September 26, 2023

Marines on Patrol > New England Reserves tested in Maine wilderness

GREENVILLE — When a swarm of neon snowmobiles buzzed around a corner at Squaw Mountain Saturday morning, a waiting platoon of camouflage-wearing, gun-toting Marines stepped back to let them pass.

The drivers slowed their sleek machines, and some waved as their helmets flashed by in the sun. The moment was a meeting of two cultures: the world of weekend leisure and individual pleasure, and the world of duty and preparation to serve the common good.

Gathered for cold-weather training exercises near Greenville this weekend, 100 members of the Marine Corps Reserves lived up to their billing as the few and the proud. They were tough and determined, as anyone would have to be to carry a 50-pound pack on snowshoes, uphill, with the temperature below zero.

On close study, however, Marines also turned out to be regular, nice guys — even nice kids on many occasions. They don’t like the cold. They’re not crazy about the boxed, ready-to-eat military meals. At times, they’d rather be home.

They may be known around the world as the hardest of the hard core, but under their government-issue white rubber snow boots, Marine Reserves are just like regular people.

“We’re just citizens, American citizens, making a contribution one weekend a month,” said Maj. Ron Martin, inspector-instructor at the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Topsham. “I think we’re a lot more intelligent and well-read than most people think.”

One hundred participants in Saturday’s overnight exercise included two Harvard law students and one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Saturn car dealership manager, state police officers and several business owners.

Members of the Alpha Company came from all over Maine; other companies in New England’s 1st Battalion, 25th Marines traveled from New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

When they arrived on the mountain at 6:30 a.m., the tiny thermometers hooked to their coat zippers read minus 10. By the time they shouldered their sleeping bags and pads, tents, cookstoves, snowshoes and weapons and hiked into the woods two hours later, the temperature had climbed 20 degrees.

The group had never trained at Squaw before this weekend. The unfamiliar locale would test Marines’ navigational skills — on a night with no moon, leaders said.

Split into four groups and sent out to different camps, their overnight assignment was complex: locate the other platoons, move in close enough to read their posted codes without being detected, using binoculars or night vision headsets, then transmit the information by radio to the command post.

Each platoon distinguished itself by wearing different combinations of white “snow camouflage” and the standard green variety. Teams tried to confuse one another by tracking decoy, dead-end trails from the main path off into the snowy woods.

With experience, Martin said, Marines are able to focus most of their energy and attention on military maneuvers, whatever the environment. By contrast, a novice might use as much as 80 percent of his energy just for winter-weather endurance, he said.

In past experience including an annual two-week exercise at Fort Drum, N.Y., completed last month, Maine Marines have learned the tricks of cold weather survival. Some make perfect sense, such as carrying water bottles close to the body to keep the contents from freezing.

The logic of other survival strategies is less obvious. During a 2-mile march, the men stopped often to strip off layers of olive-green fleece and wool clothing, aiming to remain “comfortably cool” rather than toasty warm.

In these conditions, Martin explained, sweat is the enemy, threatening to soak through clothing and bring on hypothermia.

Every trainee has what is known as an “arctic buddy,” a partner who makes sure he drinks enough water and changes sweat-soaked clothing. Buddies know each other well enough “to be sensitive to changes in behavior” that could indicate hypothermia.

Because they grow up hunting, fishing and skiing in severe weather, Maine Marines are some of the country’s finest forces for snowy, cold conditions, Sgt. Maj. Jim Sauer said. Some of the Topsham-based Alpha Company will receive security training in another extreme climate, that of Panama, this summer.

He said Marine Corps Reserves have been called on more and more in recent years, with an increasing number of active missions all over the world.

And while training no doubt helps, Sauer maintains that the Marine Corps calling is in the blood.

“Marines are born, not made,” he said. “It’s not for everyone.”

Jamie Cushman, 21, of Belfast knew he wanted to be a Marine before his senior year in high school.

“It’s good training, and it helps out in civilian life,” said the University of Maine sophomore. “You can’t be lazy out here.”

Jonathan Young of Kittery sought self-confidence in the Marines, and the four years since have taught him about teamwork and following orders, “not always doing what you want to do,” he said. The 22-year-old also believes the Marines will always look good on his resume.

When Jim LaPointe describes his weekend activities to friends and family in Sebago, they wonder “why you would want to sleep in the snow,” he said. “No one understands,” he reflected. “It’s the brotherhood.”

Brotherhood, and maybe the moments of fierce, frigid beauty, as when a line of Marines on snowshoes freeze on a sunny path, surrounded by silent white swells of terrain and a brittle twig’s occasional sharp crack.

Or the view of Mount Katahdin at the Marines’ back as they marched, enjoyed with a cigar during a pause, by a man at the rear of the pack.

The term Maj. Martin often uses for his men is “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

“They’d rather do something like this than sit in a classroom and talk about cold weather,” he said.

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