...,1st Draft

Chapter 2 – Training and Deployment for OIF 101 Feb

Part 2: OIF 1, 2003, The Push, Baghdad, Karbala

Chapter 2: Training and Deployment

41 59’28.5” N 88 05’3.3 W elev 240 meters Belvedere, Illinois

Local GMT 20 December 2000

LINK

Yeah right, there’s no way that you can do that. Peter Milinkovic’s buddies thought there was no way he could go into the Marine Corps when he told them. He had been attracted by Marine recruiting commercials, which struck a cord with Peter. His father was asking him what he was going to do. He grew up playing video games like Final Fantasy, SOCOM, and playing football. Years later, after 3 tours in Iraq, he found that the video games were actually pretty good training.

After he cracked the growth plate in his foot, they told him that he’d never play again. After graduating from boot camp and serving in Iraq, he thought, it appears that the growth plate in my foot is just fine.

Peter Milinkovic grew up in the middle class suburb of Belvedere, Illinois, about 45 minutes outside of Chicago. It was a small, close knit community that saw a significant growth spurt after Wal-mart moved in. He graduated high school and started Marine Boot Camp in the same year, 2001. He found boot camp to be a culture shock. It doesn’t matter if you father is a millionaire, or if you’re homeless – everyone is the same at Boot Camp. It’s all about camaraderie and team work. He dealt with the stress of Boot Camp by thinking, “these guys are just doing their job.”

At School of Infantry, he learned Marine Corps weapons systems, then how to patrol, move at night, and started to develop combat endurance. Everything that he learned there formed the foundation – the base of the pyramid. When he arrived at Lima 3/7, he immediately was picked for “Super Squad” as a Private First Class – a key formative experience. The intense training and camaraderie developed during Super Squad taught PFC Milinkovic “everything that I know.” Sgt Wilder, a Black Belt, and the squad leader during Super Squad was a crucial individual in shaping Peter Milinkovic’s expertise as an infantry leader. UCAX, at Victorville three months before OIF 1, was some of the best training that he did as a young Marine.

UCAX — Urban Combined Arms Exercise — was part of 3/7’s pre-deployment training, conducted in late July to early August 2002. By the summer of 2002, the steady march towards war with Iraq had already started. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF), headquartered at Camp Pendleton, would play a major role. 1 MEF had been the major Marine formation that attacked into Kuwait in 1991. Now, 1 MEF was again expecting to play a major role in a possible invasion of Iraq. A MEF is the largest of what the Marines call a Marine Air Ground Task Force — or MAG-TF (pronounced MAG-Taff, in Marine terminology). A MAGTF consists of 4 elements, including a Ground Combat Element or GCE, and a command-, air-, and logistics element. The ground combat element of 1 MEF would be 1st Marine Division (1MARDIV), also headquartered at Camp Pendleton. The Division consisted of 3 Infantry Regiments — 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines — an artillery regiment, 11th Marines, as well as “independent” battalions of tanks, recon, engineers and armored amphibious vehicles (“Amtracs”). 7th Marine Regiment — commonly known as 7th Marines — in turn consisted of 4 Infantry Battalions: 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7), 2/7, 3/7, and 3d Battalion, 4th Marines (3/4). 3/7 consisted of 3 Rifle Companies of 180 Marines, a Weapons Company, and a Headquarters Company. Lima 3/7 was one of the 3 Rifle Companies in 3/7. Like all Rifle Companies, Lima consisted of 3 Rifle Platoons, a Weapons Platoon, and a small headquarters platoon. Each Rifle Platoon consisted of 3 Infantry Squads, which in turn consisted of three 4-Marine Fire Teams, lead by an NCO — usually a Sergeant (E-5) or Corporal (E-4).

In July and August of 2002, 3/7 participated in the UCAX which Peter Milinkovic remembers as one of the best training experiences prior to deployment to Iraq, along with Millenium Dragon 02, which was part of the larger, Millenium Challenge 02 exercise.

PFC (E-2) Peter Milinkovic recalls the build up to war as a member of one of those fire teams far down on the chain of command. The Marine Corps, though, puts great emphasis on the quality of its junior enlisted and officer leadership — the Sergeants and Corporals, 2nd Lieutenants (O-1), 1st Lieutenants (0-2), and Captains (0-3) who make tactical decisions. In this culture which emphasizes small unit combat skills, Sergeant Wilder’s status as Super Squad leader distinguished him from other infantry NCOs. The Super Squad competition is held at the Company-, Battalion-, Regimental-, and finally Division-level. For Link to be chosen as a member of Super Squad indicated his potential as an infantry Marine, and he benefited from the superior knowledge and leadership of Wilder.

PFC Milinkovic liked UCAX, singling it out as one of the best parts of his pre-deployment training, probably because that particular training was a 96-hour program supported by simulated small arms (paint balls fired from weapons like the Marines own rifles and pistols) and laser gear. For a kid who grew up playing football and the video game, SOCOM, there is nothing better than real projectiles which sting and leave a visible paint mark to train for combat. Together with the UCAX, 3/7 also participated in exercise Millenium Dragon 02, which was the Marine component of the Joint Forces experiment, Millennium Challenge, which was notable for the success of the Opposing Force, lead by retired Marine General Paul Van Riper, whose guerrilla tactics foreshadowed the actual challenges which lay ahead in Iraq. Van Riper confounded the exercise force by using motorcycle messengers and small suicide boats when they were unexpected. A hero of Vietnam (who had commanded a company in 3/7, and whose Marine Officer son also served in 3/7), Van Riper quit the exercise in protest when the drill was reset.

Like most Marine Battalions, 3/7 followed a building block approach to training for combat, beginning with the lowest level of organization — the 4-Man Fire Team — and working up to the 1200-Man Battalion. In April through May, 2002, 3/7 developed a core of urban warfare instructors by sending about 90 Marines to a Division-level course at Camp Pendleton. This was the first phase of a progressive urban warfare package developed by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab (MCWL), which was headquartered at Quantico, Virginia, but which had a team with the 1st Marine Division in California.

The second phase of the MCWL urban skills package incorporated not just 3/7 but also a platoon of Amtracs (14 vehicles, each of which could carry at least a squad of 13 Marines), a platoon of tanks (4 M1-A1 tanks), and a platoon of combat engineers. This three week package — conducted in June and July, 2002 — gave the leaders of the Fire Team, Squad (13 Marines), Platoon (42 Marines), and Company (180 Marines) extensive experience in what the Marines call “combined arms.” The Marines define combined arms as using one weapon to make an enemy vulnerable to another weapon. A Marine Rifle Company itself has rifles, light machine guns, and grenade launchers in its 3 Rifle Platoons, as well as medium machine guns, rockets, and light mortars in its single weapons platoon. A single Rifle Company can “mech up” in a platoon of 14 Amtracs — that is, the Rifle Company will break down into squads and each squad will ride in a single Amtrac. A Company “team” is formed when a platoon of 4 Tanks is attached to the Company, and 3 Amtracs with a Rifle Platoon is detached, usually to a Tank Company. During the urban skills training package run by MCWL, Lima 3/7 would have practiced using not only its organic weapons, but also using the considerable firepower of a tank (a 120mm main gun, 2 medium machine guns, and a heavy machine gun) and an Amtrac (two heavy machine guns).

