Marines prepare for battle in Afghanistan-like Sierra setting
BRIDGEPORT, Calif. – In rugged mountains that resemble Afghanistan’s harsh terrain, U.S. Marines are rappelling down 400-foot cliffs, sliding across rocky gorges, hiking for miles in the high, thin air, and eating bugs, lizards and wild plants.
Nobody is saying whether graduates of the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center, 21 miles north of here in the high Sierra, will be sent off to a war half a world away.
But, just as the cold wind at sunset signals coming winter in the Sierra, the Marines know they’re qualifying for high-altitude combat and survival – and that could mean Afghanistan. They say they’ll be ready.
”If called to go there for whatever reason, I’d go, no problem at all,” said Sgt. Alan Quartararo, 26, as he prepared to slide upside-down along a 100-foot rope strung more than 60 feet above the West Walker River.
”It’s good to know I have the training, just in case that were ever to happen,” said Cpl. Elias Gonzales, 23, as he and several other Marines – in combat fatigues, with M-16 rifles, 45-pound packs, and black and green camouflage grease daubed on their faces – waited their turn on the rope. ”There’s no doubt in my mind that if that were the case, we could handle it.”
”I think they’d know where to look,” said Lt. Steve St. John, 25, when asked whether the training might put him and other members of his platoon at the head of any Afghanistan-bound list of Marines.
The punishing high-altitude combat and survival training is aimed at making harder, tougher Marines.
About 10,000 Marines a year go through the regular, four-week training at the only high-altitude military training base in the United States. The Marines scale cliffs, set up rope bridges, march at high altitudes in summer or learn combat skiing during snowy winter months.
Several hundred go through even harsher training, learning to lead troops in the wild in all seasons, forage for food and dodge enemy soldiers.
Trainees in the advanced survival program lose 15 to 20 pounds on average in two weeks as they learn to live on fish, worms, grasshoppers, snakes, rabbits or other small game they snare. They also learn how to cook a soup from more than a dozen plants, including gooseberries, stinging nettle, yarrow and watercress.
”It was the worst-tasting thing I ever had in my life,” said St. John, 25. Still, he said he enjoyed the survival training: ”People pay to do this stuff, on vacations. We’re getting paid to do it.”
The Mountain Warfare Training Center, staffed by a force of 250, has an idyllic, resort-like look at first glance. It’s on the edge of postcard-perfect Pickel Meadow, traversed by the West Walker. Pines and aspens cover surrounding mountains.
The training center was established in 1951 after the military learned some hard lessons in the ”frozen Chosin” campaign of the Korean War.
During winters here, the snow can pile up to 10 feet or more at higher elevations. Temperatures range from 20 below zero in winter to more than 90 degrees in summer.
”When I first came here, it kind of took my breath away,” said Capt. Clinton Culp, 35, a 17-year Marine veteran who’s in charge of the base’s unit operations. ”But usually within a few days you acclimatize. I can run up to 14,000 feet now without a major loss of breath.”
Those who go through the advanced courses in winter and summer survival, leadership, high-altitude medicine and other specialized training return to their units to pass along what they have learned.
While some say it is business as usual at the center, others acknowledge things have changed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast.
Base security has been tightened. Visitors are screened. Entrances once open to hunters or hikers passing through are barricaded. In an administration office, there is a map of Afghanistan on a computer screen.
”We keep up a fairly high level of training and intensity,” Culp said. ”But certainly this has added an extra notch.”
Even before Sept. 11, Culp said, staffers and trainees realized that the base, at 6,765 feet, is at an elevation similar to that of Kabul – ”and everything we do goes up from there.”
”The training here is very similar to what someone would find in places like Pakistan or India or Afghanistan,” he added. ”We go from about 6,700 to close to 12,000 feet.”
To the south, peaks in the Sierra are higher than 14,000 feet. Some of the base staffers tackle those in their free time.
Capt. Zack Schmidt, part of the permanent force at the center, said the goal of the training is ”to become a better Marine unit through difficult training – to become harder.”
Schmidt said trainees are mostly men from Marine infantry battalions. But others come from other branches of the service as well as from other nations, including England, Norway, Korea, and Indonesia.
Schmidt wouldn’t say whether the base will step up its training activity because of the fighting in Afghanistan – only that ”we’re prepared for it.”
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