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Rehearsing for war: Marines of ‘America’s Battalion’ train for Afghan battlefield

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Storming through the desert on helicopters and tracked vehicles, the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, practiced counterinsurgency operations during Exercise Clear, Hold, Build 2 at Range 210 on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., from Aug. 14 to 19.

Greeted by a bronze sunrise, infantrymen with India, Kilo and Lima Companies took turns loading up and departing their combat outpost. Though the objective wasn’t far, their movement was painstakingly slow. Marred by enemy anti-air assets, the helos, tracked vehicles and supporting tanks navigated the route and destroyed aggressors.

Prosecuting these enemy targets enabled the Marines to set the battlefield’s condition before moving onto it, 1st Lt. William Peters, the executive officer for Kilo Company, 3/3, said.

Hours later, they escaped the confines of metal to begin their work. Squads of infantrymen bounded through the village flanked by M1A1 Abrams tanks. Dodging simulated explosions, they rooted out the enemy by shooting green upper-body silhouettes posted in buildings and window frames.

Lance Cpl. Joshua Leventhal, a team leader with Kilo Company, 3/3, said the range was a reality check needed before deployment.

“We’re faced with targets, but they aren’t notional any more,” Leventhal, 22, from Orlando, said. “If we’re not accurate, they aren’t going down. In Afghanistan, accuracy over volume is a lifesaver.”

Leventhal is itching to leave on his second deployment. For seven months, his seniority will demand both maturity and proficiency.

“I’m directing my team now, instead of only being a trigger-puller,” Leventhal said. “My Marines are looking to me, as their leader, to make the right call. In training, the alternative can be corrected easily. In combat, you can’t take it back.”

The village quieted upon completion of the Marines’ attack. The sky’s blue tones shifted back to orange, and then to the black of night.

But the fight wasn’t over. From their defensive position, mortarmen with Weapons Company, 3/3, and Kilo Company machine gunners repealed an enemy counter-attack. Supported by artillery and attack helicopters, they drowned the enemy in fiery explosions and hails of neon tracer rounds.

“We’re practicing twice as hard here,” Lance Cpl. Chris Gazley, a radio operator with Kilo Company, 3/3, said. “We know we won’t always have the time to react. Firefights can go down in seconds … he who hesitates is lost.”

As the sunrise signaled a new day, the Marines began re-building their rapport with the village’s citizens — role-playing Afghans.

Peters said the transition from attacking aggressors in a village to integrating back into it is very realistic to what the Marines of 3/3 will face in Afghanistan.

During 3/3’s deployment to Helmand province’s Nawa district last year, Peters said Kilo Company transitioned from a daytime firefight to a meeting with village elders the same evening.

“Sometimes we need to be very aggressive in pursuing targets,” Peters, 25, from St. Louis, said. “At other times, we need to focus on pursuing information and sitting down with village elders.”

During the Enhanced Mojave Viper training exercise here, the Marines of “America’s Battalion” are training to kill enemy fighters by practicing counterinsurgency operations. Next month, they’ll deploy to Afghanistan’s Helmand province to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

“The deployment is going to be long and hard,” Leventhal said. “We won’t get the job done overnight, but our work will pave the way for future battalions. We’re anxious to get there and fight the enemy."

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