MARINE CORPS MOUNTAIN WARFARE TRAINING CENTER BRIDGEPORT, Calif. --
To the untrained eye it’s a picturesque meadow nestled away in the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest. For the instructors and students of the Mountain Command and Control Communications Course it’s a bit more than that.
The meadow, dubbed Landing Zone Cardinal by the Marine Corps, is part of the 47,000 acres of National Forest land which make up Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., and the LZ, located at 8,700 feet, is part of 1st Lt. Todd Boese’s classroom.
Boese, the officer in charge of MCCC, along with five enlisted instructors, teach a 12-day course which includes classes in basic mountain survival skills, land navigation and a myriad of field expedient communications techniques. These include wave theory and propagation, field expedient antennas, and re-transmission operations and the advantages/disadvantages of varied radio equipment.
The course is designed for Marines and other service members in a billet related to communications in all elements of the Marine Air Ground Task Force, according to the MCCC syllabus.
Potential students should know the course isn’t easy, isn’t static and isn’t taught in air-conditioned classrooms.
“Some students are overwhelmed by the physical nature of the course, and we’ve had a few drop on request a few days into the practical application portion,” said Boese, a Chico, Calif., native, and Marine Corps communications officer responsible for MCMWTC’s future operations section.
Indeed, students assigned to communications billets in units across the Corps, arrive at the base camp understanding they’re going to remediate in communication skills. Lost on them is the idea the LZ is 2,000 feet higher than base camp where they spend the first day on the mountain in-processing. Also lost, or perhaps initially overlooked, is the idea the best way to practice field-expedient communications techniques is in fact to head to the field – or, in this case, the hills.
Training day two reveals the field nature of the course as students hike from lower base camp to the Leavitt Training Area approximately three-and-a-half miles away. The hump, one of many planned for the students, takes about 90 minutes and includes an elevation gain of 600 feet.
By training day seven the students understand the intent of the course is to enable them to effectively operate high frequency radios in an elevated, mountainous terrain.
Bivouacked at LZ Cardinal, the students break up into small teams and spread out into the mountains to collect information from a land navigation course set up by Boese and his instructors.
Cpl. Sergio “Rod” Rodriguez, a 22-year-old Gainsville, Texas, native, set up a jungle 292, or field-expedient, Very High Frequency radio antenna to communicate with the students participating in the land navigation exercise.
“This is one of the VHF antennas we teach,” he explained while tossing a rock wrapped in rope high into a pine tree. “It’s important to be able to emplace an antenna without giving away your position. This method is quick and allows you to communicate without wires everywhere.”
After elevating his antenna using the rope pulley he rigged in the tree, Rodriguez called the students in and addressed the teams before they set out on the navigation course looking for marked points in the forest.
“You have to do a comm check every 15 minutes while you’re out there,” explained the 2005 Gainsville High School graduate. “If you don’t, and we try a comm check with you and can’t get you on the radio – we’re coming out there to find you.”
After the teams are dispatched with only the promise of the pride in being first to return with all of the points successfully navigated, fellow instructor Sgt. Dick Lagerquist evaluated students on establishing a field-expedient radio antenna similar to Rodriguez’s.
Lagerquist, who asked to be stationed at MCMWTC after two combat deployments with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, is currently filling the role of chief instructor – a billet which has been gapped since the course’s gunnery sergeant received permanent change of station orders in April.
After watching a student try and establish communications with a hasty antenna located about ten inches from the meadow floor, Lagerquist suggested the Marine might be more successful if he elevated the antenna.
“This is a unique duty station,” said the 25-year-old Yakima, Wash., native, gesturing towards the tree line. “There is no better place to teach field radio communications skills than right here, no better place to be a comm instructor.”
Lagerquist continued his evaluation after the team elevated their antenna by spreading out and holding the wires at shoulder length. After 20 minutes of unsuccessful attempts to establish communications with an instructor at lower base camp, he suggested they shift their location and try again.
“That’s just the way it is with comm,” he said, pausing to annotate on his clipboard the team had successfully completed the task. “One minute it works, the next it doesn’t.”
Moving 20 feet seemed to be the trick and they were immediately rewarded with a positive response from the unseen instructor and a knowing smile from Lagerquist.
One of the three students assisting in elevating the antenna laughed at the slight change the shift in location brought about.
“That’s typical,” he laughed, helping secure the wire used to make the antenna. “Fifty percent of the time comm works all the time.”
Boese said the inconsistencies and difficulties with High Frequency, and the varying terrains of the Corps’ current and future deployments, make it imperative that Marines spend time refreshing and practicing HF and other field radio techniques if they’re going to be successful in theater.
“In theater units heavily rely on [satellite communications], but they receive a very limited number of SATCOM channels to use as nets. There are plenty of stories of Marines trying to call in for a casualty evacuation, but meanwhile a routine request for more batteries or chow is clogging up the net, and the CASEVAC has to wait. HF provides an alternative method to SATCOM, so that the SATCOM channels remain open for when they’re vitally needed.”
For the students in the class it wasn’t the frequencies they used that caught their attention – it was the back-to-basics approach of the field techniques.
Sergeant Kevin Owen, a 32-year-old radio operator attending the course from 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liason Company at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., recently transferred from Marine Air Control Squardon 1 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., and said his last billet didn’t involve any field exercises.
“I think all radio operators should attend this course,” said the Boone, N.C., native. “Employing comm in a field environment is important and it’s something we need to remember how to do no matter where we’re stationed.”
Classmate Sgt. Terence Sykes, a radio operator with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liason Company at MCB Camp Pendleton, Calif., echoed that sentiment after admitting he was initially taken aback by the field portion of the class.
“I’ve been in the Corps for seven years and I’ve never made a field expedient antenna,” he said. “This course is great for all communications Marines but especially those who haven’t deployed to a mountainous terrain. We’ll definitely employ these skills if we deploy to Afghanistan.”
Sykes said he’s compiling a list of junior Marines in his unit who he’d like to send to the next available course.
Across the board the students’ comments indicated they were surprised by the physical expectations the course involved but no one from this class dropped out.
After climbing a tree to string a radio wire at the highest elevation possible, field radio operator Lance Cpl. Daniel Naranjo, from 1st Battalion, 4th Marines at Camp Pendleton, said his time in the field course is better than any classroom instruction he’s had since he joined the Corps.
“This is true practical application,” said the Sealy, Texas, native. “You can’t learn this in any other environment than right here.”
It wasn’t just enlisted radio operators who appreciated the course.
Second Lt. James Lomsdale, an air support control officer from Marine Air Support Squadron 1 at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., was the only officer in the class.
“I was sent out here to evaluate the course to see if it’s worth sending Marines from my unit,” said the 25-year-old maintenance platoon commander from Olympia, Wash. “This course is valuable. Our mission is communications connectivity and everything we’ve learned so far pertains to that. Learning we can set up an antenna with eight ounces of wire and have a connection was incredible.”
The staff is waiting for the Marine Corps Training and Education Command to formalize the Program of Instruction, hoping it draws more students from across the Corps.
“Right now most of our students are from California-based units,” he said. “Once the POI is formalized, it means TECOM will pay for the students to attend the course and the unit won’t have to absorb the cost.”
Marines from all military occupational specialties are welcome to attend. Previous students have included radio operators, maintainers, cross-trained infantry Marines and joint special operators. Course seats may be obtained by calling 760-932-1448 or 760-932-1457.