BELLMONT

December 2001. Marines are bad asses, they are the best. That’s what Kurt Bellmont always heard. After graduating from high school in the Class of 2000, he was working in his hometown of Cold Springs, Minnesota. After 9-11, it was eating at him that he wasn’t doing his share. He didn’t know anything about the military or military service. So he walked into a recruiter’s station.

Kurt Bellmont came from a small town with a population of 3000. His high school class was a mixture of kids from 3 nearby towns. Everyone in the town knew everyone else. Everyone knows when he is coming back from Iraq. Everyone makes a big deal of it. His parents are still together after 28 years of marriage, and he has 3 older siblings. He was always involved in sports when he was growing up.

When he was a kid, Kurt was always suffering minor injuries from climbing trees. He was not a TV buff as a kid. He preferred to go outside, playing in the woods. With his friends, he would shoot BB guns at animals and each other. He had a few very close friends growing up. He would sneak outside and try not to get caught. He was always comfortable in the outdoors. He never held a job when he just had to sit in an office and answer a phone. His first real job was working at a stable at a ranch, where his parents started camping when he was 2 years old. He got along very well with the owners and their kids. He worked there on and off until age 19 or 20. He delivered pizzas, which was the closest he came to a normal job. He worked on sewer and water construction, and advanced through the ranks pretty quickly, always catching on quickly. His uncle had the same job, and Kurt did not want to do this job until he was 40, so he joined the Marine Corps.

Kurt was always above average, particularly in sports. As a 5 year old he learned to water ski. By the age of 7, he was slaloming on one leg. He dove in high school. His coach hated him because he would learn 4 new dives in a day, and, having learned all the dives moved on.

Regarding boot camp, he notes, “I took it pretty easy. I was 20 when I went in. When the drill instructor said, ‘I am only doing my job,’ a light went on. Then I found out they have to feed us, they have to give us 8 hours of sleep, it wasn’t that bad. They always left me alone. I only got IP (individual punishment) twice – once for my rack mate, and once for itching my nose at midnight in front of the chow hall. I owned up to it, and the punishment was fast.”

On the topic of School of Infantry, which follows the 13-week boot camp for Marines who are chosen for the Infantry Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) he says, “It should be at 29 Palms, not Camp Pendleton, because there are better live fire opportunities out here. Sometimes we threw rocks for grenades at Camp Pendleton – it was ridiculous. You need live rounds at that stage of your career.”

In School of Infantry, Kurt Bellmont passed the Recon indoctrination test, which is required to start training as an elite, reconnaissance Marine. However, he fractured his shin on a range run. He did go to amphibious recon school in Virginia with his fractured leg. Of that experience he notes, “I got book knowledge, the knots and other techniques, which I use to this day. That was my favorite time in the Marine Corps – that one month stint.”

Kurt Bellmont found that he loved his job as an infantryman because he was always doing something different every day. In all of the other specialties in the Marines, people sit at a desk and do the same thing every day. In the infantry, he found that he was always doing something different. He liked the variety. He hated monotony.

Along with Peter Milinkovic, Kurt Bellmont was one of the original Marines who made up 3d Platoon, Lima Company, 3/7, as it prepared for war in the Summer and Fall of 2002.

MEJIA

Jose Mejia was raised in the Southern portion of the city of San Antonio, Texas. “It was pretty rough” was his description of this early neighborhood. Most of his elementary classmates were affiliated with one local gang or another. Living only five minute from his elementary school, Mejia’s mother would walk him home. “Mom was protective” was Mejia’s earliest memories of his mother, but it was his older sister that was his greatest influence during this otherwise critical time in a young boy’s life. Only one year older and a grade ahead of Mejia, his sister would be his active conscience and was responsible for steering him away from an otherwise destructive lifestyle. She would say things like “you’re dumb for doing that kind of stuff” or “you’re stupid for hanging around those kids.” But it wasn’t until his first year of middle school that he finally walked away from “those kids” and joined – what Mejia described as – “the jocks.” “She helped me out a lot coming up…making decisions in my life and stuff like that” Mejia said of his sister’s love for him and his respect to her as a mentor.

Raised in a large family – four brothers and four sisters – Mejia was the fifth child. “My father worked in a butcher house and my mom didn’t work…so dad would work for the family” was Mejia’s inception into a family of brothers and sisters that pulled resources together to support their household. “The boys would work during the summers” which was the norm for the Mejia family youngsters. “I would help out with mom when I was working during the summers. I would take her shopping for groceries and would randomly surprise her when I would take her to the mall to buy her stuff.” His mother would refuse, but in the end Mejia would buy these things – which he felt she was denied because she put her family first.

Mejia was first introduced to the workforce when he began working construction at age 8 or 9 as an assistant to his uncle. “I liked it…growing up and working construction, and did so until I was 18.” Working every summer as well as during breaks like Christmas, Spring Break, Easter and others to make a little extra money was the custom. “My mother was very supportive of me and so I would take her out to eat…just her and I,” which he hid from the rest of the family.

Besides being an accomplished athlete, Mejia was also what the current generation calls “a gamer” – for those who actively play computer and console video games. In addition to offering his earnings to his family he also used part of his wages to collect gaming systems as a young man. An important aspect of Mejia’s military career is his participation in what the Armed Forces call TDG’s (Tactical Decision Games). “That was my TDG’s [the first-person shooter video games] as far as growing up…now I’m realizing that those games were making me perfect for the military.” Mejia correlates the first-person shooter tactical games that he played as a child with his success as an infantry squad leader. It taught Mejia to think through four dimensional “real world” combat situations. Learning to break into the digital opponents’ decision making loop taught Mejia how to employ his unit’s weapons to beat an enemy with military assets long before he joined the Marine Corps. “It’s helping me out with my Marine Corps career, for the moment…it’s pretty cool” was Mejia impression of these games on his present success in Iraq as a combat leader. At the time of this writing, Mejia was deployed to four seven month deployments – three of which were combat deployments where he suffered no combat related injuries, which Mejia feels in part were due to the experience he gained from these games.

Academically, Mejia was what he called “a geek in math” and helped his older sister in her algebra studies. Mejia graduated from high school achieving pre-calculus as his highest level of the mathematics. He centered his studies in the sciences – chemistry and biology – and made B’s and C’s, but he never put his heart into his classes.

However, Mejia’s true passion was playing sports. He played four years of varsity football as a “Bob Cat” for South Sands high school. Mejia was a linebacker, defensive end, tight end, and played positions on offense when called upon. Also, Mejia participated in track, which was required by his football coach to improve the football players’ run times on the playing field.

