While there were a few exceptions (which is normal, individual Marines will invariably be sent to schools that open up at various times during a workup, either simply because the opportunity is there, or to fill a gap in capability that couldn’t be filled before), Det One’s individual training, or “schools phase,” ended July 1st, 2003.  The unit training phase was about to begin.

Just like everything else involved in standing up the new unit, getting ranges and training areas locked on for the training phase involved plenty of headaches.  The Camp Pendleton Range Control did not recognize MCSOCOM Detachment One as a unit.  Ranges and training areas have to be locked on by a unit.  Without the ranges and training areas, no training could take place.  Other support, such as ammunition, had similar obstacles to overcome.  The Marines had to patiently explain the situation, generally only resorting to pulling out the Commandant’s guidance when they could get no farther.  Eventually, they got what they needed.

Part of getting the Detachment ready included building a Training Cell, led by Capt Steven Fiscus and  MSgt James Rutan.  The Training Cell would be responsible for arranging all training, setting up training schedules and scenarios, and generally handling all the behind-the-scenes aspects of the unit’s training, taking that load off the Platoon Sergeants and Team Leaders.

It was a good thing, too.  The training schedule was packed.  In the military, down-time on a training schedule is referred to as “white space.”  It is generally time for routine maintenance and admin issues to be dealt with, and the time when the men get the most time with their families.  Since the Detachment didn’t have a lot of time before they were due to deploy, and still had no concrete mission statement for what they would be doing while deployed, there was very little white space in the training phase.  MSgt Charles Padilla described it as, “It was one big kick in the nuts.”

Col. Coates had summed up the objective of the training phase.  “Brilliance at the fundamentals of our craft—being able to shoot, move, and communicate.”  This reflects a long-standing attitude in the Recon community; there are no advanced techniques, there is only brilliance at the basics.

His definition of “Shoot, move, and communicate” were rather wider than just shooting a rifle, humping a ruck, and using a radio.  Most of the fire elements were sent to Eglin AFB in Florida to qualify as Joint Tactical Air Controllers.  The radio recon element went to Yuma, Arizona and spent a month sending reports via radio back to Camp Pendleton.  On July 7th, the Reconnaissance element began their Weapons and Tactics package at Range 130 on Camp Pendleton.  Range 130 was the Special Operations Training Group’s home and workspace, consisting of several square bays, a demolitions bay, and a kill house.  Most of the Marines of the Recon Element were quite familiar with the range already, having trained there many times with 1st Force Recon Co.

After a week on the range, they moved into patrolling, team tactics, more marksmanship, infiltration and live-fire attacks, culminating in a 10-mile infiltration to a live-fire raid on the kill house at 130.

MCSOCOM Detachment One Part I: The SOC Program

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Weapons and Tactics wasn’t just limited to the Recon Element.  Col. Coates insisted that every Marine in the Detachment had to be trained the same way.  All the support Marines had to do Weapons and Tactics, as well as several of the other patrolling exercises, building the “strong backs, hard feet” that are the cornerstone of the Recon community.  Of course, they had to keep their other jobs up, as well, making it even harder.

Physical fitness was also stressed.  Every week saw a ruck march, with a full 60lb load.  The Marines were expected to maintain Recon levels of fitness on their own in the meantime.

The beginning of September saw a two-week amphib package in the waters off Camp Pendleton.  They still didn’t know where they would be going on deployment, so maintaining the amphibious competency of the Recon element was vital.  They practiced nautical navigation, scout swimmer techniques, hydrographic surveys, and other elements of amphibious reconnaissance.  The culminating exercise of the package was a full-mission profile after one day of rehearsals in the Del Mar boat basin.

After Amphib, the Detachment headed to the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California for high altitude and mountaineering training.  They nearly lost one Marine, Gunny John Dailey, when he fell while rappelling during the first week.

