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Marines, sailors trek through snow, mountains in preparation for Afghanistan

By Cpl. Michael S. Cifuentes | | February 4, 2008

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U.S. Marines and sailors serving with the 3rd Marine Division are undergoing an unorthodox training evolution in the mountainous terrain of Northern Nevada.

 Okinawa, Japan, -based Marines are roughing through freezing temperatures, gusty winds, snow, and mountainous terrain that elevates past 6,000 feet in order to prepare for their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.

 “This is the best training we had in pre-deployment training packages to date,” said Lt. Col. Michael Cuccio, officer-in-charge of Embedded Trainer Team 2-6.

 Once in Afghanistan, Cuccio’s group of Marines and sailors, as well as other embedded training teams with 3rd Marine Division, will be embedded with Afghan National army units and serve as military advisors to them. Until then, they must sharpen their military skills in the most similar terrain, which lies in Hawthorne, Nev. The training is dubbed Mountain Viper and takes place in the grounds that surround Hawthorne Army Depot.

 Early Feb. 4, 2008, Embedded Training Teams 2-6 and 6-3 spent the morning learning cold-weather survival while conducting military operations. Instructors from Mountain Warfare Training Center based out of Bridgeport, Calif., where the subject matter experts.

 “We teach them the material that will assist them to survive in Afghanistan,” said Sgt. Bradley Kramer, mountain warfare instructor and a Saline, Mich., native. “This is the closest terrain and environment to Afghanistan, and this is the most simulated training the Marines receive when they go through Mountain Viper.”

 A Navy search and rescue team from Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., came via UH-1 (Huey), a helicopter the Marine Corps is used to seeing, to a small camp in the valley of a snow-covered mountain where the Marines bivouacked.

 Cmdr. Doug Russell, NAS Fallon executive officer, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Karl Rokasz, leading chief for NAS’ search and rescue teams, gave a class on rescue procedures using a helicopter as means of evacuating a casualty. Both embedded training teams were given the opportunity to evacuate a mock-casualty out of a canyon. The search and rescue helicopter hoisted the mock-casualty using two of their most used methods – a Stokes litter, a long platform that holds and stabilizes a casualty, and a “horse collar” that wraps around the back and under the arms of a casualty.

 Learning how to safely and quickly get injured or wounded Marines out of harms way by using a helicopter to evacuate them is something Marines and corpsmen are used to doing, said Sgt. Jon Welch, a mountain warfare instructor.

 “Evacuating a hurt Marine from a canyon that’s covered in snow during a windy day is something they’re not used to but must feel comfortable doing,” said Welch, a Moab, Utah, native. “This training is just adding another tool to their toolbox.”

 With winds gusting in their faces and snowfall accumulating inches in only a few hours, the Marines and sailors also toppled foothills and mountains, training for what they’ll “surely” be doing when deployed to Afghanistan, said Kramer.

 “The teams have to be prepared to face elements and climb steep, snow-covered mountains in Afghanistan,” said Kramer. “Sometimes patrolling on foot is their only means of travel, and they have to get comfortable with it.”

 Losing footing and shortness of breath was a small problem to some Marines and sailors trekking up the mountains. But all were aware that hypothermia was an unpopular, but common, setback they faced when fighting through these elements.

 Nonetheless, the teams traveled up, around and down some of Hawthorne’s rocky mountains with full packs, rifles, flak jackets and communication gear.

 Capt. Lance Seiffert, the lane officer-in-charge for the dismounted mountain mobility phase, said the overall purpose of training to hike through the mountains was to enable the teams to see how suited they are for long movements.

 “This is definitely strenuous training but brings a lot of value to our teams,” said Cpl. Mario Gonzales, a generator mechanic with ETT 2-6 and an Irving, Texas, native. “Tough training like this also brings the unit together and helps build camaraderie. When we’re in country, all we’ll have is each other. This forces us to work well with each other now so we’ll be comfortable with each other over there.”

 Aside from physical training, the mountain warfare instructors gave classes on survival diets, survival fires, patrolling considerations, and other survival techniques they could possibly use when in Afghanistan.

 “Everything we learned here is essential to our survival in Afghanistan,” said Cuccio, a Mahopac, N.Y., native. “It all was very tedious training, and it culminates our training package before we deploy to Afghanistan.”

 With just weeks left before their deployment, these tropical island-based Marines and sailors anticipate no such weather but frigid temperatures and desolate, mountainous terrain. Some Marines said they can’t allow themselves to worry or suffer from these elements. Their mission is to operate in these elements in order to help the ANA become a self-sufficient force.


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