MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. -- Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., (October 9, 2016) – The pop of a nail breaking the surface of wood beams fills the air. The smell of saw dust singes the nostrils. Thick wool gloves rub against wood like sandpaper. The nail enters, wood explodes. Shards of lumber ricochet off of protective glasses, centimeters away from the eyes of a Marine, whose sweat drips off of the edge of his nose in the Yuma heat.
It’s only hour five of his 12-hour shift, but he is not alone.
They work like a well-oiled machine, eight Marines in digital camouflage, nailing and assembling wood in a cramped, musty warehouse seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The work is rough, tough and demanding, but the Marines are enduring these rigors to accomplish a very particular, but critical, mission.
To support tenant and visiting commands during year-round training at MCAS Yuma’s ranges, these Marines have been assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron’s range maintenance department to create, assemble, transport, place, and dispose of all the wooden targets used in live-fire exercises.
“These Marines take these targets from the cradle to the grave, and all over again,” said John Gordon, the MCAS Yuma range future plans officer.
Creating a target from scratch is a tedious process, but is vital to uphold the immersion of realistic combat exercises, making these target craftsmen the unsung heroes of the station’s training mission.
“They are given stacks of plywood and two-by-four logs, and that’s the birth of the target. It’s the baby in the cradle, and they watch them until they are destroyed [in each mission],” said Gordon. “It ends up looking like a toothpick factory exploded!”
Within a few days, piles of wood are transformed to resemble old Soviet Union armored personnel carriers, trucks and heavy tanks from the Cold War era.
In support of Weapons and Tactics Instructor course (WTI) 1-17, a seven week training school for advanced air and ground tactics hosted by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1), range maintenance is tasked with creating a large amount of these targets.
“Our mission is to ensure that the pilots and infantry have good quality targets to train with during WTI,” said Cpl. Carlton Nomee, a combat engineer assigned to the project. “We have an important job: to assist in the training operations which are vital for their mission success.”
All In a Day’s Work
It’s still dark out on a Saturday morning. While Yuma sleeps, a convoy of green military transport trucks moves along Interstate 8, towards the California border.
Military packs, ice chests full of water, and an assortment of nails and power tools rattle with every bump in the road. The weary-eyed passengers sit in silence, the peace breaking suddenly by the hiss of static on the radio and a stern voice commanding the convoy to stop.
They check their gear once, twice, three times before beginning the target placement around the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range.
“Targets are built all year-round,” said Nomee. “We have two major builds for the two Weapons and Tactics Instructors courses, as well as the Exercise Scorpion Fire iterations, two final exercises [of WTI’s] and the two Assault Support Tactic courses spread throughout the year.”
As the sun crests the distant purple-tinged mountains and climbs higher into the sky, the heat rapidly reaches triple digits. Despite the sweltering temperature, the team sets up the targets in positions they call “gravesites.” This is where the targets will be inevitably destroyed by the deadly firepower of the United States Marine Corps’ various weapon systems, joining their broken brethren in a wasteland of splintered wood.
Setting up a target is done in two steps: “drop teams” transport the targets to their gravesites, while “build teams” stand them up and provide finishing touches. Although relatively simple in theory, it takes close to nine hours to accomplish the mission.
“There were 33 targets in all, two buildings, some trucks and insurgent silhouettes,” said Nomee with sweat dripping from his brow and splinters piercing his arms.
The eight exhausted Marines load their gear up onto the transports, and with the roar of massive engines, begin their trek back to base. A dust trail rises high as they pass a day’s worth of work on the bumpy road home.
The job is done for now, but with the continuous nature of training at MCAS Yuma, these Marines will have their work cut out for them, quietly working behind the scenes of the Marine Corps’ busiest air station.