It’s all about “survival” to the active duty personnel and family members stationed at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center near Bridgeport, Calif.
All 225 active-duty Marines and sailors stationed at this little-known post are directly involved in survival training in one sense or another. And their family members learn that living in this unique place requires some adaptation to survive and thrive.
Survival was the theme of a 2002 documentary on The Discovery Channel, which highlighted some of the training here. Perhaps the most memorable image was catching and using every part of a rabbit in order to – – including sucking out the eyes for their nutritional value.
Troops began training at the location in 1951, before deploying to the cold and snow of the war in Korea. The facility was idle from 1967 to 1976, but the Soviet threat during the Cold War gave new motivation to resume mountain and cold weather warfare training. Today, trainees typically head for the mountains of Afghanistan, where mountain warfare again is a top priority.
Thousands of trainees each year from all branches of the U.S. armed forces, as well as from nations such as Britain, Norway, Sweden, Chile, Peru, Israel, Argentina and Canada, have completed courses since 2001. Instructors from Mountain Leader courses have deployed to Afghanistan to train the Afghan army for mountain warfare on their own terrain.
The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC), under Training and Education Command, Quantico (Va.), operates on 46,000 acres of national forest land through an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, allowing public use of much of the training areas. This creates the interesting scenario of having civilians snowmobiling nearby while troops set up a bivouac site or perform a mock rescue.
Elevation on base ranges from about 6,800 feet to nearly 11,500 feet above sea level, making it an exceptionally dry climate (15-30 percent humidity). Winters are harsh and long, typically providing six to eight feet of snow pack for trainees to dig snow caves. Summers are moderate and breezy, though temperatures can reach into the 90s.
Truly an isolated duty station, MCMWTC is located in the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains of California, about 100 miles south of Reno, Nev. The nearest towns are about 20 miles to the north (Walker, Calif.) or south (Bridgeport, Calif.), but each contains only a few hundred people. Family housing is located in Coleville, north of Walker. Most families go to Gardnerville and Carson City in Nevada (35-45 miles north) for services. Bachelor housing is located on base and boasts the best mountain views of any Marine Corps housing anywhere!
For scenic value, few places can compare to MCMWTC and the surrounding areas: Yosemite National Park is only an hour south of the base, and Lake Tahoe is about two hours to the north. Numerous lakes and streams are in and around the base, and the surrounding region is known for trophy-trout fishing and outdoor recreation. For the outdoor adventurer, this is paradise.
However, it is a difficult duty station for those not accustomed to living in such a remote and rugged place. The small-town social life can be challenging since nearly everyone lives and works together, the kids go to school together, and getting away is hard since most activities require at least a 30-minute drive. Adding to the claustrophobic feel is the unpredictable winter weather, which often limits or prevents travel and makes it difficult for many spouses to work outside of the few jobs in the Coleville/Walker area.
Resourcefulness is a necessity, since there is no such thing as a quick run to the store – or anywhere else! As at any base, those who seek out or create opportunities and activities in spite of the obstacles are most likely to thrive.
Rigorous six-week Mountain Leader courses are offered in both summer and winter.
The summer course trains combat skills such as mountaineering, tactical rope-climbing, assault climbing and using mules to pack supplies. (MCMWTC is the only U.S. military facility to house mules for training purposes.) During both summer and winter training, Marines and sailors also participate in tests of clothing and equipment, human performance, specialized vehicles, and the doctrines best suited to achieve success in such extreme conditions.
The winter course is exceptionally demanding, combining the tactical training of the summer course with the environmental challenges presented by winter conditions. Nearly the entire course takes place in the field. Participants are taught survival and mobility skills in snow-covered battlefield situations, as well as avalanche awareness and avoidance. Skiing is required of all participants – often while wearing a 90-pound pack and full combat gear.
Also, a grueling two-week Survival and Evasion course trains participants for survival in almost any environment, evading capture and surviving as a prisoner of war. Resourcefulness, confidence and decision-making are emphasized, and these principles are put to practice as participants spend the second week in the field evading capture and surviving with a decreasing amount of resources.
The Navy also operates at MCMWTC, offering courses in mountain medicine and cold-weather medicine courses, and staffing a branch clinic of Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton.
The mountain medicine course teaches a broad scope of medical, tactical and survival skills specifically related to issues faced in mountainous environments: altitude illnesses; cold and heat injuries; fall injuries; venomous bites; and how to rescue patients in rock-climbing, rappelling and swift-water situations.
Cold-weather medicine participants spend the first week in class learning about cold-related illnesses and issues, with field time during the second week. Only one night of the course is spent outside, but participants must construct a snow shelter in which to sleep. Patient transport through snow requires training in snowshoes, Nordic skis (cross-country) and specialized snow vehicles.
Whether driving through a snowstorm to get groceries or training troops in hazardous mountain conditions, practicing survival becomes a way of life at the Mountain Warfare Training Center.
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Julie Dawson is an editor for WordCrafters and teaches the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society’s “Budget for Baby” program at the Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, Calif.
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Housing: Military housing is located in Coleville, Calif., about 25 miles north of the base; bachelor housing is available on base. Many families find housing in the surrounding areas since the cost of living is reasonable (housing allowance can actually cover living expenses) and the commute is unavoidable no matter where one lives. The Nevada state line is 10 miles north of base housing, and the tax benefits of being a Nevada resident attract many military families.
Schools: Students attend public school in Coleville – fewer than 300 students combined in all grades. The nearest private schools are in Gardnerville or Carson City, Nev., about 40 minutes away. Home schooling is available through a charter school sponsored by the Mono County Office of Education or through private means. Public preschool choices are very limited.
Higher Education: Online distance learning is popular here, offering a variety of options. Community college courses are offered at a few different locations within about an hour’s drive. Reno is about 90 minutes away and offers the University of Nevada-Reno and a number of trade and professional school choices.
Employment: Spouses often find it difficult to obtain work here; available jobs often are part-time or seasonal. More opportunities are available in the larger towns, but winter weather can make getting to work dangerous or impossible and the cost of gasoline erases profits quickly.
Entertainment: Outdoor recreation is plentiful, with lakes and streams for water sports and fishing, mountains for hiking and camping, and lots of scenic and historic sites within a short drive. The June Lakes and Mammoth Lakes resorts, Reno, South Lake Tahoe and area ski attractions may be reached in roughly 90 minutes.
By Julie Dawson