, laden with gear and performing repetitive tasks differentiates these Marines from their age cohort playing war in sedentary fashion.

The heat from the Afghan summer affected Marine and ANA soldier alike, and the Marines had to ensure the safety of their Afghan counterparts by looking for signs of heat illness. The Afghan soldiers combated the brutal heat by climbing into irrigation canals allowing themselves to cool off during breaks.

“Since it was Ramadan the ANA being out with us showed to the Afghan people that we are not the only ones trying to help them,” said Vuchetich, 20, from Park Falls, Wis. “The ANA are still going to do their job regardless.”

As Muslims the Afghan soldiers could have sat idle during the daylight hours, fasting for a month saps strength and will quickly. They knew that it was important to press through the physical hardships to build the trust and confidence of the Afghan people. The soldier’s example allowed the partnered Marines to demonstrate leadership and camaraderie that no video game can portray. Marines supported and motivated the soldiers to keep pressing on to finish the mission. Unlike a game where you can press a few buttons to convey words and action, the Marines had to inspire the soldiers with leadership by example fueled with sweat and effort.

“We had to keep them motivated which made us work harder to help them be the best they could be,” said Vuchetich, a Park Falls High School graduate. “It’s just like anything else when you are trying to motivate someone else. You stay motivated yourself.”

At the end of the operation, it was a success but not for the reasons a gamer plays a mission: no one leveled up, unlocked a new weapon system or improved their ratio. The partnered forces accomplished a far more important mission that will leave a lasting impression on the local residents and sent a clear message to enemy fighters.

“This heliborne operation shows that we have the means to get anywhere, anytime we want to in this AO,” said Hunt. “The ANA toughed it out all the way and sent a strong message that they can still operate with little food and water.”

Article by Cpl. Benjamin Crilly, Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division