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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Possible assignment to actual war zone 'very, very real'

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

MARINE CORPS TRAINING AREA BELLOWS — The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines hit the beach yesterday with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Marines keep watch over Bellows beach from the back of an Amphibious Armored Vehicle during RIMPAC exercises. With the possibility of deployment looming, the exercises were "great preparation" for Kane'ohe Marines, one battalion commander said.

Photos by Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Big troop-carrying CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters roared overhead, swaying Ironwoods below.

Amphibious assault vehicles surged out of the sea with Marines in camouflage face paint, followed by 87-foot fan-driven hovercraft that disgorged Humvee after Humvee.

It was part of Rim of the Pacific 2004 war games, but the possibility of going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan for Hawai'i Marines is all too real.

"What is the possibility? I think if you're asking me (about 3rd Marines) going to the Middle East or another theater that's active in the global war on terror — very, very real," said Lt. Col. Norm Cooling, the battalion's commanding officer.

"There is obviously a portion to play for everyone in that fight, and 3rd Marines is certainly expecting and preparing to go into that campaign area," he said.

Cooling said he has been given a general warning "that we should prepare to deploy on short notice to relieve forces that are currently there," but a specific deployment date hasn't been given.

The battalion commander said he's prepared for three potential missions: Afghanistan, Iraq or with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), in the Pacific theater.

As part of the regular deployment rotation for nearly 7,000 Kane'ohe Bay Marines, the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines recently deployed to Okinawa for six to seven months.

The 3/3 Marines, known as "America's Battalion," are expected to make that trip in the winter, but that is subject to changing mission needs.

Staff Sgt. Jason Jerome, 30, said he'll go wherever Cooling tells him to go, including Iraq or Afghanistan.

Asked if he wants to go, Jerome, who is married and has a 10-year-old son, said: "It all depends on how you look at it. I like being with my family. But also, it's my job, and whatever my country calls for, I'll gladly do it."

While Schofield Barracks' 25th Infantry Division (Light) is distributed between Iraq and Afghanistan, Hawai'i's Marines remain ready at Kane'ohe Bay.

Staff Sgt. Jason Jerome of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, says that while he wants to be with his family, he accepts the likelihood of deployment. It's "my job, and whatever my country calls for, I'll gladly do it."
Nearly 2,000 Hawai'i-based soldiers with the Army National Guard's 29th Separate Infantry Brigade were told they need to report Aug. 16 for active duty and a yearlong mission to Iraq beginning in February.

John Pike, director of the military think tank GlobalSecurity.org, last month said he doubted the Hawai'i Marines will remain out of the war zones.

"At the rate we're going, everyone's going to get an opportunity to get a campaign medal," he said.

During Operation Desert Storm, about 7,600 Kane'ohe Marines were deployed. Hawai'i Marines with Task Force Taro were the first to cross the mined Iraqi-Kuwait border.

Cooling said yesterday's beach assault at Bellows was good practice — regardless of the fact such a landing wouldn't be used for Iraq or Afghanistan duty.

"Anytime we can participate in an exercise — get them out of garrison, get them into the field — it's great preparation," Cooling said.

He added the effectiveness of amphibious landings can't be discounted. Marines pushed several hundred miles into Afghanistan in the opening of the war in 2001.

"Certainly we can do that over long distances as we demonstrated when we opened the campaign in Afghanistan, so the legs, the traditional legs of amphibious reach, if you will, is quite a bit longer than we used to think they were," he said.

More than 40 ships, seven submarines, 100 aircraft and almost 18,000 service members from seven nations are participating in RIMPAC, which runs through July 27 in Hawai'i.

Yesterday's beach landing was preceded by antisubmarine warfare and mine-clearing exercises. About a dozen Marine amphibious assault vehicles and the Landing Craft Air-Cushioned hovercraft were launched from the amphibious ships Rushmore and Tarawa several miles off the coast.

The ongoing exercise included attacks on mock terrorist camps at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island with close-air support from a B-52 bomber out of Guam, and about 50 "opposing force" Marines in the forests of Bellows resisting the 3/3 Marines with blank gunfire.

An Australian diesel submarine was among the participants in the exercise, and a company of Australian soldiers made the helicopter assault on Bellows with Kane'ohe Marines.

There were some hiccups. The morning beach assault was delayed several hours when the stern ramp of the Tarawa would not lower. It had to be cranked down by hand. And the Marine amphibious assault vehicles landed on the beach at about the same location as the hovercraft — instead of separated as planned.

"It is part of the training because believe me, there were a lot of people scrambling to figure out how to manually raise that stern gate — not a common thing we do — but something that is great training," Cooling said.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.