By Ben Trefry
On Tuesday, the Mono County Board of Supervisors, county staff, and members of the public headed to the Mountain Warfare Training Center located in Pickel meadows north of Bridgeport to see the base from the inside. This tour, which was part of the Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, achieved an impressive turnout of around 70, far above the one or two dozen that staff were expecting.
“The fact that you showed up today demonstrates your care for us,” said Colonel Kevin Hutchison, adding that this turnout shows that the Marine Corps needs to do a better job with outreach. In fact, the Marine Corps plans to organize these events twice a year from now on—one in the summer, and another in the winter to showcase the brutally cold environment that helps train Marines for true mountain warfare. (The Mountain Warfare Training Center was founded in 1951 to train soldiers for the Korean War, where many were woefully unprepared for the cold.)
The tour began with a presentation by base leaders, including Hutchison, in the onsite auditorium. They gave much the same presentation that young Marines receive when they first arrive for training, which includes fun stuff like the motto of the Mountain Warfare Training Center (“we make precious memories here”) but also a candid description of the incredibly difficult training that Marines undergo.
“My purpose in life is to harden the spine of the Marine Corps,” Hutchison told the crowd. “It’s not a pretty process. You see grown men cry here, but better here than on the battlefield.”
This is especially true in the winter, when many of the Marines that show up to train have never seen snow before. Not that summer isn’t brutal too. Right now, about 1,100 Marines are nearing the end of their monthlong summer exercises, and are in Hutchison’s words, “utterly physically and mentally exhausted.”
To house all those Marines, there’s a sort of tent city set up right now, another part of the training center that the visitors toured. Although it took only about three days to set up, there are medical facilities, a kitchen, and repair tents where the mechanics can perform virtually any repair on vehicles, radios, and more. The training center has trucks, humvees, helicopters, buses, and more—and they all run on jet fuel. They’re also left idling constantly, including a helicopter that appeared to be about to take off for several hours, but never did. As you might expect, the smell of jet fuel is ever-present at the training center—one can only imagine how many gallons of the stuff they burn each day.
After checking out the camp, the tour headed to the stables, where the training center operates the only horsemanship and animal packing program in the entire Department of Defense. Because of this, Marines come from all over the country to learn those skills and care for the 60 total horses and mules, which can carry up to 300 pounds of equipment each.
One of the highlights of the tour was an active demonstration by several Marines who first set off a smoke bomb (which failed to camouflage them due to the afternoon breeze), then ran up the hill for a combat simulation and some firing of weapons (blank cartridges, of course). Visitors also got to see the exercise control center, where the training exercises are designed and monitored (with dozens of maps, laptops, and screens all over, it almost looks like a military command center from the movies). Finally, the tour headed out to a shaded deck, where they were met by General Roger Turner, who oversees several Marine bases, including the Mountain Warfare Training Center, and drove up from his headquarters in Twenty-Nine Palms for the occasion. The high-ranking general took questions before concluding the tour.
Such tours have been conducted a few times in the past, but never so polished or comprehensive, nor with such attendance. “I thought it was a good orientation to what the mission of the base is and I was impressed with the competency of the leadership,” Supervisor Fred Stump told the Sheet (even though the tour took close to five hours of the Board’s time).
Most of the 65,000 acres of training area is public land that the Forest Service lets the Marine Corps use, so although you could do an unauthorized tour any time to see Marines training (and you often do see them along the side of Highway 108), it’s more common for hikers to wander into there accidentally. Just this past weekend, people were hunting within the training area, requiring the exercise control center to modify training exercises to prevent either the hunters or the Marines from getting shot. On second thought, I’ll pass on the unauthorized tour…