Dec. 24, 2007

Marines, Virginia Guard troops to work closely in Iraq

By 2nd Lt. David E. Leiva
B Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – When Virginia Army National Guard Staff Sgt. James Sparks turned in his Marine uniform 16 years ago, he thought he had severed all ties with his former service.  

In the coming weeks, though, he will be part of a small group of leaders likely take part in a number of unprecedented missions with Marines here, as field research on how they conduct patrols and the equipment they use.

“We perform the same mission, but use slightly different tactics to accomplish the mission,” said 2nd Lt. Jonathan Everiss, operations officer for B Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry. “It is important so that each service understands how the other operates. Additionally, it’s always great to share lessons learned.”

Shortly after arriving in Iraq in October, Everiss met with Marine 1st Lt. Bessie Bernstein at the Green Beans Coffee Shop at Al Asad Air Base.

A couple of hours of simple chit-chat turned into a gathering between officers of the Woodstock, Va.-based unit and the active duty Marines two weeks later. Then, it led to a barbecue on Veteran’s Day between Army and Marine convoy commanders, where sergeants, such as Sparks, met with their counterparts.

Those tactics and lessons learned, most of which are classified, can be a stark contrast. From understanding how the other operates in certain dangerous situations to the escalation of force to distinguishing friend from foe in the pitch dark, the meeting proved productive, both said.

“We continuously pass each other on the (roads),” said Bernstein, operations officer of Combat Logistics Battalion-4 Security Company. “I thought it was a good idea as soon as (Bravo) showed interest in sitting down with us.”

In October, B Company replaced an active duty Army company of the 1st Infantry Division.

Bernstein and Everiss helped organize the get-together in November, an olive-branch meant to get non-commissioned officers on both sides to mingle and share experiences. It was the first time the Marines had met with any Army unit, she said.

Generally, there are few issues, leaders say, until two different units are in the same vicinity. In the past, any miscues or inter-service posturing were handled with choice words – or gestures. By knowing some of the key leaders from a different unit, the hope is that it can help defuse any situation that may arise.

Especially with inter-service rivalry. Especially at night. Especially when the enemy will not discriminate between the two.
Sparks, a convoy commander from Warrenton, Va., took part in an uncomfortable icebreaker as everyone went around introducing themselves.

As a Marine sergeant asked, “What’s it going to take for you to stop (pointing your weapons in our direction)?”

Without missing a beat, Sparks, a police detective in Fairfax County, deadpanned, “As soon as you all remember to wave with all five fingers.”

The group erupted into laughter. Later, all learned the culprit was another Army unit.

For Staff Sgt. Michael Hartman, who spent four years in the Marine Corps in the mid-1980s as a weapons technician on F/A-18, the greet was de ja vu.

“I didn’t anticipate working with Marines again after all of these years,” said Hartman, of Charlottesville, Va., a convoy commander in B Company.

He, along with the other leaders, got a chance to see the Marines’ Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAP, along with the different means in which they deal with the threats, such as roadside bombs.

Since the meetings, all agree that the relationship between the groups has drastically improved, to include small gestures such as waving hello and yielding the right-a-way.

“It’s been pretty pleasant,” said Staff Sgt. Adam Landenwitch, also a B Company convoy commander and former Marine.

Despite the different history, uniforms and tactics, both came to see how much they had in common.

“Everybody got to realize that we’re all doing the same job and attempting to achieve the same goal” said Hartman, who retires shortly after returning home.

Along with tactics, the Marines, whose storied history is legendary, may have learned another lesson: This one about the type of Soldiers who make up the National Guard.

“After the meetings, I was very impressed with the professionalism and diversity of the Soldiers,” Bernstein said.

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