Mejia was drawn to military service because of an early memory of a veteran’s memorial service that he attended where his uncle was wearing white gloves and a black service coat. He never knew which service his uncle was in but was honored that he was a combat veteran. Mejia recalls the final selling point before joining the Marine Corps: “I joined the Marine Corps for the challenge. I joined the infantry after I asked my recruiter what I needed to do to fire every single weapon, [at which point] he suggested that I become a Grunt…I laughed.” Mejia shipped out to recruit training eleven days after 9-11. His parents, who were not aware that their fifth child had joined the Marine Corps, were surprised when they were first informed by the recruiter as Mejia was packing his luggage for his shipment to recruit training. “I said goodbye to my parents at the swimming pool of a Double Tree hotel the night before I left.” That was the last time Mejia spoke to his parents as a civilian.

Mejia, Link, and Bellmont all started their Marine careers in 3d Platoon, Lima 3/7 in 2002.

38 15’20.7” N 119 13’43.32 W elev 1973 meters
Local GMT 14 April 2002

CARPENTER

It has been said that history is the religion of the Marine Corps. So it is perhaps fitting that much of this tale was recorded in interviews. For example, on the Marine Birthday, 10 November 2007, Author Doug Halepaska celebrated the High Holiday with a lengthy interview with Matt Carpenter at a Marine Base in Ramadi, Iraq. Both were alumni of Lima Company, but Carpenter had served with the Rifle Company through 2 combat tours. The culture of the Marine Corps has been described as a warrior culture, with an oral tradition, comparable to Scots-Irish culture. Indeed, writers like Jim Webb have made this comparison overt in books like Born Fighting. As the Corps celebrated another birthday with Marines in a Small War, Carpenter recounted his first encounter with the Company and Battalion that would become his home for 5 tours…

In April 2002, Staff Sergeant Carpenter, USMC, had a problem. There was a war coming, everyone knew it. He had to find a way to get into the fight. But he was stuck at Bridgeport, the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare training center, located 40 miles Northeast of the Yosemite Valley, high in the Sierra mountain range. He was too early in his tour at Bridgeport for a new billet. He had an opportunity to do a prestigious exchange tour with the Royal Marines in England, a slot reserved only for the best American Marines who maintained a kinship with their British counterpart Marine brethren. But Carpenter had another goal in mind — he wanted to become a Marine Gunner, a warrant officer who specializes in Marine infantry weapons. The Royal Marine tour would not help him towards becoming a Marine Gunner. To become a Marine Gunner would require more experience in a Weapons Company of an Infantry Battalion. With a war an increasing likelihood, Carpenter set his sights on an immediate target: getting into a Weapons Company in an Infantry Battalion in time for the Iraq fight.

The weather was getting better. Spring was coming. Snow was still on the high peaks that surrounded the Marine high mountain warfare base. But it was already getting warmer. Marine Battalion 3/7 had scheduled a training package up at Bridgeport in April 2002. Carpenter and his fellow instructors looked on the Battalion and noted the improving weather. This was not the most challenging of environments, but still, the high-altitude hiking and small unit exercises would be excellent for developing unit cohesion and leadership at every level. Carpenter saw many Marine Battalions come through Bridgeport, but he liked what he saw in 3/7, and in Lima Company, commanded by Captain Monte, in particular. 3/7 was a good unit, and Lima was a solid Rifle Company. But another feature of Battalion 3/7 caught his eye too — the Battalion was light on Staff NCOs. Carpenter started developing a game plan to get into an Infantry Battalion in time for the coming war.

In 3d Platoon, Lima 3/7, Link, Bellmont, and Mejia were serving in junior enlisted billets at the rank of Private First Class (PFC, E-2) or Lance Corporal (E-3). They went through the Bridgeport package in April 2002 as SAW Gunners or Fire Team Leaders who took their commands from Squad Leaders, Platoon Sergeants and Platoon Commanders who had between 2 and 10 years of experience in the Fleet Marine Force.

Staff Sergeant Carpenter was what he called, “A Second Marine Division hand” prior to his joining with Lima Company 3/7. Above all, he aspired to become a Marine Gunner. Marine Gunners are warrant officers who specialize in the Infantry Weapons which are central to all aspects of Marine ground operations. In the insular priesthood of the Marine Corps, Gunners are the Deacons who are held in universally high regard by all ranks, from Private to General. Generals have been known to defer to Gunners on matters beyond simply weapons employment.

Since the Marine Corps is such a small service, it has only three active divisions plus one reserve division. Many Marines vigorously identify with the division with whom they first served. Generally infantry Marines, after completing their initial service training (13 weeks of recruit training plus eight weeks of basic Marine Corps infantry schooling) are assigned to one of these divisions — but many of these new Marines simply call it “The Fleet,” short for the Fleet Marine Force or FMF. The Second Marine Division, or simply 2MarDiv, is based at Camp LeJeune, which is nestled along the coastal marshlands of North Carolina. “I spent eight years at LeJeune with 1/8 and 2/8 and I honestly thought [at that time] that the sun rose and set on the Second Marine Division’s ass,” was Carpenter’s views of his service with his first division.

A career infantry Marine, Carpenter was required to complete what is known as a B-billet assignment if he were to remain eligible for further reenlistments. This new assignment took him and his family across the country to the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC). Located just 21 miles northwest of Bridgeport, California, this mountain training center is known as just “Bridgeport” to the rest of the Marine Corps. The full names are usually found only on assignment orders and signs found outside of these bases.

“I first arrived at Bridgeport in 2000 for a three year obligation as a mountain leader course instructor, which was during 9-11 and all of that. At the time I was a Staff Sergeant (SSgt) instructor up there, and I think at that time Afghanistan was at full swing. I believe that everyone in the Marine Corps knew that we were going to expand past Afghanistan, potentially into Iraq within the next few months at that point,” said Carpenter, expressing a concern that he would not be involved in this coming war.

Bridgeport was a challenging duty station. At an altitude of 6000 feet or more, with regular snow, and with the only active mule packing course in the entire Department of Defense, the Marines’ mountain warfare center was designed to train “Mountain Leaders.” These Mountain Leaders would, in turn, train their units upon return from the course. The Marines had found that the same survival skills which helped small groups of mountaineers survive at altitude also kept teams together in combat. Therefore, the course served the dual purpose of developing mountaineering, rappelling, and rope skills while also building solid small unit leaders.

Prior to 9-11 Carpenter had shown an interest and the expertise to be considered for the “British Royal Marines Exchange Program.” He was later selected to go to that program. This was a two-year opportunity for him and his family to travel and live in England. However, with the war on the horizon he turned his efforts to join an infantry battalion.

“Bridgeport was what the Corps called a ‘hot fill’, which traditionally is a post that is difficult to fill with staff noncommissioned officers (SNCO),” explained Carpenter. As a result, he found it difficult to join a combat unit. Since he had only completed his first two years of a three-year obligation the Marine Corps personnel system was not ready to let him rotate back to an infantry unit.

Carpenter’s concerns about joining an infantry unit started to fade in the Spring of 2002 when he first came across 3/7, which was scheduled for an abbreviated training package at Bridgeport. Looking over the ranks of 3/7 he noticed a curious thing — there were few senior enlisted Marines. “I remember as an instructor and taking a look at the unit…realizing very quickly that they were extremely short handed with Staff NCO’s,” recalled Carpenter. He viewed 3/7 as his “ace-in-the hole” for getting out of Bridgeport and back to the Fleet.

