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200210111471 Unitas Marines concuct largest exercise to date

Story by Staff Sgt. Sam Kille, MARFOR Unitas

SALINAS BAY, Peru(September 20, 2002) -- A series of explosions echoed through the barren desert hills and valleys along the coast here, Sept. 18, as the BAP Admiral Grau, a Peruvian fast missile cruiser, peppered the beach with its 6-inch guns.

As the naval barrage ended, assault amphibian vehicles (AAVs)-loaded with reserve and active duty Leathernecks from Marine Forces Unitas-launched from the well deck of the USS Portland, and made their way to shore. They were followed in waves by Peruvian Marines, transported by BMRs (wheeled amphibious armored personnel carriers) and Zodiac boats, which launched from three Peruvian tank landing ships-the BAP Pisco, BAP Callao, and BAP Paita.

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy SEALS cleared obstacles on the shore and marked the beach for the imminent landing. Peruvian helicopters hovered over a hilltop that overlooked the beachhead. Ropes were dropped, and Peruvian Marine Commandos slid to the ground to take out "enemy" bunkers.

The largest combined amphibious landing exercise to date for the amphibious phase of Unitas 43-02, a multinational series of training exercises in South America, had begun.

"This was a really good training exercise," said Lance Cpl. Drew Neilson, a reserve AAV crewman and independent landscaper from Gainesville, Fla. "Training like this, working with foreign units, shows us what it could be like in actual combat."

Peruvian Marine Lt. Marco Forti, from Lambayeque-Chiclayo, Peru, agreed.

"The exercise was really well rehearsed," said Forti. "It was an honor to work with the U.S. Marines in an exercise of this size. It went really well."

As the U.S. and Peruvian Marines landed on the beach, the sound of machine gun and small arms fire filled the air. Unlike similar training exercises in the States, the U.S. Marines were firing live rounds from their AAVs while moving toward inland objectives. The inherent danger in such training kept the "trackers" (as AAV crewmen are often referred as) on their toes.

"The exercise was very fast-paced," said Neilson, who had never participated in an exercise of this magnitude. "There's only so much planning you can do in advance. When shooting and moving on command, you don't have much time to react. You really have to think on your feet when doing something like this."

According to many of the Peruvians, the AAV crews were right on target.

"We really gained an appreciation for the fire support they gave us when we landed on the beach," said Peruvian Marine Lt. Martin Magnani, from Lima, Peru. "They were very accurate."

The trackers weren't the only U.S. Marines who had to be at the top of their game. According to Gunnery Sgt. Jeff La Mar, a reserve air and naval gunfire liaison from La Palma, Calif., the exercise was an excellent opportunity to challenge and test MARFOR Unitas' Fire Control Team. The FCT was divided into smaller teams, with some helping to coordinate direct and indirect fire aboard the BAP Admiral Grau, and others who teamed with Peruvian spotters aboard the BAP Paita, and ashore.

"It's very easy to take for granted that it will be U.S. naval ships providing naval gunfire," said La Mar, who left behind his position at Kodak to deploy with MARFOR Unitas. "That isn't always the case. Because it is our job to work with the host nations, it is important to do something like this with someone other than the U.S. Navy."

Doing so is easier said than done.

"Language is a problem, along with doctrinal differences regarding the way they employ their indirect fire systems," La Mar said. "It's not that their doctrine is worse or better than ours-it is just different. The key is understanding the differences while making sure our Marines ashore are safe and given the support they need."

After securing their objectives ashore, the two nations conducted cross training to better acquaint each other's Marines. The training included combined mechanized operations with the AAVs and BMRs; patrolling; and weapons systems.

"Sharing tactics and knowledge was very beneficial," said Neilson of the mechanized operations. "Learning how others work helps keep our unit at the top of its game."

"They were definitely interested in our weapons, and they asked a lot of questions," said Sgt. Chris Halstead, a reserve anti-tank assault man from Portland, Ore., who helped provide instruction on the SMAW (shoulder-fired multipurpose assault weapon) to the Peruvians. "It wasn't easy; it is a hard system to teach when you have little time. For us, it's normally a two-week course, but I think they did pretty well. We actually had a guy get on target."

For many, the highlight of the training exercise was a night live fire held Sept. 19. Using every weapon at their disposal-from M-16A2 service rifles, to heavy machineguns, mortars and missiles-the desert sky was lit up like the 4th of July.

"There really is a difference between firing at night instead of during the day," said Halstead, who is a landscaper for the City of Beaverton, Ore. "Because of the tracer rounds, you can see exactly where your rounds are hitting. It makes for a pretty good show."

Dusty, tired, but motivated, the U.S. Marines returned to the USS Portland, Sept. 20. From Salinas, the Marines will enjoy a few days of liberty in Lima. From there, they will continue to circumnavigate South America, making stops in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil for future training exercises. They are scheduled to return to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in early December.

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