YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Learning to lead with lives on the line

In a small-unit fight like Iraq, the squad leader is key. A course at Camp Pendleton prepares young Marines for war.

December 23, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — Sgt. Mitchell Janicki, his face grimy with dirt and sweat, is explaining the rigors of the 45-day course meant to determine if an enlisted Marine has the makings of a squad leader.

Janicki, 22, of Grand Rapids, Mich., is determined to return to Iraq as the leader of an infantry squad of 12 enlisted Marines. On this day, students are being put through realistic scenarios in the parched hills of the sprawling base.

"They run us ragged, but it's good," Janicki said.

Although generals and colonels can issue what are called "commander's intent" orders to their troops, the duty to carry out those orders and fit them into the reality of the cities and villages of Iraq falls to the junior enlisted ranks.

"Iraq is a small-unit leadership environment," said Lt. Col. Christopher Gideons, commander of the advanced infantry training battalion at the School of Infantry. "We're pushing greater and greater responsibility on younger Marines."

More than a quarter of the students will flunk out, some despite having had combat experience in Iraq.

The goal of the squad leader course is to teach leadership skills, including the ability to make decisions quickly and firmly in the throes of exhaustion.

A Marine dictum holds that when things go well, the squad leader deserves credit and when they go badly, he most assuredly will get the blame.

Indeed, in the three major cases of Marines from Camp Pendleton accused of killing Iraqis without provocation, the major defendant is the squad leader.

Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich awaits a general's decision on whether he will be ordered to court martial for allegedly killing civilians in Haditha in 2005.

Former Sgt. Jose Luis Nazario is facing trial in federal court in Riverside for allegedly killing prisoners in Fallouja in 2004.

And Sgt. Lawrence Hutchins was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted by a Marine jury of killing an unarmed Iraqi in Hamandiya in 2006.

Each is accused of acting improperly and issuing improper orders to his squad members.

No one will phrase it as such, but clearly one aim of the squad leader course is to reduce the chances of another Haditha, Fallouja or Hamandiya.

In field exercises, each student gets an opportunity to play squad leader, with his decisions and his leadership skills assessed by officers and senior enlisted personnel.

The scenarios can provide a surprising level of similarity to real life. In one, a squad leader had to make a quick decision: Marines elsewhere on the faux battlefield were calling for help, but he and his Marines were holding prisoners.

The squad leader decided to "eliminate" the prisoners so he could rush to the aid of other Marines -- a decision that mirrors the charge against Nazario. The squad leader trainee was emphatically told that was not the proper way to handle the situation.

In another field exercise, the would-be squad leader was told to instruct his Marines on how to swoop down a hill toward a building where the occupants were thought to be firing at Marines.

The student's voice was strong and his orders were direct. He would lead from the front.

Still, the instructor was not pleased.

"You do not use general terms out there because everybody has their own interpretation," said Gunnery Sgt. Bernardino Moreno. "Be specific; alleviate confusion."

A comparison could be made with the Haditha incident, in which an order was given to "clear those buildings," without defining what that meant. In the gunfire that followed, women and children were killed -- deaths for which Wuterich may be held accountable.

Much of the course is fieldwork, but there are lectures as well, on tactics, use of weapons and leadership.

The final lecture is given by Gideons, who received a Bronze Star for valor in Iraq. The lecture includes what he calls his rules for being a successful leader, among them:

* "It all starts with you; you're the . . . squad leader. You're going to set the tone, day in, day out."

* "If you're concerned about whether your Marines like you or don't like you, you're going to fail."

* "You must be perceived as fearless, not reckless. There's a difference."

* "Beware of the charismatic malcontent."

* "Treat the locals with respect and dignity."

* "You will take casualties in combat -- men will die. Accept that as a fact."

* "We're U.S. Marines. We're arrogant because, damn it, we are the best."

At the close of the lecture, there is a summary, Iraq specific.

"We're going to win this war," Gideons said. "But how long it's going to take and at what cost in life and limb is going to be determined by how gentlemen like you do your job."

For extra emphasis, Gideons showed his 30-plus students a clip from the film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V" starring Kenneth Branagh. On the eve of battle, the young king delivers his stirring "band of brothers" speech.

Los Angeles Times Articles