Chapter 5: Training with Force Recon
Good ole’ Third Platoon landed the best assignment we could have ever scored (in my mind) prior to my first deployment out to sea.
As our battalion was preparing to deploy for six months to the Mediterranean Sea, each company within the battalion was assigned specific specialties. One company became a “helo company” that trained especially hard in helicopter operations. Another became a “track company” that specialized in beach assaults from inside the back of “amtracks,” which are Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs). These amtracks/AAVs are essentially floating tanks that are extended more than twenty-five feet long and can carry up to twenty men in their cargo holds.
Our company, Alpha Company, was picked to become “boat company.” Boat companies train to hit the beach in the darkness of night, cutting through waves in small rubber Zodiac boats. These are the same boats you see the SEALs using in the movies. Almost everyone in the company was excited to be picked as boat company. And we had a heck of a fun time on the beach for a couple of weeks, learning to ride them correctly (up on the wide gunnels) and right them when they flipped.
But Third Platoon scored a special treat when we were picked to work alongside Force Recon as a reinforcing element.
For those who don’t know, Force Recon Marines are the elite of the elite. They’re like Navy SEALs and see themselves as equals to that much higher profile group of warriors. Also like the SEALs, they parachute, dive, and do hostage rescue missions, which are probably the hardest missions out there. These missions are the ones like you usually see SWAT teams doing on TV shows. You sneak up, put some explosive on the door, and blow it off the hinges. Then the teams rush inside, clearing rooms as quickly as possible before the bad guys start killing hostages.
This is super high-pressure, high-intensity stuff, and you have to be light on the trigger because a round through a wall kills your buddy. Oh, and you also have to be able to do this in the dark or the light, and sometimes upon command when you’re not necessarily completely ready.
It takes an enormous amount of time to fully train a Force Recon Marine. They go to jump school, dive school, SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), and many others. Most of them have been in for at least six or eight years. By far, the majority of them back in ’97 were senior corporals or salty sergeants.
These were the best of the best, and they made a huge impression on a nineteen-year-old Marine named Stan.
As part of our battalion’s deployment, Force Recon needed to be able to do deep strike hostage rescue missions that were way behind enemy lines. They also needed to be able to do ship takedowns.
The problem was Force Recon is a small unit. They were only two squads of eight. So, a mere sixteen men, plus a small leadership element.
It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you’re just sixteen men a couple hundred miles behind enemy lines, you’re going to be in trouble if you make heavy contact. The SEALs combat this problem by often having Rangers as a quick reaction force.
Force Recon platoons would pick a platoon of Marines, give them some extra (awesome) training, and learn to work with them over a six-month period. That’s exactly what my platoon — good ole’ Third Platoon — was assigned to do.
Our adventure started with us going to a two-week advanced training course put on by SOTG, the Special Operations Training Group. We primarily worked on shooting well at short distances, usually less than fifty yards. This was part of the Close Quarters Battle (CQB) training you often hear so much about.
For us, it was as if we had landed in heaven. Typically, you never get enough live ammo to shoot as a Marine. They seriously ration that stuff, saving it for either the zombie apocalypse or for when Putin gets to feeling a little froggy. But during this CQB training, we had more ammo than we even wanted.
We were required to fire two thousand rounds during the training evolution, which believe me is a ton. That’s so much shooting that it gets to the point where it’s no longer even fun. That’s so much shoulder time that even a puny M-16 will have your shoulder sore for a couple of days. And don’t even talk about what a pain it is to cleaning your weapon. We spent as much time cleaning weapons as we did anything else, and you haven’t cleaned an M-16 until you’ve fired that many rounds through one.
We did the vast majority of that shooting over just a few days and everyone was really stepping it up. Just knowing we would be around the Force Recon guys was enough to make guys stand a little prouder.
We also worked hard on fast roping out of helicopters, since we’d be doing that a lot. Fast roping is sort of like rappelling, except you aren’t tied in. You grip a wide rope with your hands and feet and hold on for dear life. It can be pretty terrifying when you do it on a real ship out at sea, with the wind blowing the rope and the ship below you rising up and down in as much as fifteen-foot increments.
As if all that wasn’t fast enough, we also practiced urban ops with Force Recon. We’d go to various cities (after coordinating with the local police, of course), ride around in the back of vans or moving trucks, and spring out to hit homes in practice assaults with Force Recon.
Sometimes, even a couple of our guys would be in civilian work clothes, pretending to be construction workers. We learned it was often best to block a road with cones and work signs (with hidden shooters out of sight in a van), instead of having a bunch of men carrying weapons out in the open.
This was high speed, low drag stuff right here, and it couldn’t have possibly gotten better for a platoon of plain ole’ ground pounders. And yet it did.
Force Recon wanted our platoon on the edges of any homes they hit, acting as a blocking force with our long weapons and machine guns. But they also wanted one fire team to work directly with them. Since they had to use small caliber submachine guns to clear buildings, they also required a fire team of four Marines to bring long weapons and reinforce them.
Force Recon used MP5s on their room clearing and hostage rescue work, but these weapons are only 9 mm and have a short range. MP5s are perfect for short-range, indoor work because they don’t penetrate multiple walls. But if you’re patrolling to a target and make contact with the enemy, the last thing you want is lightweight, short range MP5s, which are only good to a hundred yards or so. You need serious firepower with range. Such as M-16s, 40 mm grenade launchers, and machine guns.
