Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif. --
The classroom was well-maintained with photos of Low Altitude Air Defense gunners and shadow boxes preserving the memories of fallen Marines hung on the wall. The room was drab and the windows were blacked out, but the energy of the class was palpable.
For more than 50 years, the Marine Corps has trained Marines to operate its expeditionary surface-to-air weapons systems at the U.S. Army Air Defense School, Fort Bliss, Tx. The first ever LAAD class taught at the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School started its military occupational specialty specific training Monday.
According to Master Sgt. Anthony Gentile, LAAD course director, Company C, MCCES, the course moved from Fort Bliss, Tx. to the Combat Center because Twentynine Palms is well-suited to train the future Marines of the LAAD MOS.
Even though the initial training began on Nov. 20, 2012 with a three-week motor transportation class, it’s the LAAD portion that sets these Marines apart.
“We’re done with the Humvees and were done with the machine guns,” said Sgt. Jeremy Simms, LAAD class advisor, Co. C, MCCES, to the class. “Now we’re ready to get into the meat and potatoes on why you’re all here. Much like myself, I'm sure that with this period of instruction you’ll get the feeling that I get.”
Students were shown everything from firing teams to S-shops to the breakdown of the two LAAD battalions in the Marine Corps. Here, the students got their first taste of what their future MOS will be.
LAAD Marines fire shoulder-launched stinger missiles to protect MAGTF assets from air attacks. When necessary, LAAD Marines serve as provisioned infantry for the Marine Aircraft Wings.
“We’re an air defense job but it’s open to so many aspects of the Marine Corps,” said Master Sgt. Michael Buxkemper, chief instructor. “We have our infantry side and we have our air wing side. We get to patrol, drive Humvees in all types of terrain and we get to fly in helicopters. It’s all the fun stuff of all these different MOS’ rolled up into ours.”
LAAD battalions have two missions, explained Simms. They provide close-in, low altitude, surface to air fires in defense of Marine Air Ground Task Force assets, defending forward combat areas, maneuver forces, vital areas, installations or units engaged in special or independent operations. Secondly, LAAD gunners provide ground security force in defense of MAGTF air sites when not engaged in air defense operations.
“If you take a second and think about what that means, we are the only ground unit that’s a part of an air wing,” Simms said. “We’re a ground unit, the only battalion; everything else out there is a squadron. It’s both sides of the Marine Corps.”
The students were eager to learn about their new lives as gunners while Simms painted a picture of the LAAD community. From there, the students moved on to the weapons portion of the day. The components as well as the capabilities of the FIM-92 Stinger weapon system were broken down to the students in great detail.
“It’s their lifeline,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Poole, senior LAAD instructor, Co. C, MCCES. “They’re out there by themselves. Our whole job is air defense. If something fails and [the gunner] doesn’t know what to do with that weapon, an aircraft can get by.”
The excitement came from the students’ first portion of LAAD training. The Stinger, as it is commonly known, is the LAAD gunner’s primary weapon. The personal, portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile tracks and eliminates enemy aircraft.
“In this MOS we put a lot on the lance corporal, private first class and even young corporals,” Poole said. “You have a lot of responsibility in this MOS compared to other jobs. Literally, your actions can wake someone up in the middle of the night if you make that wrong call. It takes a while for that to sink in. It’s a big responsibility and that’s what we try to instill in them from day one. The biggest thing [the students] need to get out of this is what they can and can’t do with the weapon.”
The LAAD community is small. On average, a battalion is the size of an infantry company.
“We’re such a small community. We have the only job that does this in the entire Marine Corps,” Buxkemper said. “If we don’t learn to do our job perfectly and systematically, we’re fighting for our own survival. We have to learn exactly what we need to do, that way when it does come time to need an air defense unit, we’re ready to go.”
The 60-day-long course is scheduled to end March 15 providing the Fleet Marine Force with the first LAAD Marines who graduate from the Combat Center.