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HAWTHORNE ARMY AMMUNITION DEPOT, Nev. ? Vehicles with Embedded Trainer Team 4-2 maneuver through steep trails May 15 as part of the Mountain Viper rough-terrain driving course. The ETTs practiced pushing their armored humvees to the limit while driving in terrain very similar to what they will experience while deployed to Afghanistan.

Photo by Cpl. Brian A. Tuthill

Mountain Viper Marines push vehicles to extremes in rough terrain course

18 May 2007 | Cpl. Brian A. Tuthill

Marines and sailors with Embedded Trainer Teams from 3rd Marine Division taking part in Mountain Viper Afghanistan predeployment training received first-hand experience pushing their humvees to the physical limits as part of the Rough Terrain Driving Course here.

All seven ETTs spend three days with Back Country Driving School instructors in the rugged, rocky mountains above Hawthorne, Nev., which many say mimics as closely as possible the various environments of Afghanistan.  BCDS employs the crawl, walk, run philosophy by beginning in small sand dunes the first day and culminating with near-rollover angles over uneven rocky trails, said Will Leaman, a trainer and president of BCDS who has more than 20 years of off-road driving experience.

Over three days, the Marines and sailors learn to maintain their vehicles, perform emergency and routine repairs, recover stuck vehicles, drive at night with the aid of night vision goggles, and get behind the wheel of the same armored vehicles they will drive while overseas.

“The night drive was the hardest part out here for me,” said Seaman Ernesto Cano, a hospital corpsman with ETT 4-2 and a 20-year-old San Antonio native who on day three did not seem phased by tilting his vehicle sideways nearly 30 degrees while driving.  “Using night vision goggles, your vision is reduced to a pinhole, your depth perception goes out the window, and you have to be much more prepared mentally.” 

Leaman’s 12-man training team instructs two ETTs at a time during the course, with one instructor in each vehicle.  No Marine or sailor is spared the white-knuckle experiences of getting behind the wheel here.

“A lot of people get nervous their first time when all they can see is hood and sky in front of them,” said Leaman.  “We are mostly hoping to give them familiarity behind the wheel to learn the hands-on characteristics, to learn the capabilities and limitations of the vehicles, the mechanical limitations to avoid breakdowns, and the handling limitations to avoid rollovers.”

In only three days of behind-the-wheel training, Leaman said he and his team of off-roading professionals always see major improvements in the confidence and abilities of their students.  Those in a vehicle learn to work together, where the gunner in the turret often becomes the eyes of the driver when the angle of travel is too extreme or a space is impossibly close on either side of the humvee.

Leaman’s BCDS team also trained Marine ETTs last year before they deployed to support the Afghan National Army.  Last year the teams came to the school’s headquarters in Virginia, but he said here at Hawthorne there is a dramatic improvement in realism for the units.

“Last year the ANA teams came to us,” Leaman said.  “Last year we didn’t have access to humvees, so we used civilian SUV’s instead.  Now with Mountain Viper it’s so much better because they are in the vehicle they will be driving there in the same type of terrain.”

With the new M1114 up-armored humvees, more weight is put on the original chassis than before.  In Afghanistan, avoiding accidents and breakdowns by properly dealing with the added weight can make the difference between mission accomplishment or becoming a target on the road.

“The words ‘gentle’ and ‘fragile’ are not typically in a Marine’s vocabulary, but these trucks are fragile because they weigh so much and you have to be gentle with them or you can break them,” said James S. Asti, vice president and director of training for BCDS.  “And if you break them, you’re a target.”

But with the training the ETTs have received from BCDS, Marines and sailors like Cano can accomplish their mission with the skills, knowledge and confidence to drive and thrive nearly anywhere on Earth in almost any terrain.
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