USMC Overland Experience

The United States Marine Corps, with its fiercely proud tradition of excellence in combat, its hallowed rituals, and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth.

Thomas E. Ricks

The Beginning

On the forty-fifth anniversary of D-Day I stormed a functionally-different type of beach into this universe. Regardless of the not-so-subtle overshadowing of my birth date I never knew I wanted to enter military service. However, this changed 18 years into my life while I was visiting the beaches of Normandy with my grandfather in the summer before my freshman year of college. My grandfather, who dedicated 30 years to a career in the United States Navy, was shocked as we departed the historical site when I asked him what ROTC was all about. He told me that it was a bit too late to attend his alma mater, Marquette University, which was one of two colleges in Wisconsin that had Naval ROTC. Thus I had to complete my first year at a small liberal arts school where I had been accepted and try out the Army ROTC program to see if the military life suited me.

D-Day, June 6, 1944

Within my first year of college I was a declared physics major with a 3.9 GPA and kicking butt in the ROTC program at Ripon College. However, I knew I wanted to be a Marine and began the process to transfer to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the start of my sophomore year of college I was enrolled at Marquette and a walk-on at the Naval ROTC program (no scholarship). After my first semester I had made a name for myself and was nominated for a two and a half year scholarship to finish school within the 4 year trajectory. As a declared physics major having transferred from a small liberal arts college I had a lot of catching up to do. I took over 18 credit hours each semester in order to graduate on time. All the while completing the required training in the NROTC program in order to gain a commission in the United States Marine Corps upon graduation.

LAV-25, 29 Palms, CA

Fast forward years of Marine Corps warfare, reconnaissance, and survival training and I was leading Marines across continents, living out of our 8-wheeled Light Armored Vehicles (LAV), part of the Marine Corps armored cavalry known as Light Armored Reconnaissance. In basic training we are taught how to hone and personally develop our field craft that maximizes our lethality. Things such as silencing your gear so while patrolling in enemy territory nothing is jingling, rubbing, or otherwise giving up your location. This field craft had new meaning when operating out of a 20 ton armored diesel 8-wheeled behemoth. Nevertheless, the tactics and field craft principals are similar for living out of an LAV. The training schools required to enter the Marine Corps’ armored cavalry units teach proper techniques of winching, off-road driving, tire repair, etc. all of which have many hours of practical application that are further reinforced during real-world operations.

“Rains down in Africa” – Djibouti, Africa

Light Armored Reconnaissance, formerly known as Light Armored Infantry, is the Marine Corps’ tip of the spear. Below is the mission of an LAR battalion per the Marine Corps Warfare Publication (MCWP) 3-14:

“The LAR [Light Armored Reconnaissance] battalion performs combined arms reconnaissance and security missions in support of the GCE [Ground Combat Element]. Its mission is to conduct reconnaissance, security and economy of force operations, and, within its capabilities, limited offensive or defensive operations that exploit the unit’s mobility and firepower.” (Marine Corps Warfighting Publication MCWP 3-14, page 1-1)

LAR is not mechanized infantry. MCWP 3-14 states (page 2-1): “The LAR scouts are not employed the same way as infantry or mechanized infantry.” Again, MCWP 3-14 goes on to emphasize this distinction (page 2-4): “Operations requiring large numbers of infantry favor employing mechanized infantry units due to their higher troop density.” In addition to the requisite lack of “troop density” for traditional infantry tasks, the LAR is not equipped with either an armored personnel carrier or an infantry fighting vehicle, which a designation as either armored or mechanized infantry would require. MCWP 3-14 makes this clear (page 2-4): “The LAV should not be viewed as an infantry fighting vehicle or as an armored personnel carrier. This vehicle is an armored reconnaissance vehicle that lacks sufficient armor protection and troop density to perform missions normally assigned to a mechanized infantry unit.”

Company Commander’s Brief, Camp Pendleton, CA

It follows with the LAR battalion mission that you must learn to live out of these amazingly capable vehicles for months on end. During harsh conditions you have to get creative to stay alive and functional. I’ve seen Marines create sunshade canopies above their LAV-25 torrents to block the harsh Saudi Arabian desert sun. I’ve seen a whole squad of Marines crammed in the back of an LAV-AT (Anti-Tank) variant during inclement weather to stay warm. During operations sleep is still a necessity and living out of these vehicles I’ve seen every possible sleeping arrangement inside, on top, and around the vehicles. My preferred: an Eno hammock anchored from the vehicle to another point. Light-weight, collapses to the size of a grapefruit, and adjustable mounting straps make it easy to set-up in low-visibility conditions and quick to collapse and stuff into your rucksack.

Gulf of Tadjoura

When leading an LAR platoon or company the use of maps and mobile land navigation is crucial. While operating as the point vehicle that an entire unit is following a wrong turn can be deadly, besides the During our training to become cavalry officers we heard many times that our dismounted infantry brethren need to operate with only one map at a time. Conversely as a mobile unit we needed to operate with many maps as we can cover hundreds of miles a day. In the age of technology we also utilized electronic maps that could be preloaded with an entire continent worth of maps.

The purpose of detailing some of my Marine Corps career is to highlight some of the aspects of the job that directly correlate to the success of my overlanding passion. Trip planning, off-road tire repair, and surviving out of a vehicle are second nature for me. So much so that upon getting out of the Marine Corps I ended up deciding to live out of my 2005 Jeep Wrangler with my 90 pound pitbull for over 9 months of nomad life. I am very fortunate to have been trained professionally in a hobby that I will continue until I am unable to turn a steering wheel.

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