“So I’m looking at these guys and thinking that they seem to be pretty fucking sharp, especially the Lima Marines”, was Carpenter’s earliest memories of the battalion that would soon be his home for the next six years. Ironically, Lima Company was at that time commanded by a Marine officer by the name of Captain Mike Monti who served with Carpenter back in the 1990’s — Alpha Company 1/8. Carpenter and Monti were good friends who deployed together to Okinawa, Japan and attended Army Ranger School and Jump School together back in 1995. They had not seen each other in a long time and made it a point to sit down and talk before the end of the Bridgeport training cycle.

At the luncheon Carpenter and Monte discussed the differences between 8th and 7th Marines, and the superior training ranges that existed at 29 Palms compared to the ranges – and in many ways more restrictive ranges – at Camp LeJeune. (The term “range” is used as a description of a weapons firing range that can be as small as a pistol range or as large as one that measures for many miles and can tolerate maneuvering armored vehicles, impacting artillery, supporting attack aircraft, and infantry in a single firing exercise) “So we’re reminiscing about old times and I’m asking him about 7th Marines,” was Carpenter’s question to his old platoon commander. “Yeah, 3/7 is awesome and 29 Palms is awesome” was Capt Monti’s answer to Carpenter’s general question. Setting the gears in motion for Carpenter’s plan to get back into the fleet he sat down with his wife that night to explain his intentions. A family man, Carpenter has seven children and had to consider the welfare of his family in any career decisions.

29 Palms — or just the Stumps — is the name used by all Marines to describe what the Marine Corps officially titles, the “Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC).” Like the city of Bridgeport that gives the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center its common name, so the small town of 29 Palms, California has come to stand for MCAGCC. The Stumps is located in the center of the Mojave Desert and is 55 miles from the desert golf resort of Palm Springs, California. Every Marine Corps infantry battalion rotates through a one-month desert training exercise every two years. These temporary residents of the Stumps see only the primitive living conditions of the training facilities and ranges located near an expeditionary air field, and therefore a negative impression has formed throughout the Marine Corps about being stationed at the Stumps. 7th Marines is stationed at the Stumps and therefore the Regiment can heavily use the training ranges that Capt Monti described to Carpenter.

“This set the gears in motion for me to see 7th Marines as a viable option,” recalled Carpenter about his plan to get back into the Fleet. If he was going to get into the fight he needed to marry-up with a combat unit. This was not going to be possible if he planned on going back to Camp LeJeune with 8th Marines, or First Marine Division (1MarDiv) at Camp Pendleton (40 miles north of San Diego). “So basically the ace-in-the hole would be to use 7th Marines. No one wants to go to 7th Marines unless they are ordered to, or knew someone who had been there before.” But Carpenter still needed to convince his career planner that it was in the Corps best interest to transfer him from Bridgeport to the Fleet.

The career planner (also known as a monitor) was not willing to let Carpenter leave Bridgeport before his three-year commitment was fulfilled – he still needed to complete an additional year at that time. “So I knew I had a hard sell ahead of me with the monitor. At first the monitor didn’t want to hear anything about me transferring early from Bridgeport, until I told him that I wanted to go to 3/7. I think his first words after hearing I wanted to go to 29 Palms were – after he picked himself up from the floor – when do you want to go? No one wants to go to 29 Palms, because every battalion rotates through there for desert training, so they only know those desolate training areas. It’s the one Marine base that the average bear doesn’t want to go,” said Carpenter. Two months later he had his orders for 29 Palms.

A long-term goal of Carpenter’s was to eventually become a Marine Corps Gunner – not to be mistaken with the gunnery sergeant – which is a warrant officer billet. This highly respected and sought after billet are the weapons experts of the infantry battalions. Only a handful of these Gunners exist in the Marine Corps, and therefore the selection process for such a billet are very restrictive and are limited to only the most qualified of Marines. These Gunners are so respected and knowledgeable that Major General James Mattis – 1MarDiv commanding general for the invasion of Iraq – pulled then-retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Gunner Timothy Gelinas from retirement to help implement a new weapon system that he had recently acquired in his arsenal of division weapons. General Mattis wanted this new weapon in his fight with Saddam and requested that the reactivated Gunner Gelinas fix it. What made this story so interesting, besides the reactivation of Gelinas, was that this Gunner was already a among the most experienced combat veterans in the First Marine Division. Gunner Gelinas served in Vietnam twice — including in the infamous “Hill Fights of Khe Sanh” where his company (Bravo 1/9) was almost wiped out to the man — the Gulf War in 1991, Somalia, and in 2003 with 1st Light Armored Recon (LAR) in the invasion of Iraq. Truly, Carpenter had great role models to follow in the Gunner Program.

In order for Carpenter to qualify for the Gunner program he needed to follow a narrow career path, which would eventually take him to Weapons Company. A Weapons Company has the medium mortars, heavy machine guns, and medium and heavy anti-tank missiles in an Infantry battalion. Every Gunner is required to have Weapons Company experience before he can put in a package for the Gunner program.

Prior to checking in at the Stumps, Carpenter had made arrangements through back channels, to be assigned to 3/7 Weapons Company. In recalling his plans, Carpenter notes, “The old commanding officer of 2/5, Colonel Cetinski, who was the operations officer at Bridgeport and who I worked for, was a good friend of Whiskey [Weapons] Company’s Commanding Officer, then-Captain Dan Schmidtt. So they are trying to hook me up for a Weapons Company billet.”

Feeling confident that he will be checking in with Weapons Company, Carpenter checked in with 3/7 on a late Friday afternoon. Standing before Sergeant Major Lamelin – the sergeant major of 3/7 during August 2002 – Carpenter was sure he was going to Weapons Company. As the sergeant major was looking over Carpenter’s service jacket, he made some agreeable comments to Carpenter about his exceptional service, as the sergeant major turns his chair towards the back wall. (Every marine has a service jacket or book of his/her military service records and performance evaluations) The wall was covered with placards designating all the senior enlisted billets for the battalion. As the Sergeant Major is thinking out loud, he’s contemplating Carpenter’s fate. “Let’s see, where am I sending you.”

“I think I’m going to Weapons Company,” interrupted Carpenter.

“No, definitely not Weapons Company…ah, yeah it’s Lima Company, that’s where you’re going,” explained the Sergeant Major.

In the back of Carpenter’s mind he was thinking “son of a bitch” about his bad fortune. As the Sergeant Major turned back towards Carpenter he asked him whether he knows a First Sergeant Ariane Burns? Carpenter then realizing that his finely crafted plans are then lost.

“Do you mean First Sergeant Marty Burns?” asked Carpenter.

“Yes, he’s the First Sergeant for Lima Company and he has requested that you check in with them,” were the sergeant majors final instructions to Carpenter.

Burns and Carpenter were old Bridgeport hands, and it would appear that the first sergeant of Lima Company wanted to rope in a good staff sergeant, regardless of Carpenters wishes. His plans derailed, Carpenter later described his good-humored frustration at that time as, “he screwed me, and everything is now fucked”.

