Subscribe
Lance Cpl. Jose Nuñoz aims with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon during mock assaults on enemy formations.

Lance Cpl. Jose Nuñoz aims with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon during mock assaults on enemy formations. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

Lance Cpl. Jose Nuñoz aims with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon during mock assaults on enemy formations.

Lance Cpl. Jose Nuñoz aims with his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon during mock assaults on enemy formations. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

Marines jump up to rush forward during immediate-action drills. The Marines practice the basics, relying on their simple infantry skills to carry them if they get the order to go to war.

Marines jump up to rush forward during immediate-action drills. The Marines practice the basics, relying on their simple infantry skills to carry them if they get the order to go to war. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

Sgt. Alfredo Botello keeps an eye out for the rest of his Marines as they spread out across the Kuwaiti desert near Camp Coyote. Botello’s unit practiced attack formations during day and night drills.

Sgt. Alfredo Botello keeps an eye out for the rest of his Marines as they spread out across the Kuwaiti desert near Camp Coyote. Botello’s unit practiced attack formations during day and night drills. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

Lance Cpl. Timothy Mulhere hunkers down behind his rifle during the drills. The infantry Marines constantly rehearse simple formations and assault drills to keep skills sharp while they wait for an attack order.

Lance Cpl. Timothy Mulhere hunkers down behind his rifle during the drills. The infantry Marines constantly rehearse simple formations and assault drills to keep skills sharp while they wait for an attack order. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

CAMP COYOTE, Kuwait — There is an easy rule to remember for staying alive in the infantry: Keep things simple.

For months, the Marines spread out across the Kuwaiti desert to practice the bread-and-butter of the infantry: shoot, move and communicate.

The idea is simple.

Platoons, or even companies, of Marines move across open terrain, changing formations and reacting to enemy contact. In practice, though, the shifting formations can be one of the times when the unit is most vulnerable.

“Communication is always an issue when we’re on the move,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Patrick Llamas, a platoon commander with 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines. “We’re focusing on the basics because that’s going to be essential to our success.”

The basics aren’t always easy, though.

A driving wind can drown out squad radios that allow the Marines to pass commands without shouting. Decisions are dictated by terrain and enemy forces.

The battlefield, especially one as wide open as the desert, makes mastering the basics essential.

“The whole purpose of the training is to alleviate the uncertainty,” Llamas said. “At night, we might not be able to see each other’s faces, but I want them to recognize the silhouette in front of them.”

Formations were just one part of the day’s drills. Llamas also tested his Marines’ abilities to respond in an attack.

“It’s completely different running an attack out here,” he said. “There’s no vegetation to conceal yourself, and there aren’t any terrain features we can really use to our advantage.”

The busiest Marines are the young noncommissioned officers who jog back and forth between the troops, adjusting spacing and moving machine gunners.

In the attacks, they moved their Marines forward, always mindful of keeping their forces close enough together to support each other but far enough apart to keep them from becoming an easy target.

“The biggest consideration we keep in mind out here is the dispersion,” said Marine Sgt. Alfredo Botello, a squad leader in Llamas’ platoon. “If they’re too close, one frag can take them out. Too far apart, and the unit is out of control. It’s a real balancing act to keep it moving.”

But it’s just this type of training Botello believes will keep his Marines alive.

“The drills are what makes or breaks a unit,” he said. “It’s the simple things we’re stressing. It always boils down to the fundamentals. We don’t want the Marines to get complacent, even though we do this over and over.”

Aside from building skills, the training also builds trust among the Marines, said Cpl. Jose Cervantes. Everyone is out in the open, watching what the other is doing. They get to a point, where one Marine anticipates the next move of the one on front of him.

“It’s building confidence in the junior Marines that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and that their leaders are making good decisions,” Cervantes said. “Out here, it’s our lives we’re talking about. We have our lives in each other’s hands.”

Every day that goes by is another day to refine their skills. It’s one more day to make things better before they get an order to move. It’s another chance to make sure every Marine understand his role before the shooting starts.

“Enduring the heat, whipping sand, heavy flak jackets, helmets and gear weighing them down is worth every moment,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Jones.

“It’s like gold to me,” Jones explained. “We’re doing this during the day and night, in the sandstorms where you can’t see 10 feet in front of you. To me, it’s not a training exercise. This is life or death.”

Llamas has no plans to stop teaching, he said.

Every time he runs his platoon through the drills, it gets better. There is less confusion. Reactions are quicker and that’s got him believing that his Marines are ready to fight any time the order is passed.

“Things can always be better, no doubt,” he said. “But I know my Marines are ready.”

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up