ABOARD THE USS PELELIU -- Many Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit are getting their first taste of ship life during Composite Training Unit Exercise here off the coast of Camp Pendleton Nov. 29-Dec. 14.
For some Marines and sailors, the two-week-long COMPTUEX is not only an excellent opportunity for them to receive valuable training in their job field, it is also a good opportunity for them to smoothly transition to ship life prior to their six month deployment this winter.
"It eases the culture shock and mentally prepares the Marines for what's ahead and makes them more confident," said 1st Sgt. Kenneth M. Hasbrouck, company first sergeant, Company C, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 11th MEU, Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Some Marines like Lance Cpl. Christopher K. Morgan-Riess, tactical data network specialist, communication platoon, 11th MEU, appreciate being able to get a dress rehearsal prior to the upcoming deployment. Morgan-Riess came aboard ship for the first time in November, and what he found was that just getting around within the ship was a challenge.
"I kept getting lost. Finding your way around was virtually impossible," said Morgan-Riess. "I would memorize the path from my workspace to my berthing area (sleeping quarters) and a couple other places I needed to get to and not travel outside of that small section of the ship. Each day I would try to learn a different way to get around a new section of the ship," said Morgan-Riess. "There are still sections of the ship that I will never ever get to see."
This is a common problem for Marines and sailors who are new to ship life. When new Marines arrive on ship, some look like a mouse in a maze looking for the cheese.
Corporal Sinclair L. Harrell, administration clerk, command element, 11th MEU, recalls his first time on ship last year in which he felt like that mouse in the maze.
"We had to get to our berthing area on the opposite side of the ship," said Harrell. Harrell and the Marines with him were carrying their fully loaded packs, laptops and other personal items, he said.
"'Go three decks up, take the next two rights, then a left, then go right,'" someone told Harrell when he asked for directions. For Harrell, it was as if someone had given him directions in the woods and in the dark.
"We ended up getting lost, and no matter which way we went, we always ended up in the hangar bay," said Harrell with a laugh. Harrell said it took him a couple of days to learn his way to work. "I felt relieved that I knew my way back to my workspace in the event of a man-overboard drill," said Harrell.
During this training period and a third one in January, Marines and sailors will learn about the many unique safety rules and regulations aboard ship. They will also learn important emergency procedures like what to do during man overboard, space evacuation, abandon ship and other drills.
According to MSgt. Kevin Bonds, headquarters commandant, command element, 11th MEU, Marines and sailors are also learning how to work with their Navy brothers and sisters. They are learning that they have to earn their keep by performing collateral duties such as "mess duty," cooking and cleaning in the galley or cafeteria, and to perform other cleaning, maintenance, general labor and guard duties while aboard the ship.
Life on a ship is much like life in any household, said Bonds. "The Navy and Marine Corps are like a family, and just like families pitch in to take care of their homes, everyone pitches in to clean and maintain the ship," said Bonds.
One of the most important things Marines learn about ship life is that when the work is done, there are plenty of things to do to have fun. That is, if they choose to venture out of their comfort zone, said Stephanie Hess, fun boss, U.S.S. Peleliu. "When most Marines arrive, after work they tend to keep to themselves in the berthing areas," said Hess.
"We play a lot of cards, play a lot of video games, watch movies," said Lance Cpl. David C. Crump, motor transport mechanic, BLT 1/4. "I think I've watched every movie in my collection about 4 times," said Crump, who came aboard ship for the first time in November.
It's Hess' job to try to draw Marines like Crump out from the berthing areas. To do this, Hess and her office staff have put together a fun list of activities and events that rival any Marine Corps Community Service event list back home.
Hess said the Navy spares no expense to make sure the Marines and sailors relax and have fun. Hess' office is located inside the ship's gym, a state of the art facility that is one of the best in the Navy and looks just like any gym back on base.
The fun boss also offers Marines a wide array of board games, video games, Xboxes, PlayStation consoles, DVD movies and players. Each week, the calendar is filled with activities such as Karaoke Night, Poker Night, video game tournaments, contests and movie nights complete with popcorn.
As part of an agreement between the Navy and the movie industry, "once we deploy, Marines and sailors will get to see movies before or just as they are seen in theaters," said Hess.
Hess and her staff had a free holiday party raffle on Sunday, in which $10,000 worth of prizes was raffled off. Each Marine and sailor received a free ticket and a chance to win. Prizes included a plasma screen television, iPods, $1,700 in gift certificates that can be redeemed online and dozens of other prizes.
The MEU's big winners were members of BLT 1/4. R Battery's HM3. Justin A. Hradil, hospital corpsman, and Cpl. Bill L. Gainey, radio operator, won a laptop computer and a Nintendo GameCube respectively. Maj. Matthew T. Morrissey, operations officer, won a Sony PlayStation Portable video game system.
The Marines and sailors of the 11th MEU have one more at-sea training period in January before they deploy in support of the Global War on Terrorism. This training period and upcoming deployment are expected be rewarding, but stressful events.
Hess said the best way to combat stress and get your mind off work is to have fun and exercise. If Marines and sailors only learn one thing during these training exercises, it should be "that time goes by a lot faster when you’re having a good time."