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Through their Marines’ eyes

Training routine, war experience explained to leathernecks’ parents

By Karen Jowers - Staff writer
Posted : May 05, 2008

Col. Bryan McCoy warned the Marine Corps parents that he would be blunt before he began describing what Marines face in combat, and how leaders prepare them for the death they will see.

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He told them how the Corps prepares them to pull the trigger — mentally and physically.

The parents’ eyes locked onto him as he described the fighting of the grueling push his Marines made through Iraq in spring 2003. At the MarineParents.com conference April 19 in Arlington, Va., the former commanding officer of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines showed the parents pictures of the fighting, of dead Iraqis, of Marine faces sagging with fatigue, of Marines taking care of their wounded, of Marines mourning their fallen comrades.

Marine mom Julie Jetton found McCoy’s presentation difficult to see and hear, even as she expressed appreciation for his candor.

“I would follow that man anywhere ... I would sign up myself if it were possible,” she said. “It gave me a chance to see it through my son’s eyes. … The training is extraordinary. It was very comforting and reassuring.”

McCoy gave the facts bluntly, yet with compassion, showing the bond he felt with his Marines, Jetton said. “You could see the pain etched on his face” as he talked about his Marines who had been killed or wounded.

“But I felt much better after his talk, because I know my son has had the best training and leadership humanly possible.

“I know my son has found something worth dying and living for — our country.”

Until she came to the three-day conference, Jetton had never met another Marine Corps parent, although she has met a number of Marine veterans. About 180 people were at the event.

“I never once heard the word ‘politics’ mentioned during the weekend,” she said. “No one said, ‘Why me?’”

McCoy told the parents and other family members how the Corps trains Marines mentally, emotionally and physically “to go into the cauldron of stressors.”

He described how Marines are trained to react instantly in the haze of battle when their leader barks a cryptic command. He described combat marksmanship, training, casualty evacuation, combat conditioning, and how leaders train Marines to deal with both internal and external stressors on the battlefield.

“The shock of seeing a mutilated human corpse the first time, if you’re not prepared for it, can be debilitating,” McCoy said.

Killing goes against everything society teaches, McCoy said.

The bullet “pierces flesh, bursts internal organs, smashes bone, and you take a life ... in that second, you took everything from a person they were going to have. You think back to the number of times his mother changed his diapers, fed him … learning to walk, going to school, falling in love, perhaps he had a family. It’s all gone — like that. Killing is the ultimate taboo in our society. We are naturally conditioned to not pull the trigger,” he said.

The time for debate on whether killing is moral or justified is not during combat, he said.

“There can’t be too much cotton between finger and trigger. That breeds timidity and uncertainty and equals casualties and mission failure, and it’s going to get Marines killed. By the same token, we don’t kill what doesn’t need killing. … The crux of what we do … is preparing people to do this and to come out the other side whole.”

He said he told his battalion before battle that the deaths are his responsibility.

“We kill as a unit, we kill as a team, as a pack. We don’t kill as individuals. Those deaths belong to me. I’ll answer to my maker, come that day,” McCoy said. “As a 40-something colonel, I’d better have more emotional shock absorbers in my system than the private first class.”

Jetton’s son is new to the Corps and has not deployed. She has been reading and learning all she can about the service, but was still happy to find a group that provides information and support to parents.

Parents are thirsty for information and for connections with others in their situation, said Tracy Della Vecchia, director of MarineParents.com, Inc.

It started in January 2003, when she was trying to meet other parents of Marines in her son’s battalion, she said.

“My son called me Jan. 1, 2003, and said he was going to Kuwait, and I started scrambling to find out what I could. I knew other parents were scrambling, too, so I just put three pages of information online,” she said.

Della Vecchia said it was important for McCoy to describe what war is like for Marines, and how they are prepared for it.

“When my son was 18 and he went off to war, I thought, ‘He doesn’t know how to turn on the vacuum cleaner, much less sling an M16,’” she said. “I said, ‘Who are these Marines to think my son was ready for war?’”

Marine mother Darlene Kent of Winchester, Va., said McCoy’s presentation made tears stream down her face. She still finds it hard to envision her son in that environment, she said, adding that he’s in Fallujah now.

Kent and her husband Richard had just found out about the group and its event that day, April 19, and plan to spread the word about it.

“This is about supporting the troops,” said Richard Kent, a former National Guard soldier who served in Vietnam.

When their son first deployed, he said, “I remember the anguish [his wife] went through. I told her to drive through it, to gut it up.

“But other mothers here today have told her, ‘You experienced what you should have.’”