Minutes after receiving this bad news, a company clerk from Lima arrived to show Carpenter to the company offices. Walking into the offices he found the Lima Company leadership being debriefed by Captain George Schreffler. In the background Carpenter saw his old Bridgeport mate, First Sergeant Burns, making pull-up gestures towards him. Still wearing his dress alpha’s (the traditional heavy dress uniform that reporting Marines wear on the first day to their new unit) Carpenter eyed Burns with a “screw you” at the thought of doing pull-ups in the August heat wearing his Alpha’s.

After the debrief Captain Schreffler motioned Carpenter to his office for the welcome aboard talk. Captain Schreffler told Carpenter that he had heard nothing but good things about him and that he wanted Carpenter to take over as his weapons platoon sergeant. The Lima Company skipper was confident about the abilities of his Weapons Marines. Schreffler felt that Weapons needed some leadership, which was why he selected Carpenter for his Company.

At that same time another staff sergeant who was also checking into 3/7 walked into the Lima office area. Being dismissed from the CO’s office Carpenter made his way over to the First Sergeants office. “As I was talking with Burns the phone rang and I could hear Sergeant Major Lamelin on the other end of the phone. The other staff sergeant was now standing outside of the First Sergeant’s office,” recalled Carpenter. The other staff sergeant was a Gunnery Sergeant select and was being offered in place of Carpenter for Lima Company. The sergeant major was going to send Carpenter to Weapons Company if the Lima CO wanted this other staff sergeant. “Finally, things are going my way”, thought Carpenter to his change of fortune. First Sergeant Burns told the Sergeant Major to wait until he first talks it over with Captain Schreffler. A few minutes later the First Sergeant returned and told the Sergeant Major over the phone, “No we got our guy.”

“I can recall hearing Lamelin over the phone saying ‘are you sure’ and Burns saying, “No we got our guy.” Thus, Carpenter’s best laid plans to get into Weapons Company and his hopes of becoming a Gunner seemed to have hit a detour.

Before leaving the company area Captain Schreffler asked Carpenter if he could have this gear ready by Tuesday. Most Marines are allowed a week to complete the checking in process. Lima Company had for weeks prior to the arrival of Carpenter been training aggressively at Range 400. In fact, 3/7 as a whole had been engaged in a heavy training schedule of urban combat, or what the military as a whole calls Military Operations Urban Terrain, but is simply called MOUT. At that time there were no urban training facilities at 29 Palms and therefore most of 3/7’s training was done off base.

Captain Scheffler had taken over from Captain Monti months prior to Carpenter’s arrival to Lima Company. Scheffler had been an instructor at Infantry Officer Course (IOC) at Quantico, Virginia. IOC is the final 3 and a half month course that a Marine Officer goes through before taking charge of a Marine Rifle Platoon. Prior to IOC, a Marine Lieutenant will have finished the 6 month Basic Officers Course (TBS) — which all Marine Officers from pilots to ground officers attend — as well as Officer Candidate School (OCS). IOC is run by a Major and about 10 Captains who instruct classes of 40 Lieutenant-Students. The high instructor to student ratio is designed to provide an intensive, hands-on learning environment. Captain-instructors box with Lieutenant-students in the “room of pain” — a package where boxing rounds are timed by the length of time it takes for other Lieutenants to complete exercises like push ups. Captain-instructors shadow Lieutenant-students on field exercises which last up to 10 days. Captain-instructors follow the Lieutenant-students through exercises on every infantry weapon in the Marine inventory, and the coordination of those ground weapons with artillery and aircraft.

Schreffler had made a powerful impression on certain IOC students, such as Dominique Neal, who also joined Lima Company as a platoon commander. One of the more challenging parts of the IOC curriculum was a night attack conducted by the platoon of Lieutenants. The platoon level attack was executed at night and under non-illuminated conditions – no flares or popup pyrotechnics.

“I think he had it in his mind that he was going to do this same kind of night attack with a company when he arrived at 29 Palms,” recalled Carpenter about Captain Schreffler’s intent for the Range 400 attack. Scheffler explained that this was why Lima had been training so hard at Range 400 for the last few weeks. He asked me what I thought about such an exercise, “I laughed because I thought he was at first joking.” The thought of 200 plus Marines running through a non illuminated night attack seemed crazy. From his experience with 8th Marines at Camp LeJeune, Carpenter thought that no unit leader would be willing to take such a risk. If any Marine were injured or killed, the death would spell the end to Captain Schreffler’s career. “When he told me this, in the back of my mind I was thinking there was no way in hell that there would be enough medical support in the entire San Bernardino county to remove all the bodies from Range 400,” thought Staff Sergeant Carpenter at that time.

 

Range 400 is a mile-deep box canyon with a series of bunker complexes spread out over a half mile in the rear of the canyon. On the left side, machine gun hill is the usual spot that Company Commanders place their medium machine guns, which are able to hit the bunkers which fall between 500 and 1000 meters away. The maximum range of a medium machine gun is 1000 meters. On the right side, tucked into some washed out draws, the Company will usually place its own light mortars, and maybe the medium mortars from the Battalion. The mortars are 1000 to 1500 meters from the targets, well within their maximum range of 3700 meters. The majority of the Infantry Company usually manuevers down he middle of the range, using high explosives to breach obstacle belts. The entire exercise is conducted with live bullets, rockets, mortar bombs and explosives.

Normally, this attack is conducted during the day. This is hard enough for most Marine Infantry units. Executing the attack at night can be done, particularly with illumination — high powered star shells from mortars which dangle in the air for 30 seconds at a time under their parachutes. These munitions cast a eerie light and the confusing shadows are sometimes difficult to navigate through. But, an illuminated night attack is just a degree of difficulty higher than a daylight attack.

A non-illuminated night attack is a different proposition altogether. The main way that each Marine would see would be night vision devices. Unit leaders would have to keep control of each of their Marines through the darkness. The Company Commander and the Platoon Commanders would still be controlling supporting arms — the machine guns and the mortars — from one target to the next as the majority of the company cleared those targets. The Marines with rockets — the infantry Marines with AT-4s and the assault rocket gunners — would be firing their projectiles from amid the bulk of the Infantry Marines. Such an exercise would demand rehearsals and practice which ensured that the least proficient Marine did not kill one of his buddies.

“I was with the mortars during the Range 400 attack, since I had been through Infantry Mortars Leader Course, that is were I was during game day. I was absolutely blown away about how the company executed the attack. People from all over the division came to see this. Division headquarters and the regiment were watching this. This was the first time that anyone had thought about doing something like this, and no one since had repeated it. It was at this time that I knew I was with the right battalion and especially with the right company if I was going to war.” said Carpenter.

In October Carpenter was ordered by the battalion to report to the Staff NCO Academy at Camp Pendleton for his career level professional education. Carpenter was going to be in the zone for possibly picking up the rank of Gunnery Sergeant. Battalion wanted to be certain that he did not lack the proper level of professional courses that might prevent him from picking up his next rank. This was a disappointment to Carpenter who was going to miss the Combined Arms Exercise (CAX), which was scheduled for October and would run into November of 2003. “We [the battalion] were possibly going to war and I was new to the unit and needed to get to know the ‘Boys’, and what better way to do that then to go to CAX. So, I missed CAX to ensure I had my career course education,” explained Carpenter.

