DARWIN, Australia — In Afghanistan, U.S. personnel often patrol in heavily armored vehicles that provide some protection from the roadside bombs favored by insurgents.
In contrast, Australian soldiers in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province have preferred foot patrols. They’ve even used donkeys to move their supplies in particularly rough terrain.
Now, the Aussies are sharing some of their dismounted skills.
U.S. Marines from Company L, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, out of Hawaii, are halfway through a six-month deployment training Down Under with soldiers from 5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. A platoon of Marines spent much of June practicing dismounted operations with “the diggers” — as the Australian troops are known — at Mount Bundey Training Area, 386 square miles of wilderness just south of the Northern Territory port of Darwin.
The Marines and the diggers marched for miles across land that was literally burning up in the searing heat of Australia’s sun-parched north. At times, the troops found themselves hiking past bush fires blazing among the gum trees that cover the training area.
“The U.S. experience has been to go out on a short duration with a set amount of weapons and equipment and return to base,” said the Australian battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Richard Barrett. “One thing we are doing now is a return to long patrols in the field with heavy packs.”
Two weeks after they arrived at Mount Bundey, the Marines had marched 40 miles carrying 90-pound loads that included weapons and enough food and water to survive in the harsh environment.
Australian troops said they parked their armored vehicles recently because, like the U.S. Defense Department, the Australian Defence Force has been hit with massive budget cuts this year.
Barrett, who deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in 2009, said he’s taking advantage of every opportunity to have his soldiers train alongside the Marines.
“This is a chance to really increase both organizations’ training experience and capability,” he said. “We will work with each other and maybe against each other [as opposing forces] in the field.”
The 60 mm mortar that the Marines brought to the exercise impressed the Australians, Barrett said, adding that it’s an asset that his army should look at acquiring.
One of the diggers, Warrant Officer Gav Kermode, said most of the Australian soldiers out with the Marines were on their first field exercise since joining the army, and that they enjoyed the Marines’ support — especially their mortar.
“It made our job easy,” he said.
First Lt. Mike Kopa, 26, of Woodbridge, Va. described the Mount Bundey training as involving assaults by as many as 25 “enemy” attackers at a time as well as urban operations with riot control and helicopter support.
“We were used to moving on foot, but I don’t think we carried this much,” he said, during a break as dust-covered Marines and Aussies shared field rations in the shade of a few gum trees.”
The Marines have found themselves pikcing up some of the local “customs.”
“If you put vegemite behind your ears it scares the flies away,” joked one of the Aussies — referring to a popular local sandwich spread that has yet to catch on with the Marines.
Despite the humor, the Marines maintained game faces, literally. Staff Sgt. Dan Hubbert, 27, of Phillipsport, N.Y. — platoon sergeant for the Marines training at Mount Bundey — had green camouflage paint on his face.
“We are staying tactical the whole time,” he said.