FOX 5 Investigates: Marines battle tested at Quantico - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

FOX 5 Investigates: Marines battle tested at Quantico

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In today's high tech warfare, there's one thing that hasn't changed. During combat, you need boots on the ground. At Marine Corps Base Quantico just outside Washington, troops are being trained for the frontlines.

The sound of mortars firing and artillery blasting can frequently be heard all around the base. When they train, it is as much like real warfare as possible.

Corporal Lonny Washington-Paige, who is from Southern Maryland, calls out the commands.

"Alpha, alpha 27 fire away," he relays through the radio to the Marines manning the weapons.

A few hundred feet away are teams firing mortars. Four miles away, three batteries of Marines are armed with the M777 Howitzer. Sergeant Zachary Myers knows firsthand these are the tools of the trade in combat.

"Most of the Marines, we sleep on the gun, around the gun, close to the gun, so if there's a fire mission, we're on the gun within seconds," Myers explained.

The 54,000-acre base is just 40 miles outside of Washington D.C. The firing ranges make up 90 percent of the base. They use real weapons and real munitions.

"It's the same type we'd use in theater anywhere depending on the situation," said James Woodfin, the range operations officer for MCB Quantico's range management branch.

The M777 Howitzer the Marines are firing can hit a target 25 miles away with GPS guidance and level a building. That's why every precaution is taken to prevent something from going off target.

"There's no room for error," Chris Beck said.

The retired marine is the administrator for the Range and Facility Management Support System and oversees the scheduling.

The 54 firing ranges used in different combinations can create 8,000 possible safety conflicts. Requests go into the computer system and are carefully coordinated. Every detail is accounted for, who is firing, where, when, which direction, type of weapons.

"That could mean hundreds of thousands of individual events each week. Thousands of individual people out there firing weapons," described Beck.

Everything is mapped out by GPS. Anytime the ranges are in use, they are monitored 24/7 from inside range control. Here, two people keep an eye on the ranges, monitoring who goes in and out and when the ranges are hot, meaning weapons are being fired. A map shows everything with live fire in red.

They even monitor air traffic. White moving dots show planes in the area. The trajectory of some weapons can cross into commercial air space and sometimes planes must be diverted from the line of fire.

"On a busy day, we can have a lot of ranges calling in hot, going into live fire status. That's why there are two of us," said Sgt. Mark Wachholder.

Back out on the firing range, large plumes of smoke go up as the mortars and artillery fire hit their targets. Gunners on the howitzers are providing cover fire. Every Marine in this battery must work quickly and efficiently. The timing is critical when it comes to a heavy fire situation. They can fire a round every eight to ten seconds.

"Mostly when we get one ready, as soon as we get the round in the tube, we're shooting it," Sgt. Myers said.

The high explosive 155mm artillery rounds they are shooting can kill everyone within a 150-feet radius and have a casualty zone the size of a football field. In combat, it is life or death for troops on the ground.

"The grunts lives are in our hands basically because if they come into heavy contact and they call on fire, it's on us to get right on that range and suppress the enemy," Sgt. Myers stressed.

On the battlefield, tensions run high. So this is what training is for.

"It's like muscle memory," said Corp. Washington-Paig. "If I don't use it, then I'll be shell shocked if I get out in combat."

On an average day, 13 to 19 of Quantico's firing ranges are hot. They use a lot of ammo too. In the past five years, troops have expended 56 million rounds of ammunition during training. As exercises wind down, the call comes in over the radio, "end of mission, destroyed."

For some Marines, this is as close as it gets before going to war.

"777, this is what they mainly use in combat," Sgt. Myers said after a round of fire. "It's very realistic."

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