The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance. —Psalm 33:11–12
A Marine believes in his God, in his Country, in his Corps, in his buddies, and in himself. —Gen. Carl E. Mundy, USM C, from Leading Marines
Marines undergo a personal transformation at recruit training. There they receive more than just superb training, they are ingrained with a sense of service, honor, and discipline. —from Leading Marines
From the moment he took command of the Second Battalion-Eighth Marines (2/8) in December 2001, Lt. Col. Royal Mortenson began to develop an undeniable sense that he and his battalion would be called upon to help fight the war on terrorism. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., were barely three months old, and America was already heavily engaged in Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps units had been brought into the combat there and had performed extremely well. It was just a matter of time, Mortenson thought, before he and 2/8 would likewise be engaged.
Leading troops in combat to defend the United States was the role of a lifetime for a career officer like Mortenson. The Marine Corps has approximately 175,000 active-duty Marines but only eighteen infantry battalions. Mortenson was in command of one of the more storied units. Nicknamed “America’s Battalion,” this 900-man unit has a proud history that includes the battle of Tarawa in the Pacific in World War II; several rotations in Beirut, Lebanon, from 1981 to 1983; and the rescue of American students and removal of Cuban forces from Grenada in 1983. Actordirector Clint Eastwood even made a movie, titled Heartbreak Ridge (1986), based on 2/8’s exploits in Grenada.
Commanding an infantry battalion was a perfect fit for Mortenson. He was a nineteen-year veteran when he assumed command and well-educated, as are all U.S. military officers. He had earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and graduated from the Marine Command and Staff College. He was also a graduate of the School of Advanced Warfighting, which provides an extra year of study after Command and Staff College and consists of advanced coursework in the operational level of war, including the study and visitation of classic battles and battlefields.
Decisive, strong-voiced, focused, thoughtful, and physically fit, he was considered by his men, both officers and enlisted, to be an excellent battalion commander (BC). There was a true, heartfelt and unanimous sense of confidence in and praise for his abilities and leadership expressed by every 2/8 Marine interviewed for this book. It is no stretch to state that his Marines truly loved him as their BC. His superiors also considered him to be a very capable and charismatic leader.
Unlike some officers, Mortenson thoroughly enjoys the responsibilities of line command. His strong blend of leadership skills, warfare knowledge, vision, objectivity, aggressiveness, and communication and administration skills are balanced by pragmatism. He leads by example. He demands a lot from his men but is never unfair and does not play favorites. He has succeeded partly because of the mentoring that senior Marine officers have provided, and he in turn works at mentoring his men. His philosophy of command includes statements such as, “It is fine for the Marine to be able to run three miles in eighteen minutes, but it is better to be able to run one mile in seventeen minutes carrying a wounded Marine on your back.”
The normal course of events in the U.S. military requires constant recruitment and training. Newly assigned enlisted personnel first must be found and then prepared to replace the experienced, highly trained veterans leaving the service. Mortenson and 2/8 would see dozens of their best-trained infantrymen leave the battalion as their four-year hitches were completed. During the winter of 2002 and into the spring of that year, 2/8 would be receiving a lot of young, inexperienced Marines. Mortenson, as BC, would need to integrate and train these young recruits quickly. But he wasn’t worried about that. The young men he would be receiving might be inexperienced, but they all would be Marines.
Formed more than 200 years ago, the United States Marine Corps has earned a sterling reputation as a military organization unsurpassed in its ability to transform young civilians into military personnel. Enlisting men and women from varied and typically unpretentious backgrounds, the Marine Corps forges them into warriors of the highest character and skill. The Marines have a unique process for carrying out this transformation process. It is called “boot camp.” Other services use the term “basic training,” which lasts six to nine weeks. But for those who want to become Marines, the term is boot camp. It lasts thirteen weeks. After those weeks of intense physical and mental training under the tough, no-nonsense Marine Corps drill instructors, the transformation is achieved.
Our son, Lcpl. David Thomas, was in many ways representative of the young men who enter the Marines after high school to become infantrymen. In school he had done fairly well in courses he liked, yet struggled with those he didn’t like—math and science in his case. He enjoyed being outdoors, and he grew up playing sports—mostly ice hockey, football, and track. He was a good athlete and at times played very well. Overall, however, he wasn’t always focused. For David—and for every other recruit—the Marine Corps would permanently change that.
