Gunnery Sgt. Matthew C. Luckey looks at an area where simulated enemy activity was spotted, while Korean Marines radio for assistance Jan. 22 during Korean Marine Exchange Program 14-3 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The Marines cross-trained in cold-weather missions, including skiing, assaults, patrols and raids. (Lance Cpl. Matt Myers/Marine Corps)
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They lost toenails, hiked with an IV drip to combat dehydration, and struggled to pull boots over swollen and blistered feet.
And they did it all as a matter of pride.
The 237-mile trek down much of the length of South Korea is an annual tradition among the troops of the Republic of Korea’s 1st Special Reconnaissance Battalion. The hike came at the end of the Korean Marine Exchange Program, a cold-weather exercise that involves U.S. and Korean forces and takes place largely at the Korean Mountain Warfare Training Center, near Peong-Chang.
Ordinarily, Marines sit the grueling hike out. But last year, during exercise Ssang Yong 2013, the Korean Recon battalion commander leveled a personal challenge to the battalion commander of 3rd Recon Battalion, Lt. Col. Eric Thompson, asking why the Marines never accompanied his men on the hike.
“I told him that he would be answering to [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Un if not for the U.S. Marines, and that we would do the hike with him the following year,” Thompson said via email.
That’s why the Marines of 3rd Recon’s Alpha Company, 1st Platoon, set off last month on a trek that would eventually take them to the Korean 1st Special Recon Base in Pohang; cold, sick, and quite a bit worse for the wear. It’s the longest hike that has been attempted by any Marine unit in at least the past 20 years, Thompson said.
The commanding officer of 1st Platoon, Capt. Chad Bainbridge, said the hike was also a way to bond with Korean counterparts — as well as an opportunity to prove the Marines were up to the challenge.
“Some of the guys we talked to have done it four or five times before,” he said. “They consider it a rite of passage in their recon community.
They set off with 35-pound packs, some 22 U.S. Marines and 250 Korean troops, covering roughly 30 kilometers, or 18.5 miles, per day. They planned two days during the hike as rest and recovery days, to keep their feet as fresh as possible for the journey. But by the end of the first eight-hour day of hiking, the Marines were already hurting.
“My feet started to get torn up the first day, but I was just an unlucky one,” said Cpl. Devon Hood, a radio operator for the platoon. “A lot of swelling. My boots barely fit in the morning.”
The Marines mainly hiked along roadways (all uphill, according to one Marine) but spent one day trekking through a mountainous region. They slept on the floor of school buildings in the towns they stopped in, or set up tents in local soccer fields to hunker down for the night.
By the third day, all the Marines were hurting. Blisters abounded. They had 10 more days to go.
Toward the middle of their two-week hike, illness also became a concern.
“With fairly unsanitary conditions, no running water, things like that, a lot of guys started getting sick,” Bainbridge said.
Vomiting and diarrhea were the most serious complaints, which caused some Marines to become weak and dehydrated. Some received hydration through IVs along the way, and one hiked for hours one morning with an IV in his arm.
Then there was the cold. The temperature never rose above freezing during the nights, Bainbridge said. At the coldest point during the journey, the mercury dipped to -9 degrees Fahrenheit.
For Cpl. Joseph Davis, a team leader in the platoon, the cold was his greatest worry. But facing it turned out to be more rewarding than he realized.
“I did learn, definitely, with the cold weather, I’m able to work in it better than I thought I would, but it can affect you a lot,” he said. “You learn on that kind of a hike, what to look out for and what can affect your body ... swelling of feet and joint pain and all that.”
The Marines reached the recon base at the south of the country to the sound of cheers from their Korean counterparts. They entered the base limping.
“Definitely, by the end, we were pretty beat up,” Bainbridge said. “A couple of the guys lost a decent amount of weight from hiking all day and being out in the cold.”
It would take several days before the Marines’ blisters healed, but they were just tired, not beaten.
“We could have done another 200 if we had to,” Hood said. “It definitely makes us appreciate the guys of World War II and stuff who hiked across Europe.”
It’s not completely clear why the Marines have avoided the massive hike in past years, and the Marines in 1st Platoon were hesitant to speculate about whether a training hike of that distance becomes more dangerous than challenging. All Marines in recon must make it through a torturous selection process designed to push their physical limits nearly to the breaking point. Bainbridge also noted that the troops’ packs were fairly light; it’s unlikely they could have completed such a distance wearing 90 pounds of gear.
While the platoon said it had no plans to incorporate extreme-distance hikes into regular training, the commander said it was a useful exercise nonetheless.
“It definitely translates into combat scenarios,” Bainbridge said. “Even as the military gets focused on technology and vehicles and helicopters ... history has proved that at the end of the day, you have to put men with boots on the ground to get missions done.”■
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