Reserve Marines crucial to mission in Iraq

7 Oct 2004 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin 1st Marine Logistics Group

Melissa A. Wolf just started her first semester as a Southern Illinois University freshman when it happened.

She was called to duty.

Wolf, a corporal in the Marine Corps Reserves, is among nearly 1,000 Reserve Marines serving alongside 4,000 active duty Marines and sailors with the Camp Pendleton, Calif.,-based 1st Force Service Support Group in Iraq. 

"I miss my family, the life back home," said the Spring Valley, Ill., native.

Since she arrived here in August, Wolf, like most Marines here, works seven days a week, often times outside in 100 degree plus temperatures. These are normal conditions here, not to mention she's in a combat zone.

But Wolf wasn't ordered to come to Iraq - she volunteered.

The 20-year-old was originally activated to fill a supporting position for her reserve unit, Marine Air Control Group 48, in Great Lakes, Ill. She volunteered because she "would have come out here eventually," referring to future scheduled troop rotations here. 

"When I found out there was a chance to go, I said, 'I'll do it,'" said Wolf, who works in customer service with a supply company back home in Illinois.

Within the past few months, thousands of Marines and Sailors have been replaced during a rotation of forces in Iraq. Of the 31,000 Marines, sailors, and other personnel who make up the I Marine Expeditionary Force, more than 5,000 are Reserve Marines - many who served during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom last year. 

The I MEF is the parent command for all Marine forces operating in Iraq.

The number of Reserve Marines serving with the 1st FSSG, which provides logistical support for all Marine forces in Iraq, has increased by more than 800 since March, when the Marine Corps took control of military operations in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq. 

About 31-percent of all Marine Corps Reserve forces have been activated since the beginning of the Global War on Terrorism in 2001, according to a recent report from the Marine Forces Reserve command in New Orleans, La. Currently, Reserve Marines account for about 23 percent of the 1st FSSG's total forces in Iraq, according to 1st FSSG officials.

Many Reserve Marines have been activated to relieve active duty forces to fill mission-critical jobs in Iraq, such as truck drivers and military policemen, especially within the service support element of Marine forces, according to Col. James P. Sheahan, 1st FSSG's operations officer.

"We tapped out all the regular Marine Corps assets, therefore we have to turn to our Reserve Marines," said Sheahan, a reservist from St. Louis, Mo. "We simply could not accomplish our mission here without them."

Often referred to as "America's 911 force," Marines, both active duty and reserves, must be ready to deploy at a moment's notice. Reserve Marines must be ready to deploy within five to 10 days of activation. To stay prepared, they must maintain a high level of proficiency with their military occupational specialty - their job in the military.

While active duty forces train daily in their career fields, Reserve Marines have one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer to maintain the same level of proficiency.  Some have to hone their military skills on their own time, which takes away from other responsibilities, such as work, school, and family.

"It takes a whole lot of will power," said Cpl. Sean A. Brooks, a tow-truck operator with 6th Motor Transport Battalion here and Little Rock, Ark., native. 

When he's not deployed, Brooks, 23, volunteers for week-long stints on active duty to keep his military skills top notch.

"You have to know your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty)," he said. "There's no way around it."

Reserve Marines with the 1st FSSG fill a wide array of jobs to ensure Marines throughout Iraq have everything from food and medicine to mail and ammunition. They repair and replace military gear and vehicles alongside their active duty peers. Braving dangerous roads filled with improvised explosive devices, or "road-side bombs," they ensure supplies arrive at their destination. They even ensure electronic communication here is kept in working order.

Even the somber task of ensuring the remains of fallen troops arrive home falls on the shoulders of Reserve Marines at two Mortuary Affairs detachments - one in Al Asad and one here.

During the rotation of Marine forces in Iraq last month, the active-duty Marines at Mortuary Affairs were replaced by nearly all Reserve Marines.

"If it wasn't for us (Reserve Marines), a lot wouldn't happen," said Chief Warrant Officer Anthony L. High, officer in charge of Mortuary Affairs and 34-year-old Camilla, Ga., native. 

While Wolf voluntarily postponed the first year of her college education to serve here, she is not alone. Many Reserve Marines in Iraq are here for a second time by choice. 

Brooks, who works as a forklift operator back home, spent six months with 1st FSSG last year during the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He volunteered to return to assist the junior, less experienced Marines within his unit.

"We've got a bunch of new guys out here, and I wanted to show them a few techniques to make sure they know how to do the job," he said.

The 23-year-old Brooks, who used to hide from the Marine recruiter in high school, could have sat this second round in Iraq out, but he didn't.

A first person account of the living conditions of certain Iraqi villages has given Brooks a new appreciation for what is waiting for him back home - his family, his job and an education.

"I appreciate everything in life a whole lot more," he said.

Reserve Marines with the 1st FSSG have also lent a helping hand in the form of humanitarian assistance to local Iraqi communities.

During a nearly eight month tour of duty in Iraq, the Marines of 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, a reserve unit based in St. Louis, Mo., spent their off time providing critical aid to local Iraqi villages. They provided school supplies, food, water, electricity and medical services.

They even worked to renovate a fishing village's grade school.

"The interaction with the kids out here was the most important (for the Marines)," said Lt. Col. Roderick T. Arrington, commanding officer for 3/24. "The Marines understand that the children are the future of Iraq."

After seven months of providing security for Marine bases throughout the Al Anbar Province, 3/24 is outbound. The Marines will return to their homes and civilian lives in Illinois, Missouri, and other mid-western states.

But if called again, they'll be ready to serve, said Arrington.

"Our Reserve Marines, regardless of their reasons for returning to active duty, are committed to the reserves and the Marine Corps," said Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert A. Valenzuela, 1st FSSG's operations chief and 22-year veteran of the Marine Corps Reserve. "We're Marines first, and civilians second."

Valenzuela, a 54-year-old Las Vegas native, joined the reserves after an 11-year absence from active duty. Joining the Marine Corps Reserve offered him the opportunity to continue to serve his country, and step up to the plate when duty called, he said. 

When it comes to answering that call of duty, Reserve Marines are no different than their active duty counterparts, he said.

Col. Tracy L. Mork, 1st FSSG's chief of staff and 23-year Marine Corps Reserves veteran, agrees.

"For their part, the active component has had high expectations of the reserve community. I think those expectations have been met or exceeded," said the Port Townsend, Wash., native. 

A visit last month by Lt. Gen. Dennis M. McCarthy and Sgt. Maj. Robin W. Dixon, commander and sergeant major, Marine Forces Reserve, respectively, confirmed the performance of Reserve Marines as top notch.  Both men met with Reserve Marines serving in Iraq to thank them for answering the call to service when their country needed them.

"He (McCarthy) was very interested on how we live out here and what we had to say," said Wolf, who, with other Reserve Marines, had lunch with McCarthy and Dixon.  "He said our unit is doing a great job."

No matter what their individual reasons may be, Reserve Marines from across the United States have left their daily lives behind to serve in a combat zone. Some Reserve Marines, like Wolf, have an education to begin. Others have careers put on hold. Most have families waiting for their safe return.

But until told otherwise, these Marines and hundreds more will continue to make sacrifices to fulfill their military obligations during the Global War on Terrorism.

After all, they're Marines.

"The motivation behind every Reserve Marine I think is pride and knowing that the Marine Corps can call on them, and they respond," said Valenzuela.
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