David did have some advantages over other recruits upon heading into boot camp in late August 2001. First, he had enlisted in the Marines’ delayed-entry program during high school. This had given him some exposure in his senior year to the in-yourface, brutally honest approach of Marine sergeants. His recruiter, Staff Sgt. Timothy Ward, did a fine job of starting the process of transformation and demonstrating commitment.
Second—and more important—David had a significant spiritual and moral advantage: he believed in Jesus Christ. From his birth, his mother, Pam, and I have regularly taught him the Scriptures, prayed for him and tried to instill in him a Christian worldview. Many times as parents we felt our efforts were failing. There were the times of his inconsistent grades in school and the occasional trouble he would get into.
However, even if we were unsure of his future success, the Lord wasn’t. Several times during David’s last year at home, the Holy Spirit prompted us to encourage and challenge David. As our family laid hands on him and prayed over him the night before he left for boot camp, we had an overwhelming sense from the Lord that he would see significant combat during his time in the Corps. We told him what we were sensing, and the Lord continued leading us to speak over him. We stated that God would protect him and even cause him to prosper in difficult times if he committed his heart to follow the Lord. God said He would also protect those with David but that it would be up to David to make the commitment.
It didn’t take long for David to make that pledge. It came during his nighttime bus ride to Parris Island, South Carolina—site of the Marines’ East Coast boot camp. As he nervously rode along, staring into the pitch black night, unable to see much of anything and experiencing a growing sense of foreboding, David prayed to the Lord. “I knew I needed the Lord to help get me through this,” he recalled later.
Early during boot camp, David wrote a letter to his mother and me in which he described an especially tough day. Boot camp isn’t all physical activity and basic infantry-skills training. Marines also have regular classroom lectures, which include a lot of Marine Corps history. The courses help the new recruits build a sense of continuity with Marines who have gone before them. They learn an esprit de corps unlike that instilled by any other branch of military service. One afternoon after a class, David’s company went for a five-mile run. When the drill instructors began to ask questions on the just-completed lecture, David answered a question incorrectly. Off he went to the infamous “pit”—a flea-infested sand pit—for 45 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups. The temperature was 95 degrees, with 90 percent humidity.
When he rejoined his company, they had already begun riflehandling drills. David proceeded to mess up on this because he had missed the beginning instructions. Off he went to the pit again for another forty-five minutes of push-ups and sit-ups. “I was never so sweaty and hungry in my life,” he wrote. “I ate dinner in about thirty seconds.”
As she read his letter, Pam fought back tears, saying, “My poor baby.” I just laughed. “How can you laugh at this?” she asked me tearfully. “Look, honey,” I replied, “if this is the worst thing that happens to him during his time in the Corps, that’s not so bad! They taught David in one afternoon what we couldn’t do in eighteen years—they taught him to focus when he doesn’t feel like it! I’ll bet you he’ll never have trouble again with his concentration.” Sure enough, he learned to focus and did well for the rest of boot camp, as did his platoon. They graduated as the honor platoon in the company.
A couple of weeks after David started boot camp, Muslim fanatics attacked New York and Washington with hijacked airliners. The purpose of David’s calling was now perfectly clear to him and to us. He and his fellow Marine recruits would be trained and raised up to wage war against evil, cowardly, and deceived terrorists and those who supported them. September 11 caused a sharpening in the attitudes of almost every recruit. Everyone knew their purpose, and the drills became crisper, more vigorous, more focused. These recruits were highly motivated.
The high point of boot camp, the “crucible,” came about a week before graduation day. This is a fifty-four-hour, nonstop combat simulation in which Marines must be in full gear and will get only about two or three hours of sleep the entire time. It rained heavily during David’s crucible, which made the simulation even more realistic and demanding. Nearly every recruit completed the course and was treated to the “warrior’s breakfast,” the best meal these young men had during their time at Parris Island. Officially they were now Marines.
The drill instructors treated them differently for that last week, showing them a much greater sense of camaraderie but not letting go of the “rich” and funny language Marine sergeants are known for. For example, before family visitation began on the Thursday before Friday graduation, S. Sgt. Liddle of David’s company came into the barracks bright and early and barked: “Today your [expletive] parents will be here! No swearing!”
A strong sense of excitement and patriotism was evident among the many hundreds of family members, wives, and girlfriends attending the graduation ceremony. Everyone knew these young men were destined to become America’s front-line defense in the war on terrorism.
