1st Marine Special Operations Battalion gains experience in Afghanistan
Source: North County Times
CAMP PENDLETON —- Sgt. Graham Jacobs, a team leader with the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion at Camp Pendleton, struggled for an answer to what he and his men did during a recent deployment to an untamed region of western Afghanistan.
The Wyoming native said he was searching for a “politically correct” response.
He was told that wasn’t necessary.
“OK,” he said. “We ran around and killed a lot of bad people.”
Trying to get much detail from Jacobs and fellow troops about what the special operations Marines have done since forming their battalion more than two years ago is an exercise in futility.
“OpSec,” they say, citing the military’s shorthand for operational security.
While the 575-member battalion carries out special operations on foreign battlefields —- and that usually means locating and killing specific insurgents or insurgent cells —- members stress their work is as much about brains as it is brawn and brute force.
“We do special operations focusing on internal defense and direct action,” is how the 1st Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Tuggle, describes the job. “What we bring to the fight is a small unit that’s more maneuverable, has good intelligence and can sustain itself.”
An Alabama native with one Iraq deployment behind him and one to Afghanistan slated for later this year, Tuggle oversees the battalion’s five companies.
“We have a saying —- Marines are who we are; special operations is what we do,” Tuggle said.
For Tuggle, that means being prepared to assist other nations whenever called upon. It also means having a force highly skilled in clandestine warfare, foreign languages and a broad cultural awareness of the people and customs of the areas where the Marines may be sent.
Formed in 2006, the special operations force is composed of about 2,700 troops and civilian personnel. Headquarters is Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion is based.
Until its formation, the Marine Corps had no official special operations group. That changed in 2005, when the Pentagon authorized the unit as part of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Battalion members are Marines and sailors who are “mature, intelligent, mentally flexible, determined, and physically fit,” reads a description of their attributes. “They must be complex problem-solvers comfortable working in an ambiguous environment.”
Most of its members, including those in the lower ranks, are experienced troops who got to the battalion by passing a screening that includes rigorous psychological and physical tests. Once there, they take part in advanced courses in diving, marksmanship and parachuting from high altitudes, and intensive weapons and foreign language training.
The Marine Corps used to say that all of its forces were special-operations capable. But what the Corps lacked was a formal role in the country’s special operations community, said John Pike of Washington’s GlobalSecurity.org, a military monitoring group.
“After 9/11, there was a big demand for people who really were snake-eaters,” Pike said. “The Marines weren’t going to be left behind.”
Issues in Afghanistan
Master Sgt. Deryck Dervin, a 20-year Marine, says the biggest difference between a special operations and a regular infantry battalion is the “ability to go from red light to green light at a moment’s notice.”
That means that when a problem arises or a target of opportunity emerges, these Marines don’t have to go through several chains of command to solve the problems or take out the target.
“To me, it’s a dream force,” Dervin said during a discussion at the 1st Battalion’s headquarters last week. “We have a tremendous number of skill sets and problem-solving abilities while also having much more leeway and autonomy in what we do.”
Not all has been rosy for the Marine Corps’ special operations battalion.
Its units have been enmeshed in controversial incidents involving civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In 2007, members from the Camp Lejeune battalion were accused of shooting wildly at civilians after a suicide bombing. At least 19 Afghans died and the unit was sent home.
Last year, another Marine special operations unit was caught up in another incident that Afghan officials said led to the deaths of more than 90 civilians.
Tuggle said half the work in Afghanistan has involved partnering with and mentoring the Afghan National Army and police. The other half, he said, is classified.
A doc’s view
Barry Breuringer is the chief medical corpsman for the 1st Battalion, overseeing more than two dozen other Navy corpsmen.
The San Diego native says those corpsmen take a more active combat role with the teams they serve on than do corpsmen in regular infantry battalions.
Corpsmen come to the battalion from other units and take an advanced five-week medical course. They also take part in a diving school in Florida and a parachuting school in Georgia before joining the unit and taking an array of other advanced training courses.
“By the time we’re deployed, we have a lot of history with these Marines and we have earned their trust,” he said.
The corpsmen train unit members to provide their own first aid, making the Marines “medics by proxy,” Breuringer said.
When operating in Afghanistan, Breuringer said, the corpsmen “take on more of a shooter role” than regular corpsmen do.
Because of the nature of their assignments, corpsmen in special forces units are as focused on executing a mission as in providing emergency medical care.
“Tactics take priority over medicine,” Breuringer said.
A couple of dozen battalion members spent much of last week learning how to handle Chinese- and Russian-made rifles and machine guns commonly used in Afghanistan by its army and police and by the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
The training involved several hours in the classroom and on the firing range.
“When we partner with Afghan units, we need to be experts on their weapons,” said Maj. Dustin Byrum, the battalion’s air operations officer. “We also need to be experts in case we wind up in situations where the only weapon available to us is one of the bad guys’.”
The Marines were learning how to break down and reassemble AK-47s and Russian-built machine guns, the kinds a trainer said are often seen mounted in the back of pickups in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“All these guys are very patient and deliberate,” said one of the trainers, Gordon Potter of San Diego-based Strategic Operations. “And they’re all good shots.”
Potter said he and other trainers are mindful that the men are going to be involved in firefights.
“They’re going to nasty spots,” he said. “Any extra knowledge and skill we can give them is what we want to do, because we know these guys are going to be in harm’s way.”
By Mark Walker