In late October through mid November 2002, 3/7 participated in a “traditional” Combined Arms Exercise (CAX) at the battalion’s home base, 29 Palms. 7th Marines — along with one Artillery battalion, the tank battalion, and 2 Light Armored Recon (LAR) battalions — are stationed permanently at 29 Palms, while the rest of the 1st Marine Division is stationed at Camp Pendleton. Because of this peculiar fate, the Marines at 29 Palms over develop their weapons skills — while, maybe, under developing their social skills. 29 Palms Marine Base — the Corps’ biggest — is set in the high Mojave Desert with Joshua Tree National Park across one highway, and the Army National Training Center across another highway.

The traditional CAX schedule consists of 22 days, including 3 days of Platoon Attacks, 3 days of Company Attacks at the infamous Range 400 — over a mile of challenging terrain, allowing for the use of machine guns, mortars, and rockets, as well as heavier weapons — several rounds of fire support coordination exercises, and air support coordination exercises involving the competent use of artillery, mortars, and close air support.

The Company level attack at Range 400 usually starts early in the day at a simulated minefield. The company commander gives his order the previous day, and the platoon commanders in turn give their orders to their squad leaders. At each level, Marines study terrain models and brief their plans. Marines load their gear with full combat loads of ammunition. Scout Snipers attached to the company take positions high in the ridge and over watch simulated enemy bunker complexes a mile deep in the canyon. The three Rifle Platoons line up behind the point where the Company breaches the minefield, while the mortar section of three tubes prepares to fire suppression fires. When the company commander initiates the attack, a violent ballet starts. An engineer section detonates breaching charges just yards from the infantry Marines lined up behind the simulated minefield. Mortars fire in the background with the flat, metallic booms preceeding the impact of high explosive and white phosphorous rounds downrange to cover the movement of the assault platoons 30 seconds later. A machine gun section of 4 or 6 guns will run through the breach and into machine gun positions to provide long range suppressive fires while the assault platoons manuever down the canyon. Marines will hear the supersonic crack of machine gun rounds close to overhead as they run. More obstacles may be encountered, and breached with back pack rocket packs which string small balls of explosive across the wire. The assault platoons will take a series of bunkers through direct assault. The exercise is closely monitored by controllers — so-called “coyotes” from the Tactical Exercise Control Group. The assault platoons will use AT-4 anti tank rockets, as well as bunker buster rockets from the weapons platoon to hit specific bunkers. The entire violent ballet is orchestrated by squad-, platoon- and company-commanders who have only worked together for months at the most. As the platoons progress downrange, the machine guns and mortars will shift from target to target, ahead of the assaulting Marines by a few hundred meters. Rifle Platoon Commanders call in and adjust mortar rounds that land a few hundred meters in front of them. The Marines will look to their leaders and judge them by their competence in controlling these heavy weapons with accuracy, since mistakes could be fatal to friendly troops.

During a three day final exercise in CAX, the battalion maneuvers while fully “meched up” — that is, embarked in Marine amtracs with M1-A1 tanks, and other support. During this final exercise, observers from 3/4 — another Battalion in 7th Marines — observed 3/7. The higher headquarters for 3/7 was 7th Marines Regiment, just as it would be in combat. During the final exercise, 3/7 would be fully “meched up” — that is, embarked on Amtracs with tanks and combat engineers attached. Moving North on the expansive base, 3/7 would manuever in Company Teams separated by miles. The Battalion would call in air support through Forward Air Controllers (FACs) attached to each Company, and through an Air Officer in the Battalion S-3 section. The Battalion Command Post would itself comprise several hundred Marines embarked it its own section of Amtracs and Humvees. Company Teams would manuever in the desert, calling in air strikes from Cobra attack helicopters and Marine aircraft, such as the AV-8 Harrier and F/A-18 fighter bombers. During the final exercise, though, the individual Marines themselves would probably not do much more than embarking and disembarking from their Amtracs to fire on a few targets in the expansive desert. Marines in the back of Amtracs would remember hours of being tossed around while the Amtracs drove around the desert. The troop commanders — platoon commanders, platoon sergeants, and maybe a squad leader — would sit in a troop commander’s hatch in the Amtrac, keeping situational awareness and reading a map. But, generally, the crew of the Amtrac would be following the orders of the Amtrac platoon commander, who rode with the Rifle Company commander giving him orders as to where to move his 14 Amtracs, along with the likely attachment of 4 Tanks. In the command Amtrac, the Company Commander would also have a Fire Support Team comprised of the FAC, an artillery forward observer, and a mortar forward observer. Upon hitting an objective — say a series of enemy armored vehicles — the Company Commander would probably first seek to suppress the targets with artillery and mortars, while calling in aircraft to destroy the targets, while also manuevering his tanks to take the targets under fire. The superiority of the US Armed Forces in the air, as well as the longer range of tank main guns would give the Marine Company Commander a large advantage over any potential enemy.

After the CAX in October and November, 2002, 3/7 phased down its Stateside training and participated in a few seminars on urban operations and the psychology of killing in December and January. During this period, the S-4 (Logistics) sections of the Battalion and higher command echelons would have focused on the complex, global logistical challenge of moving hundreds of thousands of men and their equipment to the Middle East for the coming war. 7th Marine Regiment, with its 7000 or so Marines in 1/7, 2/7, 3/7, and 3/4 was the Marine Corps’ lead Regiment for a concept known as the Maritime Prepositioning Force. The Marines have 3 squadrons of 3 or 4 ships each, strategically located throughout the globe. One of those 3 Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) squadrons is located at Diego Garcia, a British Island in the Indian Ocean, a few days easy sailing to Kuwait. During December and January, 7th Marines would execute a well-rehearsed global, logistical ballet that is just as significant in the Marines’ combat effectiveness as the CAX and the proficient use of weapons. As the Marines’ lead MPF Regiment, 7th Marines had the mission of being prepared to “marry up” with an MPF Squadron, which has all the equipment and all classes of supply to support the Regiment (together with higher headquarters, supporting aircraft, and supporting logistics in a MAGTF) for a period of several months. Of the possible places that the Marine Corps can offload a MPF, Kuwait is a well practiced destination for this gear. The staff of 3/7 and the higher echelons would massage arcane logistical scrolls which went by names like Time Phased Deployment Programs (the “tib-fib”), Remain Behind Echelon (RBE), and other categories which would keep parts of the Battalion spread between two continents in time zones directly opposite each other around the world.

Things only seemed to be getting worse for Carpenter when the “word” was passed that the battalion was still scheduled to deploy to Okinawa – every two years each infantry battalion either deploys to Okinawa or embarks onto a naval amphibious warship for seven months. Furthermore, 1MarDiv and MEF were sending advanced elements to Kuwait for the possible invasion of Iraq. “I’m thinking that I made the biggest bet of my life and it’s not going to work, and I’m going to end up on the ‘Rock’ during the invasion,” thought Carpenter at the time in frustration. However, fortune would again smile on Carpenter when he received a call during Christmas leave that 3/7 was going to fly to Kuwait during January and that the scheduled Okinawa deployment was cancelled.