After boot camp, Marine infantrymen are sent to the School of Infantry (SOI)—either at Camp Geiger, North Carolina, for East Coast recruits or at Camp Pendleton, California, for West Coast recruits. This school builds upon the basic infantry knowledge learned in boot camp. Skills developed and honed include infantry patrols, urban warfare techniques, jungle fighting, weapons and weapons systems, and enemy weapons and tactics. They also begin training with other Marine infantry specialists who handle and fire mortars, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, and anti-armor rockets.
While David was home on leave preparing to depart for SOI, the Lord instructed me to tell him to pay special attention to the urban-warfare training he would receive. He was going to need these skills down the road in combat, I believed. David did very well in SOI and learned the urban-warfare techniques thoroughly. For the infantryman, urban combat poses, by far, the greatest chance of becoming a casualty, meaning killed, wounded, or missing in action. At one time, protracted urban fighting resulted in casualty rates as high as seventy-five percent. Since the Persian Gulf War of 1991, however, the Marines have made it a priority to improve their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of urban fighting.
Today the Marine Corps trains for urban warfare more stringently than at any other time in its history. Thus, Marines are better at it than ever before. This translates into a significantly reduced chance of taking casualties while greatly increasing the risk to the enemy. The Corps’ hard work to improve TTPs would later pay big dividends in sparing American lives during the 2003 war against Saddam Hussein.
A core belief espoused by the Marines is, “Every Marine a Rifleman.” The Corps turns this belief into reality by requiring each of its Marines, other than infantrymen, to attend three weeks of Marine Combat Training (MCT). This school, similar to but shorter than the SOI, builds upon the lessons of boot camp. It creates a level of proficiency in every Marine to function at a basic infantry level under realistic combat conditions. The combination of this belief and training has helped turn the tide in many battles in Marine Corps history—as support personnel were organized and thrust into a fray to replace losses or to help hold a line of defense. MCT would once again prove to be a major factor in minimizing casualties in the 2003 war against Iraq.
The modern Marine rifle company packs quite a wallop. It carries much more firepower than even ten or twenty years ago, in both the amount of ordnance and the lethal quality of its weapons systems. Today, a rifle company comprises three rifle platoons, typically of thirty to forty men each; an additional weapons platoon with another forty or so Marines; and a small headquarters section. Every third Marine in the rifle platoons carries a squad automatic weapon (SAW) light machine gun. The other Marines carry M-16s, half with M203 grenade launchers attached. Several men in each platoon carry an AT4 anti-armor rocket, which is much more deadly than the Russian-designed Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) that we hear mentioned so frequently. The weapons platoon Marines carry the M240 Golf 7.62 mm machine gun, heavier SMAW anti-armor rockets, and 60 mm mortars.
Often, a Combined Anti-Armor Anti-Tank (CAAT) section will be assigned to an infantry company. This unit includes four Humvees equipped with heavy M2 “deuce” .50-caliber machine guns, TOW anti-tank missiles, and the awesome Mark 19 (MK-19) weapon. The MK-19 is a 40 mm, grenade-firing machine gun that can be mounted in the Humvees or on a ground tripod, as can the deuce .50-caliber machine gun. This all translates into a rifle company of 130 to 170 highly trained Marines loaded for bear.
It was at SOI that David first formed many friendships with fellow Marines. Only one Marine—Lcpl. Eric Ross—had been with David in both platoon and company since boot camp. David met several Marines in SOI who became fast friends. They all would eventually serve together in their assigned infantry battalion. These included Lcpls. Brad Ruetschi and Mike Torres. David, Ross, and Ruetschi all look like the ideal Marine: they are six feet or taller, 210 pounds or more. Torres is smaller in stature, no more than 150 pounds, but nobody wanted to mess with him. He grew up amid difficult circumstances in Bronx, New York, and became a Golden Gloves boxing champion. He was good enough to think of trying out for the Marine Corps boxing team. Every Marine infantryman is well-schooled in martial arts and can handle themselves quite well, but once in a while you get one like Torres who can literally knock your lights out in no time flat and think nothing of it. This combination of ability and attitude in Marines like him would prove beneficial, sometimes in unexpected ways, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Upon graduation from SOI in April 2002, David, Ross, Ruetschi, and Torres all received prime assignments: they joined Mortenson and the 2/8 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. All four of them were assigned to the same rifle company—Golf. The 2/8 includes two other rifle companies, Echo and Fox, and a weapons company and a headquarters and service (H&S) company for a total of five companies in the battalion. In addition, there is the command and control element in the battalion, which consists of the BC, the executive officer (XO), staff personnel including the operations officer (S3) and his assistants, the intelligence officer (S2) with his assistants, and communications specialists.
