Our day at The Basic School began with an opportunity to observe a recent Marine Corps innovation - The Combat Fitness Test (CFT). Situated just behind the CFT course, a platoon of Marines was training in preparation for the upcoming July 4th celebrations. A ceremonial function of their job as an artillery unit is to fire the unit's vintage howitzers as part of the performance of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Our group got to hear the Overture and watch the loading and firing of the guns as an overture to our day-long tour of The Basic School - know as "TBS" in a culture where everything has been given an acronym.
TBS is a six month long course of basic instruction for the women and men who have been commissioned as Marine 2nd lieutenants. The course prepares these new lieutenants to be able to lead a platoon of Marines in combat in partnership with the unit's NCO's. We were given a thorough briefing about the outline of the six month course of study, the objectives and methods used in preparing these young leaders for the challenges of efficiently and effectively managing a platoon of Marines. At the end of the day, the concept that stuck with me and made the greatest impression on me was the CFT. Let me explain why I am so impressed.
The USMC is rich in tradition, and firmly anchored in "The Marine way" of doing many things. The traditional Marine Physical Fitness Test has been part of USMC tradition for many decades - push-ups, pull-ups and a 3-mile run. In recent years, Marines returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan reported in their After Action Reports and in informal sharing sessions that these measurements of fitness were not properly preparing Marines for the kinds of physical demands placed on them in urban combat and counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism fighting. The Corps listened, and added the new CFT.
The CFT consists of three events: an 880 yard run, ammo can lifts, and maneuver under fire:
880 Yard Run. Marines will run for 880 yards while wearing boots and camouflage uniform (pants and t-shirt).
Ammo Can Lifts. Marines will lift a 30 pound ammo can from the ground, over their heads as many times as they can in two minutes.
Maneuver Under Fire. Marines must move through a 300 yard course, and perform designated tasks, in the time limit authorized. The tasks include:
- Moving in a quick scurry for 10 yards, then a high craw for another 15 yards.
- Drag a casualty for 10 yards, while zigzagging through several cones. Then lift the casualty and carry him/her at a run for 65 yards.
- Carry two 30-pound ammo cans for 75 yards, while zigzagging through a series of cones.
- Toss a dummy grenade 22 1/2 yards and land it in a marked target circle.
- Perform three push-ups, pick up the two 30-pound cans and sprint to the finish line.
In much the same manner, the Corps has learned over the years that Marines are more feared by enemy combatants when the enemy is aware that each Marine has mastered martial arts. So, a new integrated approach to martial arts has been introduced - "marital arts by Marines for Marines" - that teaches Marines how to perform complex hand-to-hand combat moves in full gear and "battle rattle." We watched an impressive performance of unarmed Marines able to overpower an enemy with a rifle and bayonet and an enemy with a pistol held to his chest, back and head. The passion of the senior instructor was inspiring and infectious. And, once again, the agility of the USMC in their willingness to implement new tactics to respond to changing battlefield conditions was impressive to me.
Another highlight of our day at TBS was a visit to the firing range where the lieutenants are rated on their pistol and rifle marksmanship. Each member of our group was given an opportunity to fire a Baretta M-9 pistol and an M-16A4 at silhouette targets. The pungent ambient smell of gun powder reminded me of the classic line from the film "Apocalypse Now" spoken by Robert Duvall's character: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning."
After leaving the fire range and digesting all that we had experienced at TBS, my overall assessment is that the USMC is right on target and hitting a bulls eye in the way in which they are preparing America's sons and daughters to lead USMC platoons in combat.