TOWNSVILLE, Australia -- Just before midnight the evening's training was slowly coming to an end for the Marines of Company B. Through a pale moonlight, the Marines' youthful faces looked haggard and worn. In the lull that had set in, the Marines' bodies moved as if in slow motion when they bent down to gather their weapons and gear to call it a night. This wasn't surprising, considering they had been up before sunrise and throughout the day, as they conducted ambushes, platoon attacks and hiked over dusty trails and rocky mountain slopes, they had been baked by the merciless Australian sun like beef jerky laid out on a hot tin roof. After completing the final platoon night attack in full combat gear, over treacherous terrain and low visibility, their bodies looked as if they had very little left to give.
Then, a sergeant's thunderous voice exploded through the darkness and shattered the Marines' brief respite, "Let's go, we've got five minutes to get the hell off this mountain."
It was the booming voice of Sgt. Gregory J. Henry, machine gun section leader, Company B, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, (Special Operations Capable) Camp Pendleton, Calif., and he was in no mood to stay up on that mountain for more than he had to during sustainment training conducted by the 11th MEU in the Australian outback March 13-17.
Immediately, like a domino effect, the corporals went in to action yelling commands to the Marines and bringing them back to life. Soon, the Marines were moving like a track team with a fresh set of legs. Within minutes the corporals reported to Henry, a former school of infantry instructor, who reported to his platoon sergeant that the range was clean, all personnel, their weapons and gear were accounted for and that the Marines were formed up and ready to make their way down the rocky slope.
This was small unit leadership in action, "it is the key and the heartbeat of the Marine Corps," said Henry. It is the philosophy that stresses that every level of the chain of command bears the responsibility to pass on knowledge to their subordinates and to foster leadership. It is also the philosophy that delegates a great deal of authority and responsibility to the noncommissioned officers, primarily corporals and sergeants.
NCOs are the ones who make things happen on the ground, said Henry. "If we didn't place that amount of responsibility on corporals and in many cases lance corporals, then they wouldn't have anything to strive for," said Henry. Working hard, knowing your job and being a leader, will get you somewhere at Bravo, said Henry. "The junior Marines see this and it gives them that push, and that's the push that makes us better everyday. It's what helps us win battles."
According to GySgt. Ruben Urquidez, platoon sergeant, weapons platoon, from Phoenix, Ariz., this sustainment training is very important because it not only allows leaders to teach the technical aspects of firing weapons and battlefield tactics, but is also gives the noncommissioned officer ranks an opportunity to exercise leadership.
To make his point, Urquidez pointed to a young corporal who was coaching and giving other
Marines instructions during a battle site zero exercise, the weapon's calibration portion of the training. He was given proper training and then was given enough responsibility and leeway so that he could develop a sense of ownership of the range, said Urquidez.
In other armed forces this responsibility would probably go to a more senior servicemember, said Urquidez.
"The result," said Urquidez, "is that that young corporal now has the confidence and proficiency to run a firing range all by himself."
Responsibility is key in fostering small unit leadership, said 1stSgt. Joe R. Depoyster, 1st sergeant, Company B. "We give corporals today 10 times the responsibility placed on their civilian counterparts, and they handle it very well," he said.
Urquidez agreed, "Young Marines today are smarter, stronger and more mature than those in my day." But this is very necessary considering the burden these young men must shoulder when going into battle. "The lives of the Marines around them are at stake."
During a platoon daytime attack, the small unit leadership process could be seen in action. The exercise called for a machine gun section to get on line to provide a base of suppressive fire meant to kill or to keep the enemy's heads down long enough to allow the rifle squads an opportunity to get into an advantageous position.
Before the training began, the company commander met with his platoon commanders and gave them his guidance as to how he wanted the attack to unfold. He then release his platoon commanders who then gave their guidance to the platoon sergeants, who then met with the sergeants and staff sergeants. This process could be seen working its way all the way to the bottom of this chain of command, in which corporals took the lance corporals aside and went over the battle plan step by step. With the battleground in front of them, they pointed to landmarks, went over positioning of weapons, signal coordination, choreography of movement and safety procedures with their subordinates. These were not just young Marines following orders blindly, they were active participants and contributors in the battle execution process.
After the sustainment training was complete, Depoyster, Urquidez and Henry had nothing but good things to say about the Marines performance.
"The Marines have performed well up to this point, but there is always room to grow. As with any training exercise, mistakes were made and lessons were learned," said Henry. Although his Marines always strive for perfection, Henry said that he is also grateful that those mistakes happened in training where they can be corrected and not in battle where they can cost lives.
While Henry believes he has prepared his Marines well, "As a combat instructor, you hope that you taught them everything you needed to teach them so they can make it home safely."
Even though Henry does not know what the future holds in store for himself or his Marines, No matter what happens Henry said he has a lot of respect for the Marines of Company B and would be proud to serve with them in combat. "These Marines train very hard, making sacrifices and risk their lives. A lot of them are very young and are giving up their youth to defend freedom," said Henry. "I think that says a lot about the young Marines of today."
For more information about the 11th MEU (SOC) visit their website at www.usmc.mil/11thmeu.