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Marines finally are admitting they’re special.

Corps officials say they have been preparing to form an experimental unit for early next year that will be the Marines’ first direct contribution to the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The move trumps the service’s long-held ethos that Marines are not special warriors but conventional forces equipped and trained to fight a range of missions.

Labeled the Marine Corps Special Operations Command Detachment, the unit will make its debut in March 2004 and will be headquarted in Coronado, Calif. The command is to go to a lieutenant colonel.

The unit will feature 86 Marines and sailors, said Lt. Col. Giles Kyser, head of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force special operations section at Headquarters, Marine Corps. The section is housed within the headquarters’ plans, policy and operations branch.

The experimental unit, Kyser said, will be evaluated on its ability to help a deploying Naval Special Warfare Squadron conduct:

• Special reconnaissance.• Direct action.• Coalition support.• Limited foreign internal defense.• Other required missions in support of joint fleet commanders.

The detachment faces a six-month deployment with the SEALs in April 2004 “as part of a Naval Special Warfare Squadron in support of theater special operation commands,” Kyser said.

The unit is under control of Special Operations Command and administered and funded by the Marine Corps. The Special Operations Marines will undergo a 24-week special warfare course with Navy SEALs.

The concept of Marines filling out Special Operations units surfaced shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Gen. James L. Jones, then-commandant of the Marine Corps, and Air Force Gen. Charles R. Holland, Special Operations commander, agreed to bring Marines closer to the action.

The idea is based on the Corps’ status as a forward-deployed force in readiness.

Force Reconnaissance Marines already tackle highly specialized training for direct-action raids and clandestine reconnaissance. Marine and Special Operations Command officials want to capitalize on the service’s ability to operate in austere environments from remote, over-the-horizon sites, Kyser said.

The 86 Marines in the new special operations unit will be volunteers from units throughout the Corps, Kyser said — “handpicked” and “closely scrutinized to ensure the Marine Corps puts its best foot forward.”

Twenty-two Marines will comprise the new unit’s headquarters element; another 30, the reconnaissance element; 28, the intelligence element. Six more are filling the fire-support section. Five Navy personnel, trained as amphibious-reconnaissance corpsmen, are set to provide medical support.

The Marine Corps will work with SOCOM over the next five months to determine the criteria for judging the new unit’s effectiveness, Kyser said, adding that Holland has the final say if Marines become a permanent part of special operations.

“The force is designed to take advantage of existing Marine Corps capabilities that are most special operations-like,” he said. The goal: Provide “a viable contribution that has the least impact on the Marine Corps from a personnel and training perspective, and provide a foundation on which a larger contribution can be built if appropriate.”

“To that end, the force’s mission focus remains relatively finite, ground-combat-oriented and takes advantage of Marine strengths regarding task organization and combined arms,” Kyser said.

A retired Navy rear admiral said the special operations community will welcome the change because of the increased missions and responsibility since the Afghan campaign began. But growing pains certainly are anticipated.

Retired Rear Adm. Stephen H. Baker, once chief of staff for Naval Forces in Central Command, said cooperation between Marines at Camp Rhino and special operations sailors and soldiers essentially laid the groundwork for future cooperation.

“I think it will be a welcomed change,” Baker said. “We did special operations testing for suitability for this. We got a very clear impression SEALs were smarting from operational tempo without Marines. I think there will be a very real appreciation for this mission.”

Marines and sailors already have trained together. Force Reconnaissance Marines and Navy SEALs routinely deploy together and attend many of the same training schools. Still, sharing the mission is bound to produce some discord, Baker said.

“There will possibly be some resistance to change, but it will work,” Baker said. “That’s because this is coming from the top, and Marines, more than any other service, take it on and say, ‘Let’s march in step.’”

Retired Army Master Sgt. Tom Batchelor of the Special Forces Association in Fayetteville, N.C., agreed there are enough missions to dispel any notion that soldiers, sailors and Marines will be butting heads for the most attractive slots.

“We’re going to work closer together now, that’s all,” Batchelor said. “We’re going to deploy no matter what. It’s not really going to affect what we do in Special Forces.”

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