The weapons company of an infantry battalion possesses the heaviest and most lethal weapons systems in the battalion. It packs heavy 81 mm mortars; more deuce .50-caliber machine guns; several two-man Javelin anti-tank missile teams; and the CAAT platoon, which comprises four sections of four Humvees each, for a total of sixteen, each loaded with MK-19s, deuces and TOW missiles. In addition, the weapons companies of every infantry battalion in the Marine Corps include a platoon of the legendary Marine scout-snipers. The scout-sniper platoon has a normal complement of nine two-man scout-sniper teams. The H&S company contains administrative and service Marines, such as clerks, mechanics, medical personnel—who include Navy corpsmen affectionately called “docs” by the Marines—and logistics specialists who manage the battalion’s “log train.” The log train is made up of all the trucks and other vehicles carrying the food, water, fuel, and ammunition that keep the battalion running.
Over about a two-week stretch in April 2002, David, Ross, Ruetschi, and Torres were joined by several more SOI graduates who would become good buddies. Lcpls. Dameon Rodriguez, Miguel Noriega, John Cain, and Mishawn Holt all joined 2/8 Golf company as infantrymen. Pfc. Joe Randolfi would join the weapons platoon with Golf later in December. This group of young Marines came from diverse backgrounds. Rodriguez and Noriega grew up streetwise in urban Los Angeles; Cain is a “good ol’ boy” from Oklahoma; Holt was raised in Baltimore; and Randolfi came from Tampa, Florida. Most of these young men are dedicated Christians. Noriega’s parents are evangelists.
Their weapons assignments were mostly the M-16 rifle or the SAW light machine gun. David, Ross, Torres, and Holt all carried the SAW. The others carried M-16s, except for Randolfi, who was a M240 Golf machine gunner. Golf company totaled about 130 men, although a fully staffed infantry company without any supporting attachments could carry as many as 165. There are situations wherein the Marines deliberately field “undersized” but thoroughly trained units in order to avoid adding green Marines to a seasoned unit. For combat units like these, the benefit of Marines being trained and working as a team is more important than sheer numbers of personnel. A battalion commander’s desire is, given ample training time, to have a smaller well-trained unit than a larger less trained, fully staffed unit. Extensive training builds much better cohesiveness within the unit. This fact ultimately pays big dividends in combat. A well-trained 130-man company will whip a much larger, less cohesive unit every time.
Being assigned to a Marine infantry battalion is the real deal. Their mission is clear and focused. They will deploy anywhere in the world to protect Americans and America’s interests, and will be the first infantry units to fight if combat becomes necessary. If called into combat, their sole purpose is to destroy the enemy’s forces, which they will gladly do without apology. They are first and foremost warriors. Most young Marine Corps officers when first commissioned desire to become infantry officers and command men in combat. That’s why most join the Marines in the first place.
However, even within the Marines fewer than one in five officers are selected for infantry service. To be selected is both an honor and a calling. It may be hard for many civilians to understand that someone might actually want to lead men into battle or that these men are so willing to fight. But there is no uncertainty about this with Marines. In the Marine Corps, you are either in infantry, or you support the infantry.
To successfully command a battalion requires seasoned, capable officers who believe in the mission and the vision of the BC. Mortenson helped pull together what would prove to be a superb group of company commanders and staff officers. The battalion XO was Maj. Julian “Dale” Alford, a veteran of almost every Marine combat deployment since the late 1980s. Alford is taller than most Marines and has the size and physique of a football running back. Cool under fire, with a Southern drawl and chewing tobacco in his gums, he loves leading Marines in combat and possesses the great quality of knowing how to get things done under the duress of battle. The 2/8 Marines who worked with him and for him expressed nothing but love and admiration for him and his leadership skills. Like Mortenson, his ability to communicate with his Marines is exceptional. He is also a keen judge of the skills and abilities of his men. Originally from Georgia, he is secure enough in his calling not to try to downplay his so-called redneck image (his call sign within 2/8 was “Rebel”).