Waiting for War to Begin, Marines Fight Each Other

R. A. Hettinga rah@shipwright.com
Sun, 9 Mar 2003 14:09:28 -0500


http://online.wsj.com/article_print/0,,SB1046990867961531960,00.html

March 7, 2003 


Waiting for War to Begin, 
Marines Fight Each Other 

By MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS 
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL 

LIVING SUPPORT AREA 7, Kuwait -- To prepare to fight Iraqis, the Marines fight each other. 

Despite their laser-equipped rifles and top-of-the-line antitank missiles, Marines still think of war as a charge into the enemy trenches -- fists, feet and bayonets flying. So as they wait for hostilities to begin, they regularly get down in the desert sand and beat each other up. 

It's unclear whether the Marines will go hand-to-hand with Iraqi soldiers. But the training "prepares them to employ violence as required to kill the enemy," says Lt. Col. Michael Belcher, the 41-year-old commander of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, which is camped not far from the Iraqi border. "Removed from here, you don't think about killing people on a daily basis. Soon the Marines may have to." 

The result looks like what professional wrestling would be if it were for real: Marines choking, kicking and gouging each other to get into a killing frame of mind. 

It's a specialized type of martial art that all Marines have been required to study starting about two years ago. It meshes perfectly with the Marines' image of themselves as living rougher and fighting meaner than the armed forces' other branches. "A lot of Marines coming to the fleet have never had the experience of fighting another human being hand-to-hand," says Lt. Chris McManus, a 28-year-old Kilo Company platoon leader from Manhasset, N.Y. "This affords them an opportunity." 



Here's how one workout went: At the end of a four-mile march into the desert, 172 Kilo Company Marines paired off, sat down back-to-back, and, at the signal, turned around and really tried to hurt each other. They pulled ears and jaws, twisted arms and shoulders, grabbed throats and fingers, and ground each other's faces into the rock-strewn desert floor of northern Kuwait. Sergeants fought privates, officers fought enlisted men, everybody fought everybody. 

"Get him in the trachea or the carotid artery!" 2nd Lt. David Fleming urged one of his platoon members. Lt. Fleming, a 28-year-old from Lansdowne, Pa., who has a Bugs Bunny tattoo below his fresh smallpox-vaccine scab, is usually a genial man. Not this day: "Pull his nose back so you can get your arm around his throat," he told another Marine. The fighting stops in these drills only when the two-minute round expires or when one Marine "taps out" -- signaling that he can take no more. 

The 165-pound lieutenant's trash-talk continued even when he found himself pinned to the ground by his 206-pound platoon sergeant, John G. Ferguson. "Bury my face in the sand and try to smother me," Lt. Fleming gasped, reprimanding the staff sergeant for being too easy on him. "Get out of that mind-set." 

"I don't want to hurt my lieutenant," Staff Sgt. Ferguson, 29, of Aurora, Colo., responded quietly. But next time he complied, grabbing his superior's throat. 

There are a few rules. No standing, for instance. All fighting must take place down in the dirt. No eye gouges. Or biting. But inevitably somebody gets hurt. In fact, that's the plan. "There's a difference between being hurt and being injured," explained Gunnery Sgt. Brian Davis, 32, a battalion martial-arts instructor from San Diego. "Hurting is good." 

Across the sand from the Fleming-Ferguson match, the gung-ho commander of Kilo's weapons platoon, 1st Lt. Rudy Salcido, 28, from Tucson, Ariz., battled the company's executive officer, 1st Lt. Brian Curtis, an intense 26-year-old, from Lander, Wyo. 

Each grabbed the other's ankle, straining for leverage until both heard an ominous pop. Lt. Salcido was carried off to a nearby Humvee. Everyone thought he had a broken bone. He was still smiling, though, determined not to miss the war. "Sir," he told his captain, "just give me a walking cast. Don't leave me behind." It turned out to be just a bad sprain. He was back on the job in a day and running again in a week. 

Another Marine hyperextended his knee and ended up in the Humvee, too. Cpl. John Trummer, 22, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., dislocated a finger while yanking on his opponent's bloody nose and turned to the medic, Navy Hospitalman Aric Lee, for a quick fix. "Go ahead, Doc," the injured Marine said grimly, using the nickname all medics get, even the ones who aren't physicians. "If we're going to do it, let's do it." 

Cpl. Trummer braced himself against Doc Lee's shoulder, and the medic pulled on the finger until it popped back into place. Doc Lee, 22, from Rochester, Ind., taped the damaged finger to its neighbor, and the corporal went back to the fight. 

The hands and legs take a particularly rough beating. Staff Sgt. Adam Walker, a slender man with a garden of tattoos on his arms, wrestled one of his squad leaders. "I almost broke his finger," Sgt. Walker, 26, from Hendersonville, N.C., reported during postmatch chatter. "I had to do something -- he had it wrapped around my throat." 

The martial-arts training "scares me," the company commander, Capt. Innes Quiroz, 39, from Martinez, Calif., admitted afterward to his surviving lieutenants. "I have a bad feeling about losing two guys, including a lieutenant," he said. 

He suspended further fighting for the day. But he sees the value of the training, and the next day the melees resumed. The following week, the Marines got a different kind of training -- hand-to-hand combat drills aimed at perfecting kicks, punches and escape rolls. 

One of the best fighters in the 2nd Platoon is Cpl. Adam Sanchez, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound Marine from Grass Valley, Calif. He wears a green martial-arts instructor's belt over his fatigues, and specializes in kicking. A small group of Marines gathered around him, in olive-drab T-shirts and fatigues. A few carried thick black training pads, while others had to use their sleeping bags and stuff sacks as protection from what was to come. 

The vertical knee strike, Cpl. Sanchez intoned, is "very powerful, very deadly. You all know it's my favorite strike to use on the enemy. One powerful knee should do the job, and then you can finish him off with whatever other martial-arts moves you may know." 

With that, he faced off with Lance Cpl. Joseph Allen, a 5-foot-4, 155-pound Marine from Duluth, Minn., placing his hands on the back of Cpl. Allen's head and driving his right knee into his stomach pad. Cpl. Allen staggered back about six feet, shook it off, and returned to take another kick. 

Next the entire group paired off to practice. 

"Kill," Lance Cpl. Michael Dressler, a 20-year-old from Olathe, Kan., growled as he absorbed blow after blow. 

"Come on, girl," a corporal goaded Lance Cpl. Allen, for not kicking forcefully enough. 

They practiced uppercuts to the jaw, hammer-fist punches to the neck and horizontal kicks to the stomach, after Cpl. Sanchez explained what horizontal means: "like the sun goes up and down on the horizon." 

"We're Marines -- it's what we do," reflected Lance Cpl. Mark Fowler, 22, from Lincoln, Calif. "When we get bored, we either fight or drink. We can't drink here, so we may as well fight." 

Then he turned to the next lesson: How to kill someone by punching him in the carotid artery. 


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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah@ibuc.com>
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"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
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