On December 28, 2002, a Naval Message canceled the Unit Deployment Program, which in practical terms meant that Bellmont, Mejia, and Milinkovic would not get to know places like Kin Village in Okinawa or Pattaya Beach, Thailand in the coming years.

On January 3, 2003, the MPF drill was started by the 1st Marine Division. Groups of Marines with names like Equipment Reception Party (ERP) and Offload Preparation Party (OPP) went forward to Kuwait under the leadership of Battalion Executive Officer, Major Anthony Henderson. On January 4, 2003, the OPP went to Diego Garcia to link up with the MPF Squadron located there. The 3 Marines from the 3/7 OPP flew to the ships, and began to survey the gear that their Marines would pick up at the port in Kuwait.

On January 15, 2003, 3/7 issued its deployment order. 3/7 would be the first manuever battalion in the Marine Corps to deploy to Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Writing to Col Carl Shaver, who had commanded Lima 3/7 in Vietnam, Captain Schreffler noted, “the company was the first Marine infantry unit to land in Kuwait in January 2003.” On January 16, 2003, the 30-Marine ERP departed from the United States for Kuwait. The ERP would meet the MPF ships in port and further break out the equipment for 3/7. From January 21 to 25, 2003, the main body of 3/7 departed the United States for Kuwait. LtCol Michael Belcher and his Sergeant Major Richard Lamelin flew on the first of four flights aboard 747s full of Marines with their rifles and other weapons. By January 27, 3/7 was established in Living Support Area (LSA)-7 in the Kuwaiti desert, north of Kuwait City. 3/7 provided command and control for further 7th Marines elements that flowed into theater, provided security for the base, and security for the ammunition supplies. Corporal Daniel Ramirez of 3/7 signed for the entire first installment of the 1st Marine Division ammunition as the only qualified ammunition technician in Kuwait.

From late January through mid March 2003, each company conducted training in the Kuwaiti desert, honing its combat edge. The staff executed command post exercises and terrain studies. The Companies like Lima 3/7 covered urban operations, prisoner handling, hand to hand combat, physical fitness, patrolling, breaching using engineers, hikes, test firing weapons, and professional reading.

On February 1, 2003, the Battalion published the operations order (OpOrd) for the coming invasion. The OpOrd would be modified by eleven written and verbal fragmentary orders (FragOs) during Operation Iraqi Freedom 1. On February 7, the OpOrd was issued on a terrain model for the Company Commanders, including Capt Schreffler, and the separate platoon commanders — including senior Lieutenants who commanded the highly coveted Combined Anti Armor Teams (CAAT) units which were comprised of gun trucks (armored Humvees) which carried the powerful M-2 .50 caliber machine gun and the Mark-19, fully automatic 40 millimeter grenade launcher, and the TOW Anti-Tank Missiles. A TOW GunTruck might carry 7 of the long-range (almost 4000 meter) missiles, along with a M-240 medium machine gun with 10,000 rounds, sachel charges of C-4, as well as M-4 Rifles (short versions of the M-16). The typical crew for a TOW Gun Truck might be 3 Marines. A TOW Gun Truck would pair up with a M-2/ Mk-19 Gun Truck to take advantage of “combined arms” — ie, using the heavy machine guns and the TOW missiles together. After one tour with a Rifle Platoon, an infantry Lieutenant would move onto a second job in the Battalion, which could include being the Weapons Platoon Commander in a Rifle Company, being the Executive Officer (XO) of the Rifle Company, or going on to one of the “independent platoons” such as the CAAT Teams in the Weapons Company. Marine Lieutenants prized an assignment to CAAT because it represented as much independence as a Marine Officer could expect in th first 3 years of his career.

At the terrain model, the Company Commanders and independent platoon commanders would walk through various maneuvers on giant models built by the battalion staff. These meetings could take hours. All the “actuals” (actual commanders) would be present. The personal bearing, physical fitness, reputation, and the commander’s relationships would all come into play in these face-to-face rehearsals for the ballet of war. George Schreffler would move either himself or a cardboard square representing his company through various scenarios — breaching at the border, moving and taking various objectives. The Marine Warfighting Doctrine of Manuever Warfare emphasizes speed (“Speed is a weapon,” advised the Marine Warfighting Manual), and finding enemy “gaps” and avoiding attritional fights at “surfaces.” The Warfighting Doctrine emphasizes teamwork and implicit communication. By February 2003, much of this base of trust would have already been built through the Marines’ educational system, through training at exercises like CAX, and through service in the same Battalion over the previous months. But, now in the Kuwaiti desert in February, 2003, 3/7’s leaders adapted all of these carefully developed relationships to the present terrain from LSA-7 to Baghdad.

On February 9, 2003, 3/7 executed a Battalion Combined Arms Rehearsal and updated the OpOrd. The rehearsal resulted in further changes to the OpOrd. Later in February, 7th Marine Regiment executed a combined arms rehearsal. On February 22-23, 7th Marines executed a command post exercise to make sure that it could use the communications equipment at the ranges the Marines would encounter in the desert. 7th Marines tested the communications gear to deconflict maneuver and fire support plans. In late February and early March, the Division of 18,000 Marines, commanded by Major General Mattis, repeated the terrain walks and communications validation exercises. On March 9, 2003, the Battalion- and company-commanders visited Ali al Salem air based to coordinate with the Cobra light attack helicopter squadrons that would support 7th Marines. The Cobra carries a 20 millimeter cannon capable of killing most vehicles, except for maybe some tanks, as well as long range missiles like the Hellfire and TOW, and shorter range missiles. The Cobra pilots had a reputation of being very close in their mindset to the Marine infantry on the ground — many of these pilots would have completed Infantry Officer Class (IOC) along with officers who had chose Infantry as a specialty. The rest of March was devoted to fine tuning changes in the fire support plan, and rehearsing the combined arms rehearsals down to the platoon level.

But while this intercontinental logistical operation may have operated as planned, it was not without its friction from the point of view of the Marines aboard the planes.

Flying out of March Air Force Base aboard a civilian airliner Lima Company landed at Kuwait International Airport on the 19th of January. To the surprise of everyone, they did not encounter the hot desert climate that they had expected. Instead, they encountered a wet and rainy forty-degree nightmare. As the sun began to set shortly after Lima disembarked from the aircraft things only got worse as they discovered their gear was soaking wet. Around 2200 (10 PM) a number of small buses arrived to transport the company to its pre-invasion staging area. “These Middle Eastern buses arrived — which at best could transport 15 people, without gear — pulled up and we began to load a platoon of Marines onto each. Tensions were high among the Marines, due to the weather, the wet gear, and the fact that the ammo that was passed out was not a lot,” recalled Carpenter.

