09 February 2010
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Team Spirit 89
I had spent the first half of my life knowing of death without fully understanding it.
In junior high and high school, some of my friends had died. When I was four, my mother died.
Then my grandmother took over, but she died five years later, requiring my aunt to raise me through the remainder of my school years. However, through all this, the reality of death never really hit me. I actually did not think about it much at all. Until the training accident, I was involved in when I was twenty-one years old.
At this point, I had been in the Marine Corps about sixteen months. I was still new and full of fire to take on the world. This was my first overseas major joint training operation: Team
Spirit 89. This is an annual “War Game” in the Republic of South Korea with the United States and South Korean forces. I was in the 3rd Light Armored Vehicle Battalion (3rd LAV BN.) Our
LAV's were fast, eight-wheel-drive vehicles with a variety of weapons systems available. We were using the twenty-five variant systems with twenty-five millimeter cannon in the turret with, usually four Marines in the back for dismounted fighting, almost like the Calvary of the Old
The opposing force consisted of infantry, two M1-A1 Abrams tanks, and re-enforcements available by helicopter. On this particular day, our team was sitting high above a road junction, which was in the shape of a Y, with a dry riverbed running down the length of one arm of the Y.
The “enemy” infantry was in their positions in the crotch of the Y, sitting almost hidden in the riverbed. On the other side of the highway were the two Abrams tanks of the enemy team.
The enemy’s duty was to keep and hold this vital pass through the mountains, while ours was to take it from them. This is a vital training exercise, as whoever holds and controls the passes in mountainous terrain has a distinct advantage in warfare. Therefore, in this game, we needed to control the “crotch.”
We started by sending a covert raid on the enemy armor. Once these tanks were neutralized by our sneak attack, the remaining infantry in their foxholes on the hill were aware something was going on in their area. Before we had realized it, they had called for reinforcements to help defend against the impending attack.
Just as we mounted up to move out, one of our Marines, Lance Corporal Oliveira “Oli” called out, “There are choppers coming!”
We had been hoping for a surprise attack, and an easy one. The element of surprise was already gone due to the loss of the tanks earlier. The helos meant now the easy part was gone, too. Their approach signaled reinforcements. If these additional troops had enough time to disembark and organize, the odds would shift more to their favor. To maintain any advantage gained from eliminating the tanks, we knew we had to drive like Speed Racer down the mountain. In addition, we had to get to the “crotch” before those helos could land the new grunts and let them get set in good defensive positions.
Oli took one last look as we were mounting up, and shouted, “Hey, they are making this cool. Look! They just dropped napalm and it's all on fire down there!”
We were in a big hurry to push in on the attack so, doing our best Speed
imitations, we ignored Oli and took off down the mountain. We did not even look to see what it was talking about.
Then about halfway down the mountainside, word came “down” that the mission had changed from an attack to a rescue. The “napalm” Oli had seen had been the fireball resulting from the ruptured external fuel tanks of the chopper exploding as it crashed. When we got closer to the site where the CH-53, the Marine Corps biggest, and heaviest helicopter, went down and exploded, we first saw a lot of smoke and flames. Then the fuselage came into view.
Apparently, the pilot had been trying to come in too fast in order to drop the reinforcements before we could get