The second week saw the “Man Ex.”  It began with a two-day land nav and “terrain appreciation” exercise, that saw the Marines, including most of the support staff, moving over the worst and highest terrain Bridgeport has to offer.  Most Marines who attend the MWTC don’t even train where these guys went.  It wasn’t over though.

The teams were inserted 20 miles from their objective, where they would conduct a direct action hit.  It took two days to make the movement, often having to cross mountain ridges by 10,000-foot passes.  Once they hit the objective and extracted, the helos set down in two separate LZs and the team leaders were handed notes telling them that the birds had crashed, and they now had to execute their E&E plan.  This meant another 8- to 10-hour movement over the mountains, to link up with the Counterintelligence section, which then led them out.  Major Dolan recalled that by then, “there weren’t a lot of happy campers left.”

In October, the Recon Element returned to Range 130 for a Close Quarters Battle package.  Many of the Marines in the Recon Element had been CQB instructors with SOTG, but for this package the Training Cell brought in a retired Special Forces Soldier who had served in Delta to teach tactics.  The Marines found that their CQB tactics were outdated and slow compared to what the former SF operator showed them.  They had to adjust their “muscle memory” from the “Initiative-Based Tactics” they were used to, to “Team-Based Tactics.”  It was a fundamental development in tactical capability, though it turned into more of another tool in the toolbox than a revolutionary replacement.  When they did finally deploy, they found themselves using the old IBT style of CQB in several places, purely due to the nature of the target buildings.

December saw the Capstone Exercise, the Detachment’s version of a MEU’s CertEx.  They traveled to the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles outside Las Vegas.  Col Coates insisted on staying as expeditionary as possible, so they built their own FOB out in the desert.  The cold was intense, and took its toll; Sgt Guerra’s servers failed in the cold, and MSgt Padilla’s team had taken the windshields off their IFAV trucks.  Padilla estimated that the windchill while driving the vehicles got down to -10 degrees.

MCSOCOM Detachment One Part 3: Standing Up

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The exercise was built around two direct action raids.  The first, a simunition raid, was on a missile site believed to be under terrorist control.  In this case, the “terrorists” were Marines from Kilo 3/5.  The Training Cell had set up the target site with an underground tunnel system intended to suck the assault force into a fire trap.  The Recon and Surveillance teams that inserted before the raid sent good enough reporting that the assault force was prepared even for the underground part.  The assault force inserted by IFAV, driven off the back ramp of a KC-130 that landed on a dry lake bed, engines still turning, and completed the assault on foot.  They captured the objective, isolated the tunnels while conducting Sensitive Site Exploitation, and got off the objective with all mission parameters met.

One of the observers on the roof of the target building was Cmdr William Wilson, the commander of NSW Squadron One, and Det One’s future operational commander.  He had not worked with Marine units before, but was quite impressed with what he saw.

The second raid was a live-fire raid on a terrorist training camp.  It went just as smoothly; the recon elements sent detailed enough reporting that the target site could be digitally modeled for planning and rehearsals.  The supporting fires (both sniper and machine gun) were once again provided by the support personnel, adding to the Det’s point about all their Marines being useful operationally.  The assault teams cleared the camp, with the supporting fires shifting smoothly at each signal.

The Capstone Exercise was considered a resounding success.  The Detachment had knitted thoroughly as a unit.

Early 2004 saw the final confirmation of the Det’s deployment destination: Iraq.  They conducted some more urban and CQB direct action training in Talega, at the north end of Camp Pendleton, then did some more at the abandoned housing areas of March Air Reserve Base.  The March operation was considered especially helpful, as it was a large urban area with dedicated Iraqi roleplayers.

In February, 2004, the Det was formally integrated with NSW Squadron One.  They conducted a final CertEx with the SEALs, and while there was some resurrection of the old Recon/SEAL rivalry, they made it work.  Most of the Marines didn’t recall the CertEx as being that hard, compared to Bridgeport and Nevada, but they did work well with their SEAL brethren, and made it work.

By April, 2004, MCSOCOM Detachment One was headed for Iraq.