JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- U.S. Reconnaissance Marine Corporal Charles Cegan, of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, steels himself for the cold of the Chugach mountains, while riding in a UH-60 Black Hawk, Oct 18. Cegan was moulaged to play the role of an aircraft crash victim during the tactical recovery of air craft and personnel training exercise. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Airman 1st Class Omari Bernard)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- U.S. Reconnaissance Marine Corporal Joshua Hunter, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of Camp Pendleton, Calif, looks for the enemy with the sun in his eyes as he secures the area during a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel operation in the Chugach mountains Oct. 26. The Marines were here training recon and surveillance in an unfamiliar subarctic environment. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Airman 1st Class Omari Bernard)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- U.S. Reconnaissance Marine Corparal Brian Higdon, of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, Camp Pendleton, records the wind speed for the Marines who will perform a high altitude-low opening jump into Drop Zone Geronimo, October 26. The Force Recon Marines were practicing a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel at DZ Geronimo, located in a valley of the Chugach mountains. (U.S. Air Force Photo/ Airman 1st Class Omari Bernard)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
Reconnaissance Marines from the Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, Camp Pendleton, Calif., performed a high-altitude low-opening jump and parachuted in through the frigid Alaska air Oct. 18.
For four days, they stayed in the subarctic elements where other Marines who were embedded in their platoon evaluated them, before the unit was picked up.
The Marines left San Diego, Calif., with 86-degree balmy weather, said Marine Capt. Christopher Brock, future operations officer with 1st Recon. They embarked on a four-hour flight and arrived in Alaska airspace via C-130 Hercules.
There, they had to transition from the warm temperature of San Diego to the subarctic temperatures of the JBER-Richardson Range.
"Next thing they know, they are jumping out of the back of a C-130 at 11,000 feet into negative 15 degree winds," Brock said. "It was a big deal the first day or so. A lot of it was survival mode, how they were going to deal with the temperature with the gear they have. What things worked and what things didn't."
He gave examples of things the Marines had to overcome, from things like layering their clothes and keeping warm to the issues of batteries not lasting as long. After that first day, they validated their tactics, techniques and procedures for the elements they encountered and began the reconnaissance and surveillance portion of their temporary deployment training.
They went through various training missions such as urban raid training, where they forcefully breached buildings. The Marines also performed room clearing with buddy teams and live-fire training as well as their bread and butter reconnaissance and surveillance mission.
In one training scenario, the Marines planned a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, where both 176th Pararescue Airmen and the Reconnaissance Marines parachuted into an aptly named landing zone in a valley between mountains code named Drop Zone Geronimo.
With grace and precision, they performed a HALO free-fall jump from the plane at 10,000 feet and popped parachutes at 4,500 ft. From there, they glided along separate wind currents, which were blowing in different directions above the mountains and in the valley of the simulated crash site. The pararescuemen immediately attended to the "deceased" aircraft crew dummies and injury-moulaged Marines, while the Marines who parachuted in secured the area amidst gunfire sounded that was simulated by a strategically placed CO2 tank and one of the training overseers firing blanks.
The training overseers perched on high ground with the sun at their backs and fired off blank rounds.
"It was like a scene from The Patriot," one of the Marines said. "One of them would yell 'I got him,' and then the trainer would vanish and reappear at the bottom of a ridge."
Benefits of training in Alaska
"We can't duplicate this weather anywhere," Brock said. "Down in southern California, things are warm and the terrain is different. This is a dynamic mission set in a place these Marines are unfamiliar with. Not only are they operating with the normal friction of their tactical operations, but there are a lot of environmental and external factors that are giving them a hard time with operating."
"We have a cold-weather training facility in California called Bridgeport," added Gunnery Sgt. Mike Stevens, of Force Recon. "It's a lot different between there and here during the winter time. The difference is the cold. It snows and gets cold down there but for some reason it seems a lot colder here. We've been out in field operations out there and have gotten away there with a lot less gear."
Marines adapt and overcome
"Any time you're planning a training mission or operation like this over space and time there are difficulties," Brock explained. "It's a long ways away. We started planning this early August, late July. It's tough to coordinate when you're a couple states away. If I was coordinating in California, I could just walk into their office. Whereas coordinating with someone in Alaska, they may not pick up their phone or I won't articulate myself properly.
"To be blatantly honest, the biggest thing Marines were overcoming in the field was the cold 6-degree temperatures getting to zero at night for their first couple days of training," Brock continued.
He gave an example of the challenge of setting up training on JBER.
"One of the difficulties of coming to JBER from Camp Pendleton is that you can't do anything yourself," he said, "If we had done this in Camp Pendleton, we could have provided our own logistics and support; coming up here we couldn't do that. We had to rely on different agencies to help us out."
While here, the Marines were supported by sister services: Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.
The 202nd Aviation with the Army National Guard unit provided transportation via helicopter to designated landing areas and provided a C-23 Sherpa for the Marines to HALO jump out of.
A Navy corpsman embedded with their unit oversaw their medical support and necessities.
The Air Force 212th Rescue Squadron supplied the gear and provided support that played out in one of the scenarios.
The Marine Corps Reserve D Company, Antiterrorism Battalion, supplied their building and cots for the Marines to sleep on.
The Marines came here with a couple things in mind and went through the evaluation portion of the first four days Brock said.
"The big goal was to bring these guys up here to see where they were at in training and move on from there," he said. "We thank the 202nd Aviation, with the National Guard, the 212th Pararescue squadron, and the Delta Company Marines of JBER. Everyone has been really helpful to us here."