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Marine Lance Cpl. Sharnell Carter listens in on a radio call during a break in recent training at Okinawa's Camp Hansen.
Marine Lance Cpl. Sharnell Carter listens in on a radio call during a break in recent training at Okinawa's Camp Hansen. (Mark Oliva / S&S)
Marine Lance Cpl. Sharnell Carter listens in on a radio call during a break in recent training at Okinawa's Camp Hansen.
Marine Lance Cpl. Sharnell Carter listens in on a radio call during a break in recent training at Okinawa's Camp Hansen. (Mark Oliva / S&S)
Marines from 1st Stinger Battery, Marine Air Control Group 18, pause for a security halt recently in training areas on Camp Hansen, Okinawa.
Marines from 1st Stinger Battery, Marine Air Control Group 18, pause for a security halt recently in training areas on Camp Hansen, Okinawa. (Mark Oliva / S&S)
Map sheets and alcohol pens park the route toward enemy contact.
Map sheets and alcohol pens park the route toward enemy contact. (Mark Oliva / S&S)
Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Joyce peers from beneath his camouflage for possible enemy movement while practicing security patrols recently at Okinawa’s Camp Hansen.
Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Joyce peers from beneath his camouflage for possible enemy movement while practicing security patrols recently at Okinawa’s Camp Hansen. (Mark Oliva / S&S)
Sweat beads up on Marine Pfc. Rusty Thrasher, a Stinger missile gunner, during training at Camp Hansen.
Sweat beads up on Marine Pfc. Rusty Thrasher, a Stinger missile gunner, during training at Camp Hansen. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa — Marine Cpl. Brent Kammen peered out from glasses that contrasted his face smeared in the brown, green and black camouflage paint.

Sweat-soaked and looking ragged, the Marine trained to knock planes out of the sky seemed out of his element. He wasn’t carrying his Stinger anti-air missile. He had nothing but a rifle.

This was Grunt 101 for Marines whose job is to make enemy planes go down in flames.

Troops from 1st Stinger Battery, Marine Air Control Group 18 traded in their Stinger missiles for straightforward infantry training.

Lugging rifles instead of missiles was an idea born out of tragedy, according to Marine 1st Lt. Mike Carlson, first platoon commander. One of the battery’s former members, Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas Blair, was killed in an ambush in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Carlson said he didn’t want to ever have to make a phone call home to a grieving family because his Marines weren’t trained in basic infantry tactics.

“It was a straight-up wake-up call,” Carlson said. “Some Stinger gunners think that we’ll be tasked with only protecting airfields or ammo dumps. We don’t think we’ll be out on the front. Once we’ve exhausted our missiles, we still have a rifle. We need to know how to fire and engage the enemy any way we can.”

Carlson said that with very little air threat in Iraq, Stinger missile gunners are being employed in nontraditional ways.

Avengers, Humvees with mounted missile racks and .50-caliber machine guns are being used for convoy and perimeter security. Stinger missile gunners run security patrols alongside infantry Marines.

“We call ourselves the ‘grunts’ of the air wing,” Carlson said. “Now we know we have to be able to react to fire and move like grunts. We could be punched out with grunt units and need to be able to complement them any way we can.”

The Marines took the training to heart. Several weeks ago they started training with paintball guns, but Carlson found the Marines weren’t reacting enough to incoming fire. He switched to MILES laser gear, essentially a sophisticated version of laser tag. They fanned out across the jungle training grounds and took turns attacking each other, testing skills in offensive and defensive operations.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done this — gone out and spent serious time training like a grunt,” Kammen said. “At first it was pretty jagged. We were making a lot of mistakes, but we’re getting better. We want it to be a mechanical response, something that we do without really having to think about it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot smoother now.”

Marine Lance Cpl. Sharnell Carter, a radioman assigned to the platoon, said the training kept him much busier than any of the anti-air and missile training they normally perform.

“I’m usually done with my work before the gunners are, so I usually go back to help them out,” Carter said. “But here, there’s always something for us to do. If we’re not moving, we’re planning for the move or setting up a defense. Even then, we’re constantly improving it. The work’s never over.”

But Carter isn’t complaining. He’s picking up on valuable tricks that one day could keep him and his fellow Marines alive.

“It seems like simple stuff now, but I’ve learned to silence my gear,” Carter said. “I make sure signals are passed back and constantly turn my head so we’re not losing track of anyone. I take it very seriously. I could get called to use this training at any time.”

That’s the point, Carlson said.

“I would argue that this training is part of our regular job as Stinger gunners,” he said. “Once we knock a plane down, we’ve got to get back to friendly lines, and during that whole time we’re riflemen.”

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