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Lance Cpl. Jimmy Saunders, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, splashes across a stream with a full combat load during 3/7?s final exercise at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., Sept. 18.

Photo by Cpl. Brian A. Tuthill

Infantry unit wraps up mountain warfare training

21 Sep 2006 | Cpl. Brian A. Tuthill

The Marines and sailors of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, finished their month-long training evolution in Bridgeport, Calif., Sept. 18, with a battalion-scale exercise which spanned three days and tested their wits in rugged mountainous terrain.

Since their arrival Aug. 26 to the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center at Bridgeport, located on 26,000 acres of the Toiyabe National Forest in Northern California, the Marines have been honing their mountain warfare skills as part of the "summer package" offered to units. It has been more than one year since a unit completed the full summer package, said MWTC instructors.

The battalion also received nearly unprecedented close air support for their final exercise from F/A-18D "Hornets," AV-8B "Harriers," AH-1W "Cobras" and UH-1N "Hueys" from Marine Corps Air Stations Miramar, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz., and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The California Army National Guard also flew in a CH-47 "Chinook" from Stockton, Calif., to transport Marines during the finishing movements of the exercise.

During their first few weeks at MWTC, 3/7 Marines learned to climb, rappel both day and night, with and without full packs, cross expanses, rivers and rope bridges, evacuate casualties from a cliff, and survive and operate in the rough terrain.

The training at Bridgeport is invaluable not only because it prepares Marines for mountain warfare, but because it breeds confidence in their abilities and helps to develop leadership at the small unit level, said Staff Sgt. Robert Warfield, platoon commander, 3rd Platoon, Company L. This is especially true since Iraq veterans in the battalion are stepping up to fill squad and team leader billets as new Marines arrive.

"I knew this would be a great opportunity for my small unit leaders to develop their leadership skills," he said.

During the final exercise, the battalion’s mission was to eliminate a hostile enemy guerilla force operating in the area by working together and applying their learned skills. Company K, who was dressed in green woodland camouflage utilities, played the aggressors.

"Our main tactic was to hit and move," said Lance Cpl. Lincoln Crall, a squad leader with 3rd Platoon, Company K, and Boulder, Colo., native. "The Marines did a lot better than I thought they would because we have a lot of new guys here."

One of the most talked-about challenges from 3/7 Marines was the change of environment from the relatively flat, sandy desert of the Combat Center to the steep hills of Bridgeport at more than 10,000 feet of elevation. By the end of the exercise, most Marines had walked more than 15.5 miles.

"You live in the desert and then you deploy to the desert,” said 3/7 commanding officer Lt. Col. Rodger B. Turner Jr. said about their three deployments to Iraq.  “Coming up here and giving a change in venue has been invaluable to the battalion and broadened the perspectives of the individual Marines and leaders.

"This builds flexibility and confidence and cohesion, and that’s the main aim of this. And it’s a super package," continued Turner.

Marines carried weapons and essential gear with them in their assault packs and wore load bearing vests in lieu of flak jackets. Before coming to MWTC, 3/7 went on conditioning hikes around the Combat Center’s hills to better prepare them for their time at Bridgeport.

Each night of the exercise, their main packs, which contained extra clothes, gear, food and sleeping bags, were trucked out to them as temperatures plummeted into the teens when a cold front moved through the area.

"There are big changes in the weather here," said Warfield. "It was warm before and you only need your bivy bag and poncho liner — to now being so cold you need all of your bags at night."

On the final morning’s assault, Marines kept their full packs, some weighing close to 80 pounds, and were transported via helicopter to a remote landing zone in enemy territory. Marines and sailors of Company L tactically worked their way downhill more than 1,000 feet to a lower elevation, crossed a stream, then headed up another 1,000 feet of hillside. They served as a stopgap while Company I swept through the adjacent canyon for the main assault.

The assault lasted five hours as Marines invaded Company K’s main base. Once the “enemy” had been defeated, units were air lifted back to Lower Base Camp for a shower and hot food.

"There are a lot of tangibles which are learned up here, but I think more importantly are the intangibles that are gained," said Turner. "What is the value of a Marine who is scared of heights doing a nighttime cliff assault when he can’t see? Or the confidence gained by rappelling down a 300-foot rock face sideways with a pack on? I think that kind of stuff just breeds a lot of confidence in the individual Marine and perhaps in the future when he’s in Iraq or wherever, they are able to overcome that like they were for this training here.

Turner said his favorite part of being at MWTC with his Marines was watching them grow from being unsure and apprehensive while operating in a new environment to handling very difficult situations with ease and confidence.

"The Marines are walking around like they’re 10 feet tall," Turner added. "They’re fit and they’re confident and have gained a lot of skills being up here. I think this will pay us dividends long after we leave here. I would definitely recommend other units taking advantage of coming up here, because the lessons learned are well worth the time."

The Marines and sailors of 3/7 returned to the Combat Center Sept. 21 after a 10-hour drive and were reunited with their families at a battalion barbecue dinner.

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