That’s what a fire team of four Marines could provide and that’s what Force Recon wanted.
As you probably guessed, I have no idea how it happened, but my fire team was picked to be the four-man team that went with Force Recon everywhere on these strikes. I’d like to think my fire team was one of the best in the platoon, but looking back at the pictures from that time, I can’t say that for sure. We had some awesome fire teams in Third Platoon. But for whatever reason, our fire team was selected and the Force Recon guys really took us in under their wings.
We were quite regularly sent off to them to practice their hostage rescue missions and they were constantly pouring knowledge into our four little heads. They knew they only had six months to get us ready and they wanted us absolutely as ready as possible.
All of this was beyond incredible, but the cherry on top was working with Navy SEALs. You only hear about these guys and it was great to see them in action.
Often, on ship takedowns, the target is so big that you just need a lot of personnel to take it down. On those missions, the Navy SEALs would fast rope in first from helicopters, followed by Force Recon, followed by Third Platoon.
Yeah, we weren’t doing much room clearing — mostly holding uncleared danger areas and passageways — but we were doing ship takedowns with the Navy SEALs and Force Recon. How many people can say that?!
Seriously, what are the chances of getting to do that as a regular infantryman? It. Was. Awesome.
I’ll go into my impressions of Navy SEALs in the next chapter, but let’s get to the good stuff: taking our lives to the next level.
I will always believe our platoon was picked to work with Force Recon because our lieutenant and platoon sergeant set higher standards than the other lieutenants and platoon sergeants in Alpha Company. I think both of these men, who I was lucky enough to serve under, desired to be the best. As a result of their hard work, we landed a phenomenal opportunity.
Not just a phenomenal opportunity, but a once-in-a-lifetime, win-the-lottery chance to work with one of the most elite forces in the world. The chances of getting assigned to this have to be almost inconceivable.
And then for our fire team to get selected to work directly with the elite group was just another level of luck. I had no idea any of this could happen when our fireteam was working so hard in the months prior to the deployment. We were simply competing with the other fire teams in our platoon, trying our best for mere bragging rights at the end of that week or field op, whichever we were on at the time. But we just had a great group of guys who all pushed each other as hard as was physically possible.
Speaking of the fireteam, we also once got to lead the entire battalion on a field exercise that we were being tested on. There were fellow Marines out there operating as the “enemy” in different color uniforms and our battalion of eight hundred Marines needed to move up a road without getting ambushed.
Somehow, our fire team was picked to do a route recon alone, looking for the enemy. We took such great pride in searching as hard as we could for any enemy along the road, trying our hardest to find them before they found the battalion that trailed behind us by a mile or so.
My point in all this is that with hard work and great sacrifice comes even greater rewards. That was true in my military career and it’s always been true in the various places I’ve worked in my civilian life.
Sure, there are times politics may beat you out of an opportunity, but usually hard work wins out. Thus, the lesson is that if you’re not giving all you have, and I mean every single ounce of effort that you can possibly summon, then you may be missing out on some incredible opportunities. Some training you could be sent to. An unexpected promotion or transfer to a better division. A customer or fellow business person from another company who sees your talent and recruits you to their firm.
Everyday you’re making impressions, so you need to ask yourself if you’re making the right kind.
It’s not just opportunities you may be missing either. There were clear winners and losers in our company.
One platoon not only didn’t get assigned to Force Recon, but they got assigned to train on repairing and maintaining boat motors. And trust me, for an entire year (a six-month training workup and six months on ship), that’s mostly what they did.
They worked so hard in an effort to keep a bunch of worn-out motors running, all while facing the limitations of having inadequate parts or instruction. Worse, it wasn’t like these guys were mechanics or had a mechanical background. They were regular infantry guys who received some lame, insufficient education in how to work on the motors.
Trust me, these guys hated their entire deployment. Can you imagine joining the Marine Corps to be an infantryman and then spending a year of that time working on boat motors and shabby boats that needed constant attention and patching up?
But that same thing could be headed your way. That platoon assigned to work on boats was a good platoon. They probably were only slightly behind us in terms of ability, but look what that earned them: one year of pure hell.
The same thing could happen to you wherever you are. If you’re the one not working hard or complaining all the time, you might find yourself transferred to something even worse. Or suddenly with fewer hours scheduled.
But forget the negative consequences. Think of the positives for pushing harder in your life. If you can find a way to get yourself around people out of your league, you need to do so. Like every chance that you can.
That year of being around Force Recon did wonders for my growth and confidence, as I’m sure it did for everyone else in the platoon. (Many of my fellow platoon members went off to achieve impressive feats in both the military and civilian worlds.)
The same lesson was repeated in college. Being around professors who were far more intelligent and better educated than me helped ratchet up my ambitions and desire for learning. It’s like throwing gas on a fire. Suddenly, I wasn’t just some guy from East Tennessee with little money and limited opportunities. Instead, I had examples right in front of me of distinguished scholars, authors, etc.
In summary, if you have a similar chance to network “up” as the saying goes, make sure you’re doing it. It could be anything from attending association meetings you’ve been avoiding because they’re boring. It could be serving on the board of a nonprofit. It could be volunteering for some leadership position on your kid’s sports team. Just any chance you can grab to be around awesome people, you grab it.
You never know how much it’ll help lift you up.