JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska, –
Marines of D Company, Anti-Terrorism Battalion, 4th Marine Division, listened closely as Marine Sgt. Evan Bearce, 1st Platoon sergeant, provided instruction on military operations in urban terrain April 21 at the Baumeister City MOUT complex.
"Anyone here play Modern Warfare III?" Bearce asked, making a reference to the wildly popular first-person-shooter videogame.
Marines enthusiastically raised their hands, talking to one another briefly in hushed tones about their virtual exploits.
"Who thinks video games are cool?" the sergeant inquired. "Video games are cool, right?"
Perhaps it was the gruff sarcasm in Bearce's voice, but fewer Marines raised their hands and then, only sheepishly. Bearce stepped back and rocked on his right heel like he was going to kick down a door or throw a hail-Mary pass.
"What we're going to do today is a lot cooler than anything you can play in a video game," the Palmer native said with a wry grin.
During the course of the day, D Company Marines assaulted the houses of Baumeister City, huddling together in four-man "stacks" organized to root out their fellow Marines who acted as opposing forces far more cunning and menacing than any video game opponent.
Through close instruction from platoon leadership and by endless repetition, the Marines perfected the craft of clearing a city of insurgents house by house.
"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast," Bearce said of the seemingly paradoxical idea of using deliberate technique to rapidly overwhelm an enemy trying to find refuge in a concrete cityscape.
The MOUT training was part of the Reserve Marines' drill weekend, which started on Friday with mandatory briefings, and included chemical training and a semi-annual physical fitness test.
Marine Maj. Daniel Sullivan, D Company commanding officer, said the Anti-Terrorism Battalion is charged with detecting, deterring and defending against terrorism, with urban warfare being a key component of that mission.
"Military operations in urban terrain is something this unit works on regularly - small unit, fire team and squad-level tactics," Sullivan explained. "We focus a lot on small-unit leadership, so MOUT is a classic example of that paradigm.
"A four-man fire team that's led by a corporal - maybe lance corporal - is going in, clearing rooms and coordinating with other fire teams," the Anchorage resident continued. "That's complicated business. When you go into an urban environment, you have to really know what you're doing in order to keep your Marines alive."
In his civilian capacity, Sullivan is the Alaska State commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, having studied at Harvard University before receiving his law degree at Georgetown. Though perhaps exceptional in his professional stature, the major said the company's Reservists represent a wide variety of civilian employment.
"I really believe that, in the employment realm, you pick a young guy like this - an Alaskan who has raised his hand, volunteered to be in the what we believe to be the toughest service in the U.S. military and then further volunteered to be an infantry Marine and then deploy overseas, defend your country - those guys come back with a lot of skill sets that can make them great business people, lawyers, doctors, (Alaska State) Troopers, police officers, we have a great diversity of civilian employment represented here," Sullivan said. "That's something that makes it great to serve in this unit."
For his part, Marine Sgt. Edwin Anderson, 1st Platoon commander, is studying history at the University of Alaska Anchorage and aspires to be an Alaska State Trooper. During the training, he could often be found perched on roof tops observing the training of his squads, imparting tactical wisdom and know how to his young squad leaders, though he is only a few years their senior.
"We do a lot of training as if we're a regular line infantry company," the Wasilla native said. "But we do have a few extra essential missions that deal with the newer aspects of fighting terrorism, especially in urban environments.
"We're reinforcing the fundamentals of military operations in urban terrain," Anderson continued. "Specifically, we're reemphasizing the skills they need to move from room to room and from house to house as an infantry platoon."
Anderson said he wanted to be a Marine since he was in junior high school. Because he planned to marry his high school sweetheart, he decided to join the Marine Corps Reserve rather than ship off with the active-duty fleet.
After a deployment to Iraq, Anderson married his sweetheart and set about earning his degree. With the Montgomery GI Bill, the platoon commander said the Marine Corps Reserve pay for approximately 70 percent of his tuition and fees, and he receives a housing allowance.
Though he drills once a weekend and attends annual training for two weeks or more, Anderson said he expects a lot of his Marines.
"A unique challenge of being a Reservist is that we are held to the exact same standards as the active-duty guys," he said. "But whereas they do it day in and day out all month long, we do it for three days out of the month, four at tops."
Marine Staff Sgt. David Venegas, operations chief, is a member of the company's inspector-instructor staff - active duty cadre who take care of the day-to-day business of the unit so Reserve Marines can focus on tactical proficiency.
"We provide the Reservists the support for them to be able to train," the Chicago native said. "For them to be able to train, you have to give them the proper gear, the proper knowledge, the proper areas to train in."
Because the Reserve Marines can focus on training, Sullivan said more than half of the company's Marines fired expert during marksmanship training, with no unqualified shooters - a feat he said is remarkable even in the active-duty fleet.
The major said in order to maintain that level of proficiency, D Company Marines have to thoughtfully juggle three "bowling balls" - their Marine Corps duties, their civilian job, and their commitment to their families.
Anderson said he feels the juggling act is worth it because of the prestige and honor of being a member of the Marine Corps.
"The majority of our Marines are here consistently every month even though a lot of times it's inconvenient, it conflicts with their school or their work or their family," he said. "But they're really motivated about serving their country and having that title of 'Marine.'"
Sullivan said being a Marine in Alaska is especially distinctive because D Company is the only tactical Marine unit serving in the state. D Company Marines are often called upon to perform military honors at Marines' funerals, and the unit delivers toys to remote villages every Christmas during their annual Toys for Tots campaign.
"It's an honor representing the Marine Corps," he said. "One of the many great things about Alaska is it's a very, very pro-military state. The support the military gets from the average Alaskan is high. Being able to represent the Marine Corps in the spectrum of military services is a real honor."