KAHUKU TRAINING AREA, OAHU, Hawaii -- The Ch-46E Sea Knight helicopter jerked as dried grass and straw from nearby sugarcane fields swarmed the Marines inside. Their 20-minute flight was over, enough time for Cpl. Guillermo Sosa to take pictures of the Pacific island. It was his first time in Hawaii.
The 26-year-old training noncommissioned officer from Alviso, Calif. and other Marines and Sailors from G Company, Battalion Landing Team 2/1, landed here March 20, to practice patrolling through jungle-like terrain.
The scenario: raid a platoon-size force and conduct security patrols of the surrounding area.
Once on the ground, they started their search for the enemy platoon. Sergeant Jorge Jacinto, 27, machine gun section leader, Weapons Plt., stood on a hilltop looking for a reinforced platoon carrying small caliber weapons and machine guns.
"It beats being on ship," he said as he watched waves crash against the shore from his hilltop perch.
The company departed San Diego a week ago aboard the USS Boxer en route to the Pacific and Arabian Gulf Regions. Battalion Landing Team 2/1 along with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 (reinforced), MEU Service Support Group 11, and the Command Element comprise the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable).
The MEU?s stop in Hawaii was for sustainment training. It was the first port visit of its six-month deployment.
After landing, 2ndLt. Otto Betz, platoon commander, led his Marines up a winding, gravel road. Third Platoon was the first to tackle the thick, Hawaiian brush and loose pine needle floor.
Sweat dripped from their camouflage-painted faces as the sun climbed over the island?s mountains and battled the wind. The sun seemed to suck the air from the wooded hills.
Their packs held enough supplies to last them a night - the time allotted for training, but seemed heavier under the blanket of humidity rising from the Hawaiian vegetation.
"It was a physical test of endurance, you had to be alert out here," LCpl. Francisco Navarro, 20-year-old Los Angeles native, 2nd Fire team, 2nd Squad, said. "This gave me a different perspective of terrain and land navigation."
Third Platoon disappeared into the dense pines, abandoning the clearly marked path. They stopped moments later and hunkered behind red, clay mounds. Corporal Anthony Polley, 24, 2nd Fire Team leader, 2nd Squad, lay still and stared at the sun-beaten road ahead.
The platoon sergeant, SSgt. Ronnie Smith, ordered the Marines into defensive positions while squad leaders scouted a possible patrol base.
The company trained using tactics that pitted the platoons against each other.
"This was better than attacking a fake objective," LCpl. Milton Gonzales, 21, 2nd Fireteam, 1st Squad, said. "That?s good training, but here we had to watch our step so we didn?t make any noise, or we could have gotten shot."
Bugs zipped through the air, and pine-needles crackled under them as they adjusted their rifles. Their bodies rose and fell with every breath. The scouts returned from the tentative patrol base just as gunshots pierced the tranquil scene.
"We?ve got contact!" the squad leaders shouted in unison.
Shots rang out, and the Marines leapt to their feet hustling toward the rival platoon. In the midst of a firefight of blanks, Sgt. John Lucero, 2nd Squad Leader, yelled to the Marines.
"Get down the hill!"
Quickly heeding the order, the Marines raced down a steep embankment behind them. The pine-needle floor gave way sending the Marines sliding over rocks and roots hidden under the soil.
"It was like sliding off a roof," Polley, a Nelsonville, Ohio native said of the quick getaway. "This was good training and a lot of fun. We rarely get to do training like this."
At the bottom of the earthy slide, the platoon climbed into a ravine and claimed it as their patrol base. The dead arms of fallen pine trees kept it hidden during the day and the loose, steep terrain made it difficult to find at night.
"This is pretty realistic," LCpl. Milton Gonzales, 21-year-old Miami, Fla. native, said. "We actually learned to defend our patrol base and sent out patrols to find the enemy."
During patrols, small unit leaders held the reigns. The training refreshed infantry skills, but the focus on noncommissioned officers fostered unit cohesion.
"The squad leaders used the time to refine little things like hand and arm signals, cover, concealment, and proper wearing of camouflage," Sgt. Miguel Bolanos, 27, platoon guide, said. "The time also helped NCOs mold the leadership style of the junior Marines."
Team leaders crouched in the ravine between patrols studying maps. They drafted patrol routes and prepared situation reports after every outing.
"This gave the small unit leader a chance to make decisions on his own," Lucero said. "We didn?t have to worry about impressing anyone. We just came out here and did what we had to do."