This is a continuation of my Service Stories series. If you haven’t read the first post in the series, you can read it here. While my stories here are written for my daughters and possibly their kids, maybe it will help others who are looking for information on the Marine Corps.
Welcome to El Paso and Fort Bliss
After graduating from boot camp, my next stop was USMC Redeye/Stinger Air Defense School at Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX. An Army base! Ft. Bliss was where Marines trained to identify, engage and destroy enemy aircraft with a Redeye/Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Since the missile systems were so expensive, the Marines didn’t have their own training facility. We had one barracks on an Army base and we utilized their training facilities. In addition to Marines, we also had Navy gunners and SEALs that trained in our school. This wasn’t my choice of school, but between boot camp and school, I dealt with the anger and the feelings of betrayal. I was now a Marine and I accepted that everything is done for the good of the Corps. So, I decided to make the best of the situation. I knew I was smart and I learned early on that the top graduate in each class got to shoot a live Stinger, select their preferred duty station and pick up a meritorious rank. I made that my personal mission.
School mostly consisted of memorizing and identifying silhouettes of any aircraft that could be flying in any battle, whether they were US, NATO or Soviet aircraft. We had to identify them from different angles. We would review and review and review aircraft silhouettes. We had huge decks of flash cards where we could drill each other. On our exams, we had 3 seconds to look at a silhouette before we had to identify the aircraft. We also practiced tracking aircraft in a large domed building that housed a large 3D video game. Aircraft would be projected all around the dome and we would use simulator missiles to track and engage them. It was as real as one could get with late-80’s technology. We had to identify whether or not they were friend or foe, and then if foe, engage them before they had a chance to launch their own weapons.
All this was in preparation for our actual job which was to identify enemy aircraft that were closing in to attack whatever we were guarding. We were the last line of air defense. We were mobile and frequently attached to infantry or artillery companies. Our positions were frequently forward of the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) so we could engage the aircraft before they got close the other troops. On-board ships, we stood watch on the tops of the ships watching for aircraft that might target the ship. We deployed as a team of two; gunner and assistant-gunner. One person engaged the enemy aircraft and fired the weapon while the other identified the aircraft and communicated with higher command for engagement authority and instructions.
I excelled in that school. I was selected as the class leader and eventually graduated top in my class. We went out to White Sands Missile Range and I got to shoot a large BAT (ballistic aerial target) that was about 3-5 kilometers out traveling at a couple hundred miles an hour. Stingers are shoulder-launched-anti-aircraft missiles. They have a seeker-head that locks onto the heat and infra-red signature of an aircraft. They reach mach-2 in 3-5 seconds. It was one of the coolest experiences I had as a Marine.
Because I graduated top in the class, I was able to request a duty station transfer. I chose Okinawa, Japan. One of the reasons I wanted to join the Marines was to see the world. This was my first step. Additionally, I picked up Lance Corporal (E-3). In less than a year, I had been promoted twice!
Next stop – Okinawa, Japan.