CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- From future troop rotations to new weaponry, Marines got their chance to ask any and every question to the Commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps during their recent visit to Iraq.
In a series of town hall meetings at Marine bases throughout Iraq, General Michael W. Hagee and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps John L. Estrada, candidly addressed many issues affecting Marines.
During a visit here July 19, 2004, the 33rd Commandant of the Marine Corps told Marines and sailors that the Camp Lejeune, N.C.,-based II Marine Expeditionary Force will relieve the I MEF, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., next spring. Hagee readdressed these concerns after junior troops tossed up new questions about this rotation.
Though the other subordinate headquarters, such as the 2nd Marine Division and the 2nd Force Service Support Group will also come from the East Coast, many Marine units will be globally sourced to augment a force that is currently proposed at 20,000.
Several II MEF units are currently augmenting I MEF in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Within the 1st FSSG, which provides all logistical support to Marine forces in Iraq, II MEF Marines have filled critical roles here, such as military policemen to provide security for bases and convoys, communication operations and military vehicle operators.
As I MEF Marines in Iraq approach the end of their seven-month deployment next year, many wondered if they can expect a return to Iraq at the conclusion of II MEF's tour.
"We may not need such a large headquarters element by that time, and that's why we have not addressed that," said Gen. Hagee.
The recent extensions of Army and Marine units, including the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, also drew concern from the Marines.
"I am committed to seven-month rotations for battalions and below, and for group or regiment command elements, a year, or just over a year. The Secretary of Defense has supported the Marine Corps on that," said Gen. Hagee.
The ultimate goal is to restore full responsibility back to the Iraqis.
"If we don't properly equip and train the Iraqis, we will be here for a long, long time," said Hagee. "It's not what we want, it's not what they want. They want their own country, and (training them) is the fastest way of getting out of here."
Rules of engagement
In an environment where the enemy uses white surrender flags to lure coalition forces into an ambush, Marines asked if the current rules of engagement would shift with the changing battlefield.
The rules of engagement depend on the environment and operational commander, said Gen. Hagee.
As a platoon commander during the Vietnam War, Gen. Hagee said that U.S. forces didn't always abide by rules of engagement. He praised today's Marines and their adherence to the rules of engagement, especially in an uncertain, dangerous atmosphere.
"I'm extremely proud of the discipline you all have shown," said Gen. Hagee. "When you need to kill someone, you kill him, but there's not any indiscriminate killing going on. That is not always easy, especially here in this environment."
Afghanistan/Iraq campaign medals
With the recent approval and guidance of the Global War on Terror Expeditionary and Service Medals, Marines wondered if Congress had plans for separate Iraqi/Afghanistan campaign medals.
"My personal opinion? I think we ought to have it," said Gen. Hagee.
The Office of Secretary of Defense has set forth guidance on medals for Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. Although no official timetable has been set for the Congress-approved medals, "You should see the new medals in May or June," said Estrada.
Weapons of the future
With recent testing of new infantry weapons by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Marines wondered if they will upgrade from their current M-16A2 or A4 service rifles.
As reported in several military publications, warfighting experts are currently testing the XM8 lightweight assault rifle, a 5.56 mm, 6-pound weapon designed to decrease the combat load and increase mobility on the battlefield.
Although he didn't rule out future use of the XM8, the M-16A4 with the mounted advanced combat optical gunsite, commonly called "ACOG," will be the issued weapon for most forward-deployed Marines. Marines engaged in close-quarter combat will operate with the M4 rifle, said Gen. Hagee.
"Is it perfect? No," said Hagee when asked his opinion about the reporters being allowed on the battlefield.
The commandant acknowledged that although the recent embedding of civilian reporters within combat units is not foolproof, it has allowed the public and the media to develop a greater appreciation and understanding of the armed forces.
"The knowledge base within the American (public) about military was not very deep. They have a much better understanding of what you do than they did before because of the embedded reporters," said Gen. Hagee.
"They (media) get to know you, and you get to know them. You get to understand one another better."
The commandant also wanted the Marines to distinguish between the reports from embedded reporters and those who are far from the frontlines.
"Most of the articles that appear in the paper that are inaccurate are often from reporters that are not here (with the Marines), or those who have certain political viewpoints," he said.
Retention and career progress
Combat leaders have gotten younger, and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps wants to keep them.
"I have yet to see a bunch of people beat down doors at recruiting offices to do what you are doing here," said Estrada. "We need you to take the Corps into the 21st century."
For fiscal year 2004, retention specialists met 100.8 percent of their goal for first-term Marines, and 137.3 percent of subsequent-term Marines. The Corps is currently ahead of schedule for the current fiscal year, as 65 percent of its retention goals have been met for first-term Marines, and 30 percent for subsequent-term Marines.
Estrada encouraged special duty billets, including drill instructor, recruiting and Marine embassy guard duty, noting that "the war is going to come to an end sooner or later."
"There are great duties out there for all Marines, including recruiting and the drill field. Without recruiters, there would be no Marine Corps, and without drill instructors, there wouldn't be anybody to make Marines," said Estrada.
The commandant also briefed the crowd on the "MOS Road Map," a new concept developed by the Marine Corps Training and Education Command to develop career progression and encourage off-duty education.
"It's a good plan, especially for junior Marines who need direction when it comes to civilian education," said Shreveport, La., native Staff Sgt. Carlos Underwood, 31, utilities chief for Combat Service Support Group 15.
Junior Marines hoped that progress in the Marine Corps' Martial Arts Program would help their promotion scores, but Gen. Hagee said that until the opportunity to increase MCMAP proficiency is equally afforded to every Marine, MCMAP certification will not lead to extra promotion points.
Even uniform issues were addressed in a humorous way when a Marine in the crowd noticed something different in the sergeant major's uniform.
"Sergeant major, is that a coyote brown shirt you were wearing?" referring to the brown undershirt that the sergeant major was wearing that differed from the Marines' issue olive green.
The 15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps explained that carrying the top enlisted rank has its benefits.
"As a sergeant major, you get to test out all of these new things," joked Estrada, as Marines laughed at his remark.
General Hagee awarded the Marine's question with his personalized coin, an old military tradition, saying that it was the best question he's heard all day.
Overall, Marines were pleased with the answers and opportunity to interact with their top leaders.
"I thought he was open and honest with his answers," said Melbourne, Fla., native Cpl. Dayana Acosta, 23, Headquarters Company noncommissioned officer in charge, Headquarters and Service Battalion, 1st FSSG.
The meeting at Camp Taqaddum was one of several stops to visit Marines throughout the Al Anbar province, where I MEF Marines continue to conduct security and stability operations.