As the buses lined up along the road a number of Kuwaiti and U.S military escort vehicles attached themselves to this small convoy of buses. It soon became apparent that the bus that Carpenter was on had gotten separated from the other buses. As the sun began to rise there was no sight of the other buses or escort vehicles. Being Marines, they began joking that they had already invaded Iraq.

Hoping to get a better view of the surrounding area the bus drove up onto a berm, where the Sergeant Major, the First Sergeant, and Carpenter got off the bus. In the distance the three could see a camp and began walking towards it. Waiting at the main gate was an Army PFC dressed in Gortex – the weather was still cold and overcast. To everyone’s disappointment this was not LSA-7, where the Marines were to be bivouacked at, but Camp New York. After several rounds of questions it turned out that no one in Camp New York had any idea where LSA-7 was. Guessing where they needed to go they boarded the bus and directed the bus driver back towards the main road. Eventually they were located by 3/7’s battalion executive officer (XO), Major Tony Henderson.

On that first day, LSA-7 was still under construction and consisted of only four large General Purpose tents (similar to circus tents). Over the next few days the camp would grow into what appeared to the Marines to be about four hundred tents. “As we were setting our gear in the tents, the Division Commander, Major General Mattis walked into the tent. He told us to get ourselves situated and that the remainder of 7th Marines and the rest of the First Marine Division would soon be on deck. Thus ended Carpenter’s first day in Kuwait.

Kurt Bellmont was a rifleman during this period. In a 4-Marine Fire Team, the Fire Team Leader, usually a Corporal (E-4) or senior Lance Corporal, carries a M-16 rifle with a 40 millimeter M-203 grenade launcher slung beneath. The Automatic Rifleman carries a M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon — a light machine gun that fires the same bullet as the M-16. The assistant Automatic Rifleman carries a M-16 as well as extra ammunition for the light machine gun. Finally, the Rifleman carries a M-16. Bellmont’s Fire Team Leader was Corporal Olmstead and his Squad Leader was Corporal Delfield. When we interviewed Kurt Bellmont in 2005, he recalls, “Looking back, it’s so funny, now I look at all these senior Marines and they’re just another Marine, but [in 2002] my squad leader, he was held up high on this perch because he was this big, bad squad leader.”

Since Lima 3/7 had come from deployments to the West Pacific in jungle environments like Okinawa, none of the more experienced Marine NCOs had much special knowledge about operations in the desert. “I didn’t know anything,” recalls Bellmont. “No one really knew anything. That was the interesting part. Because even the senior Marines that were over in Okinawa, that was the only place they had been. So they couldn’t [say] ‘we’ve got one up on you because we’ve been here before.’ They didn’t know anything either. They knew how to play in the jungle. But as far as the desert went in Iraq, they didn’t know anything.”

The training for the next two months, before the invasion, centered on mechanized operations. The invasion was to be strictly a mechanized war. Extensive training was conducted with the Amphibious Assault Vehicles (all Marines simply call these tracked vehicles AAV’s or Amtracs). Because of concerns about a chemical warfare attack by Saddam, there was additional decontamination training, antidote training, and the many other essential training related to these weapons of mass destruction. Live fire and some grenade training was conducted at Udari Range – a massive range of destroyed Iraqi vehicles from the First Gulf War. Urban combat training was conducted during this time despite the fact that there were few standing buildings in the immediate area. This illustrated the hight level of importance the Marine Corps placed on urban combat skills. On the night before the start of the ground war, Lima Company was interrupted during a night urban training exercise by a number of Amtracs arriving to ferry Lima back to LSA-7. “Around 2200 or 2300 Captain Scheffler received the word that we would begin the move to the Kuwaiti- Iraqi boarder for the invasion. Everyone was very excited and no one got any sleep that night at the prospect of going to war,” recalled Carpenter.

Not until a week before the start of the war did the first mail delivery arrive at LSA-7. Two months worth of mail suddenly descended onto the camp — letters, books, magazines, snacks, and all the other things that family, back home, wanted their sons to have.

“So, Lima was one of the last units to get back to LSA-7 before we moved to the border. It was at this time that we discovered that the company was assigned the task of sweeping out all the tents in the camp. Also, there was a huge bonfire being used to destroy all of the crap that we got in the mail, and didn’t have room for,” said Carpenter. Carpenter and the other Marines of Lima Company later learned that the bonfire used to burn their excess mail was responsible for several of the tents burning to the ground when the winds suddenly picked up. The reason that the tents had to be cleanly swept was that the Marines intended to use LSA-7 as a POW camp. But the outbreak of the fire may have changed plans for the camp.

Several kilometers from the border the Marines of Lima Company began to dig in at what was called the dispersion area (DA). As Carpenter was digging he began to think that it was bad luck that the company was conducting field training right before they got the orders to move. None of the Lima Marines had a shower in the last three days, and Carpenter wondered how long it would be until they would get a fresh shower. It would be many weeks until the company and Carpenter had the comfort of a shower.

To compound the discomforts of the Marines, the Grunts were also required to wear heavy chemical protective suits that they wore as a defense against chemical warfare agents. These activated charcoal lined suits would leave deposits of black carbon dust on their bodies. The protective masks also confounded the comfort of the Marines because chemical alerts were sounded from time to time. These masks would trap sweat and a heavy condensation from the breathing inside the mask, and the growing heat of the desert sun only added to a level of discomfort difficult for the average civilian to understand.

Looking around Carpenter noticed that all the chemical protective suits that the Marines wore were of the green woodland camouflage. The Army had the desert colored camouflage suits. “Well, he thought at least he and the other Marines were prepared for an invasion of North Korea.” Carpenter thought sarcastically.

Bellmont’s Squad Leader, Corporal Delfield told his Marines that they would be able to do their job better if they assumed that they would be killed once the Company crossed the line of departure into Iraq. Bellmont remembers that he did indeed adopt this mindset, and it did help his ability to deal with the uncertainty of that environment. “It was kind of scary because I remember when Corporal Delfield [said] ‘Well, you won’t be able to work well unless you know that you are going to die when you go there.’ So, that’s pretty much how we went in there the first time when we crossed the border for Iraq. Well, [we] just figured you’re going to die, and we figured you could do your job a lot easier…. That was kind of scary, but it was kind of cool after you thought like that, because then, nothing mattered.”

Some Marines may spend an entire tour of 3 years at bases like 29 Palms repeatedly training up to a certain standard designed to prepare the unit for deployment to a place like Kuwait for an operation like Iraqi Freedom. For every Marine who went through this progression from mid 2002 to early 2003, there were 10 or 20 who went through the same individual and unit training without actually putting these skills to the test. In the 60 days between mid January 2003 and mid March 2003, Lima 3/7 and the rest of the Division put the final touches on the explosive kinetic energy that the unit represented. On March 17, 2003 — St. Patrick’s Day — 3/7 executed a relief in place with the 1st United Kingdom’s Division’s 1st Battlegroup, Black Watch Regiment. The stage was fully set for combat operations.

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About

This is a website for writing a book about Lima Company, 3/7, during 4 deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2007.

About

This is a website for writing a book about Lima Company, 3/7, during 4 deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2007.