The first three days were fairly benign, spent up in the northern-most training area of the base and practicing our air-ground fires integration skills with the battalion's noisy friends, mortars and artillery. Up to this point, myself and the other FACs have had several opportunities to hone our techniques of putting 'warheads on foreheads', but always in a vacuum. In Yuma, we blasted the hell out of the desert for a week, and on our raid packages in Pendleton, air support was usually the only fire support available due to the limited scope of amphibious raids; however, in general battalion maneuver elements will always be supported by every firing agency available, and air power is only a piece of the grander plan. So, the next step was integrating our close air support assets with the guys who launch large pieces of steel into the sky and making sure each got on target without running into each other. It took some work, since this was the first time we'd all gotten together to blow things up and it took a few extra minutes to ensure the thing blowing up wasn't the aircraft flying through the gun target line. The first day was very slow as a result (extra friction was added by one of our road guard vehicles breaking down smack in the middle of the impact area for all our explosives, meaning no ordnance could be delivered for several hours until they could get themselves out of there. We could still bring aircraft in on dry runs which we did, although the Marines by the broken Humvee thought we'd forgotten they were there and dived for cover the first time we brought an F-18 in on a simulated gun run). But we progressed with each day, and by the end our fire support team leaders were conducting well-coordinated symphonies of destruction, lifting suppressive artillery and mortar fire just in time for our notional enemy to poke his head out of his trenchline and see two Cobras rolling in to deliver a hail of rocket and gun fire.
On the second night, however, once our air support had gone home for the day, we experienced the first of what would become the theme of the rest of the exercise: cold, howling windstorms. 29 Palms is located in one of several valleys in a mountain chain which act as natural wind tunnels, so windy days are nothing new. But this night was the prelude to what would become almost a solid week of sandless shamals which made sleep damn near impossible. The wind had already picked up in the late afternoon, which again was typical as winds gust back and forth around sunrise and sunset. But as the sun went down, the winds picked up and eventually peaked between 40-50 mph. When we came down from our hill to settle in for the night, we discovered that the cammie netting covering our bivouac area had been blown down and scattered around the area. We had to sleep on top of it to keep it from vanishing over the mountains altogether. On top of that, there's no fine sand in 29 Palms, so the winds don't pick up clouds of dirt that obscure everything; but there's plenty of larger-grain dirt and pebbles, and the wind was more than powerful enough to fling these at us and scour our exposed faces as we tried to sleep. It was also gusty enough to fill our sleeping bags with grit the second we unrolled and opened them to get in; unless you stripped down to your shorts and t-shirt, exposing yourself to the bone-chilling wind, and opened your sleeping bag while climbing into it at the same time, you'd wind up sleeping in a little desert of your own. After several days (and nights) of this, I couldn't decide which place was worse: Iraq, where you literally breathed dirt but could find refuge in your comfy little can, or here, with no sand but a constant pounding by cold wind, grit, and the occasional rock and nothing but a sleeping bag to escape into. Jury's still out, but it's leaning heavily toward the verdict that 29 Palms may well be the most godforsaken place the Marine Corps has sent me.
At zero-dark-thirty on the morning of day four, we moved down from the firing range to the FOB that would be our home for the majority of the exercise. I finally linked back up with my company, which spent the first three days in the field under the command of my newly arrived executive officer. He got quite the hook-up, checking into the battalion a week before going to the field, and learning upon check-in that he would spend the first three days actually orchestrating convoy movements, FOB set-up, and company training because I had to be up north. But hey, that's how we do things here: throw you in the deep end to see if you sink or swim. Since sinking isn't really a choice, you'll swim, even if it's just the doggy-paddle.
(more to follow)