Falayka Island, Kuwait -- Just a few steps from the entrance to the war-ravaged school here, emerald waters of the Arabian Gulf ebbed and flowed against the sands of crushed shells and stone along the beach. Through broken windows, the Marines gazed at the picturesque scene, a stark contrast to the shards of glass and stone rubble scattered among the school ruins, where they had set up camp.
They spent two days on the island May 18-19, enough time for the Marines from Echo Company, Battalion Landing Team 2/1, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) to practice their skills of urban patrolling, room clearing, defense, and squad attacks in an urban environment, as part of Exercise Eager Mace 01.
Battles during the Gulf War destroyed the once flourishing resort community of Falayka Island. Now, scarred broken buildings still bleed from the artillery and mortar wounds inflicted nearly 11 years ago. Explosive bursts punctured the flesh of concrete, leaving the walls dripping with charred black streaks.
"This is a fact gents," shouted SSgt. Raul Toledo, 1st Platoon Sergeant and Military Operations in Urban Terrain instructor. "This place was taken over by two groups, first the Iraqis and then, the Marines."
Toledo's voice was hard and quick as he taught a group of Marines from 3rd Platoon the techniques of room clearing. He was clear despite his thick Spanish accent, and his eyes burned with drill instructor-like intensity while he spoke.
"If you want to take the door first - because it's the easiest accessible way in - you must be quick," Toledo said.
The Marines listened as the sun hung overhead, forcing their sweat and salt-stained boonie covers to cast dark shadows across their faces. They had been in Kuwait for a week. They were tanned and weathered from days beneath the scorching desert sun and had been exposed to the hard-driven desert wind that thrust sandstorms whirling across the desert training areas.
Now, their shoulders slouched from the weight of weapons and battle dress. Still, they appeared alert, eyes focused on their instructor.
Toledo led the group of infantrymen through the wrecked house, pointing out danger areas and stopping to teach methods for maneuvering through the building in search of the enemy. The Marines stood quietly during his instruction and craned their necks to watch him.
"You'll always work as a team," Toledo said to the men as if he were speaking to each Marine separately instead of a group. "There's nothing in your mind you can't accomplish if you work as a team."
The Marines did just that. Fire teams worked together to scale bare sandstone walls, kick in doors and hurdle through windows. The overall training was broken down into stations where instructors gave classes on urban patrolling, room clearing, defense, and squad attacks in an urban environment. Toledo wrapped up his first class of the day and sent the Marines on to their next station.
"It was truly realistic and more challenging because of all the debris," Cpl. Frank Barylski, 21, Detroit, Mich. native said. "It was better than (other urban training) because it was in a real setting."
After the war, the town wasn't resettled. Instead, it remained deserted, frozen in time and encased in dust to preserve the things left behind. During their patrols, realism crept further into the training scenario.
The streets were covered with torn boots and tattered clothes. A rusted bicycle, fit for a preschooler, lay on its side in the center of the stone and glass-covered street. Blue-tiled duplex apartments straddled the street where families once walked the sidewalks.
Now, Marines walked the streets, weapons in hand, peering into empty doorways and hollow windows, practicing for the same kind of warfare that once took place there.
A single shot rang out. An instructor hid inside the second story bedroom of one of the apartments. He acted as a sniper and fired blank rounds from his rifle, directed toward the street below.
The Marines reacted instantly, their bodies slammed into the face of the buildings as they scrambled for cover.
"Where's it coming from?" shouted a squad leader.
The Marines bounded, fire team after fire team while LCpl. Justin Rettenberger fired a continuous barrage of blank rounds from his squad automatic weapon. They sprinted from building to building under the cover of Rettenberger's suppressive fire.
"He's in that building!" A Marine shouted, pointing ahead to the corner apartment where sparks of red flashes appeared in the second-story window.
A fire team charged the building, putting to use the tactics they'd learned earlier. More shots burst from inside the apartment followed by a surreal calm as the wind carried the smell of gunpowder along the street.
"I got the sniper!" shouted the first Marine out of the apartment.
The others came to their feet and moved toward the center of the street, stepping out of concealed areas and the scenario itself.
"You're lucky my SAW was working today," joked Rettenberger, a 21-year-old Hazelwood, Wisc. native.
The Marines huddled around the mock sniper and MOUT instructor and listened to critiques of the patrol. They left the urban patrol station exhilarated by the mock combat, smiling as they talked about what had happened.
The company finished the day rotating through each station and practicing their skills. The following day was filled with more yells and gunfire as squads were pitted against one another during patrolling and ambush scenarios.
"It was good training," said Cpl. Jason Whalen, 21, Brooklyn, N.Y. native. "If and when we ever have to do this for real, we probably would have bombarded the town with artillery and mortars and it would look like this. You have to keep your eyes open, and watch your step."
The last night Echo Co. spent on the island, flares streaked upward from the town and painted the sky a fiery red. They continued their mock combat into the night and the air was filled with the sounds of chest-pounding artillery simulators and more gunfire. When it was over, the Marines relived the experience that night in their descriptive and colorful stories to each other and it lasted until the company boarded helicopters as they left Falayka Island.