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Marines borrow hunting skills in training

The enemy hides among civilians on the urban battlefield, walking the same streets and in the same markets where Cpl. Derrick Terrell found himself during deployment in Iraq.
Combat Hunter
U.S. Marine Cpl. Derrick Terrell, left, and PFC Philip Marino use their eyes and a thermal imaging camera to scan the scene during a Combat Hunter training exercise at Camp Geiger, which is part of Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C.Logan Wallace / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The enemy hides among civilians on the urban battlefield, walking the same dusty streets and in the same crowded markets where Cpl. Derrick Terrell found himself during a yearlong deployment in Iraq.

The Marine rifleman said he was oblivious to his surroundings, a wartime environment where basic infantry skills of shooting straight and heading out onto patrol were no longer enough. It's a potential weakness that led Terrell and hundreds of other Marines to spend time with big game hunters and police, learning to "hunt" for targets among the human landscape.

"I wish I had this training when I was there before," Terrell said of his time last year in Iraq. "It helps take away the enemy's advantage on us. I know what I am looking for now."

Called Combat Hunter, a two-week program at Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton is designed to teach Marines how to observe, profile and track potentially dangerous individuals.

The program, which started in April 2007, grew out of a concept by Gen. James Mattis, who saw the need for hunting-related skills while overseeing combat forces at Camp Pendleton in California.

Instructors teach Marines how to pay attention to small details and problem solving. Marines are taught to detect anomalies in the regular behavior of a village, picking out irregularities and tracking people who may be insurgents.

"All terrorists and criminals follow the same patterns," said Greg Williams, a police officer and big game hunter who teaches the profiling portion of the program to the Marines. "We give them the ability to think like the enemy."

'Situational awareness'
In the first week, Marines learn profiling techniques, including how to detect a criminal or leader of a group based solely on behavioral patterns such as how he dresses, how the villagers respond to him or where he goes in the village.

The second week focuses on tracking, as Marines learn to see "the unnatural," said Randy Merriman, a Camp Lejeune civilian instructor. They're taught to notice even minor disturbances such as a broken branch, trampled grass or litter that may indicate someone has passed through.

"We are giving them the gift of situational awareness," Williams said.

The final exam requires a six-man sniper team to track two instructors with a half-hour head start for several miles through thick pine forest and swampy terrain near Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps' main base on the East Coast.

A recent chase began when trainee Cpl. Charles Flaisher spotted a branch and noticed it was freshly broken. The underside of the leaves were showing, indicating it was recently turned over since the leaf wasn't faded or brittle from baking in the sun.

"We can now see if anybody has been there and if we are being tracked," said Flaisher, a 25-year-old rifleman from Detroit.

Familiar mission
For the next several miles, the team tracked the instructors through heavy brush, over a bourbon-colored creek and through a thicket so dense the Marines had to crawl on hands and knees. The mission was familiar for Marine snipers, who must often sneak in and out of remote hiding spots.

Meanwhile, perched on a barracks several football fields away from the action, more than a dozen four-man teams of Marines faced a different test, scouring a mock village complete with an open-air market, a mosque and a police station for the enemy.

Peering through binoculars and using infrared sensors, the Marines watched and catalogued every detail. Terrell alternated between the scope on his rifle and his binoculars as he watched the townspeople mingle in the market, kick a soccer ball in a nearby field and rake up debris along a ditch.

The team observed the natural patterns of the villagers, and everything appeared normal. But over time, Terrell noticed a man dressed in jogging pants marking distances by counting his paces and dropping a small cup to mark the distance. A few moments later, a policeman was shot and the village erupted in panic as a sniper open fired. Terrell quickly called in the location of the sniper, but it was too late: The police officer was "dead."

After the training, Williams praised the Marines for communicating, but stressed they failed to identify the sniper in time. Still, he acknowledged they didn't perform badly their first time out.

Sgt. Chris Johnson said the training was an eye-opening experience. After the first day, he said, he started to notice unusual behavior in his daily life. In the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Jacksonville, Johnson saw a group of people hanging out around a car in the parking lot in a way that raised his suspicions: they may have been selling drugs, he thought.

Johnson, 22, from Taunton, Mass., said the training has made him more alert to changes in the normal pattern of life, which is the difference between life and death in a war zone.

"You are never going to see the world the same," Johnson said. "We can read body language now and I know what I am looking for."

Capt. Michael G. Murray, commander of the training company overseeing Combat Hunter, said there is no "empirical data" or studies tracking the program's success.

"It may be a statistic that is arguably immeasurable," Murray said. "However, anecdotal evidence and after action reports from commanders in theater say that this training is saving lives. The measure of success right now is when a Marine returns from a patrol, convoy, or standing a post and is excited that he used the Combat Hunter Training."

Murray said units in Iraq are "clamoring" to sign up for Combat Hunter.

"They cannot get enough," he said.