15th MEU News

Mortarmen: TRAP Lessons Learned

23 Apr 2001 | Corporal Joseph R. Chenelly

Realism was paramount for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) force through two jam-packed weeks of training here March 14 - 23.Made up of Marines and Sailors of the 81mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/1, 15th MEU, the force learned through extensive classroom training and eight practical application missions the ins and outs of rescuing personnel stuck behind enemy lines.A platoon needs many different skills to complete a TRAP mission, according to SSgt. Vincent Kyzer, chief TRAP instructor, Special Operations Training Group. "They're mortarmen by trade, but they better be great at TRAP operations now too. There is a lot we need to teach at this course so they can fill that role. There isn't a second wasted here."Classroom instruction coupled with rehearsals of specialized recovery tactics kept the platoon busy the first week.Videos of past TRAPs, such as the Marines' 1995 rescue of Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady after his plane was shot down over Bosnia, were shown and scrutinized. Well-executed techniques as well as mistakes by past forces were pointed out. Behaviors of past rescuees were also noted.Special gear is needed for some operations. The force may have to extract a pilot from his plane during a rescue. A Crash, Fire and Rescue Team displayed different tools and explained their uses to the class.When a TRAP force comes upon people they must be able to positively identify them and ensure they're not enemies impersonating rescuees. The rescuees also need a way to check if the rescuers are who they say they are.Everyone at risk of becoming stranded behind enemy lines completes a special card prior to deploying. The card has the individual?s photo, social security number, fingerprints and several statements unique to the individual.The card is kept on file and given to the TRAP force before the rescue. Every member of the force memorizes all the information before going in. Once found, the force asks the person specific questions that can only be answered by someone familiar with the card. The rescuee can in turn ask the force questions pertaining to information on the card.Before the force can identify the people they're rescuing, they must find them. Every rescuee is also an evader. He or she may be trying to keep from being captured or killed by enemy forces. At times, the rescuee may be too wrapped up in evading to think about getting rescued.A stirring lecture from an experienced man-tracker, a class held in the hills behind Camp Horno and practical application at night helped school the mortarmen up on locating evaders.Studying footprints to determine which direction someone is moving, whether he is carrying something, and if the individual is injured were just a few bits of information the Marines and Sailors were fed during these sessions. Instruction also covered concluding which trails were made by animals, made as a diversion by an evader and which actually showed where he went.Medical training was another focus of the course. It is likely a pilot who crashed will need treatment before he can be moved to an extract helicopter and seen by a flight surgeon.The platoon's corpsmen taught the Marines how to stick an intravenous needle into a Marine's arm, stabilize a head and neck, and splint limbs. With only two corpsmen, several Marines were called upon to provide first aid during exercises with multi-casualties."This course made me a much better corpsman," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Derrick Pritchard, a 27-year-old hospital corpsman from Downey, Calif. "We faced up to six casualties at one time - all of them with complicated injuries, and we had to get them out as fast as possible. We were working under some real pressure."The Marines did such a great job," he continued. "Doc Brown (Hospital Corpsman Nick Brown, a 21-year-old native of Huntington Beach and the other corpsman in the force) and I could never treat everyone in the little time we had. The Marines learned so much and really put it to use."Instructors came from the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to provide some survival training and realistic acting as rescuees during the exercises.Preparation for the first practical application started days before it actually did. The platoon was asked to completely refrain from eating and using tobacco products for two and a half days prior to their first exercise."We were feeling it when we hit the ground the night of the mission," explained Lance Cpl. D. L. Jackson, a 20-year-old mortarman from Grand Rapids, Mich. "If the hunger and craving for a cigarette wasn't enough, it was cold and we knew we were going to be moving quite a distance."Throughout the entire night, the platoon moved up and down hills through heavy brush. The instructors tested the force's mettle yelling in Russian and flashing spotlights through the woods all the while.The platoon stopped and took cover several times avoiding a compromise of their position. Constant switching from a drenching sweat of the grueling advance to freezing while lying under the same vegetation placed an additional strain on their psyche.About 10 long-hours later, the force completed the mission finding the rescuee."We intentionally set them up to the stay out there all night," Kyzer explained. "A real TRAP should never take anywhere near that long. They were hungry, cold, wet, tired and probably a little irritated. It was perfect. They need to understand an evader's mindset. Plus, it's a good opportunity for them to get some field survival training in. Going in behind enemy lines to rescue someone else puts them in danger of getting stuck there as well."Kyzer promised before the exercise there would be hot chow for the troops after the exhausting mission.As the sun crept over a dew-covered mountaintop, the Marines and Sailors were directed to gather around a kettle set on a hole dug in the ground. A SERE instructor leaned down behind a bush and pulled the hot chow out of its cage.Instruction followed covering how to slaughter, skin and prepare the rabbit. The value of every part of the animal was stressed."The eyes are Gatorade of nature," a SERE instructor told the class. "They are full of electrolytes and very valuable to someone living off the land."The fur can be used to patch clothing. The stomach can be used to hold water for cooking or drinking. Its urine can be used as bait and to cover human scent in future snares.How to properly boil the rabbit was shown. Screening the animal for disease was also covered. White spots on its liver can mean the animal is diseased and shouldn't be eaten, but it still can be beneficial in its other uses. "Rabbit stew wasn't exactly what I had in mind for breakfast, but it's pretty good after not eating for a few days," Lance Cpl. Jeffery Martin, a 19-year-old mortarman from Michigan City, Ind., admitted over a steaming canteen cup of broth. "The eyes aren't that bad either. They were a little hard to suck out, but they were just liquid once I got them."The next seven exercises were realistic scenarios the force may face during its upcoming six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf regions with the 15th MEU. Four were conducted in the daylight, and three were at night.Six of the exercises used actual air support. Coordinating the insertion, in a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter or two CH-46E Sea Knights, and close air support required close work with the MEU's Aviation Combat Element, Medium Marine Helicopter Squadron-163.More rescuees and stronger enemy forces were added each time. Injuries became more complicated. The TRAP force faced a different location on every exercise, and they had not trained in any of the sites before."Everything here gets progressively harder," Kyzer explained, "because if they don't make the mistakes here, they'll make them when it is for real.""We learned an amazing amount in the two weeks," said Cpl. Joseph E. Laney, a 23-year-old team leader from Knoxville, Tenn. "We learned a lot about moving as a unit, how the enemy thinks, and, most importantly, we were able to see the big picture. We saw every aspect of it from the planning down to the extract. We'd get the orders and 45 minutes later we'd be on a helo flying off to save lives."For more news, photos and information on the 15th MEU, visit http://www.usmc.mil/15meu.
15th Marine Expeditionary Unit