Marines and Finnish forces train in sub-zero conditions

Marines and Finnish forces train in sub-zero conditions

Sgt James Schmidt, a squad leader with Black Sea Rotational Force 14, engages his target at a range during a Military Operations in Urban Terrain Instructor's course in Helsinki, Finland, Jan. 15, 2014. The live-fire range served as an introduction to the Finnish Defence Force's service rifle, the RK 95 TP assault rifle. Photo by 2ndLt Danielle Dixon.

Mihail Kogalnicenau, Romania (Feb. 7, 2014) - Marines with Black Sea Rotational Force 14 travelled to Finland to participate in a basic cold-weather skills and Military Operations in Urban Terrain Instructor's course Jan. 6-24, alongside the Jaeger Brigade and Guard Jaeger Regiment, the Finnish Defence Forces' premiere winter-training units.

Marines from BSRF-14 recently participated in the training, beginning in Rovaniemi with the Cold Weather Basic Operations course, in temperatures approximately -5 degrees Fahrenheit, concluding in Helsinki with a MOUT Instructor's course. 

The first two elements of the training focused on employing key elements of cold-weather operations basics, including: safe and effective weapons handling in cold weather and snow conditions, thermal shelter construction and maintenance, gathering and cooking food, land navigation, camouflaging methods, emergency first-aid, basic procedures after cold water exposure, and tactical movements in sub-zero conditions.

Sgt Brandon Johnson, a platoon guide with BSRF-14, went into the training with little experience with skiing and cold weather survival techniques.

"The skiing portion was, for me, a little bit difficult," said Johnson. "There is a lot of coordination that goes in to it and, once you start adding packs and things, it throws the center of balance off and the snow conditions that we were skiing in made it a little bit difficult. They understood that this was something that was completely out of our element. This is not something that we do on a regular basis. They took their time. They gave us as much instruction as they could before we actually took out to the field."

According to Sgt James Schmidt, a squad leader with BSRF-14, every learning objective built off the previous lesson until the final exercise in the field. 

The final exercise, a 17-kilometer movement that incorporated lessons from the entire course, tested the Marines' during extreme physical and mental fatigue from lack of food and sleep. Marines, integrated in the course with Finnish soldiers, had to cross-country ski with a full pack, completing specified tasks as part of a survival scenario along the way. Tasks included a live-fire range, evading the enemy, and submersing themselves in freezing water.

"Throughout the movement, we did a number of different things with evasion. We were moving to link up with our own friendly forces. Within that movement, we did a simulated attack with a live-fire event against the enemy," explained 1stLt Jon Newbold, the assistant operations officer with BSRF-14. 

"Once we finally reached our own friendly lines, they showed us recovery techniques [for] if you were to ski across a frozen lake or river but you didn't have any way to test how thick the ice was," Newbold said. 

"[The instructors taught us] things to do to cross the ice and then ways to recover yourself if you were to fall through the ice. Once you skied into the ice and got wet, you had to dump your pack, climb out of the ice, and then run and go start your own fire and then change your clothes. That was probably the toughest thing we did."

SSgt Bobby Neal, a platoon sergeant with BSRF-14, attended the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., two years ago. His experience with the winter training in Bridgeport was comparable to what he experienced in Finland.

"[The cold weather operations course] was a super compressed course," said Neal. "[The Jaeger Brigade's] tactics are a little different than ours but everything is basically the same. [In Bridgeport] We spent a significant amount of time becoming proficient with skiing. We did a little bit of survival with shelters but the majority of it was the mountain leader aspect… The survival stuff [the Finnish soldiers] were teaching us after our position was ‘over ran' was the most beneficial."

After completing training in Rovaniemi, the Marines rotated to Helsinki for MOUT tactics and operations. The course, 11 days in duration and tailored to international students, will qualify participants as MOUT instructors. The Guard Jaeger Regiment provided instructor-level training to a total of 40 students split into four training elements. 

The learning objectives taught students effective employment of the Finnish service rifle and manual breaching tools, squad and platoon movements, room entry and combat drills, resupply, detainee handling, and the proper utilization of fire support, radios and visual markers in an urban environment.

The MOUT facility the Finnish Defence Forces utilize is called the ‘Helsinki Simulator.' An emptied and renovated aircraft manufacturing plant from WWI, the Helsinki simulator can host a variety of different scenarios for training in urban operations. Some scenarios, for example, include breaching through the ceiling, climbing and repelling with ropes and breaking panes of glass for room entries.

"At first it was a little difficult for us to let go of our habits because there are things [the Finnish soldiers] do differently, like more hand-and-arm signals," said Neal. "Procedures in rooms are just a touch different. I would say after the first week we were catching on to their ways pretty well and it was a smooth transition for us."

"It was pretty much the same thing as MOUT back home. They do a few things differently, but there was a lot that was, across the board, the same," added Schmidt.

The instructors even made it possible for students to practice urban operations in downtown Helsinki.

Johnson was impressed by the opportunity to coordinate with the local police and actually go out into downtown Helsinki to practice urban patrolling, move around a city in full tactical gear, and employ their tactics in an urban environment. 

"We weren't firing," said Johnson. "We didn't use any [ammunition]. It was all about movement and team work. Each squad also had an instructor assigned to them to move with them so if the locals tried to interact with us or if they had questions, [the instructor] explained the situation to them."

The three weeks of training these Marines received in Finland will not soon be forgotten. The training and partnership between the U.S. and Finnish forces proved to be an integral part of BSRF-14's mission of maintaining and further strengthening close and solid relationships while promoting regional stability and increasing interoperability with partner nations in the region.

"Their instructor staffs are all very professional and knowledgeable," said Neal. "I would work with them again any day. I would take them anywhere with me on any operation. I think they are that caliber of instructors."

"My favorite part of the training," said Johnson, "was just the interaction with a different force and seeing how, even though we come from two different militaries and we have two completely different missions, we can still come together as one and fight as a unified force to accomplish the mission."

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