Recon Marines blister through 400-kilometer hike
Muscles aching, faces stiffened by the cold, they paused for a moment of silence with their heads bowed. In this moment, they not only remembered the sacrifices of previous Marines, but also concluded a grueling hike, strengthening their bonds as Marines from two nations.
Republic of Korea and U.S. Marines completed an extreme cold-weather 400-kilometer hike that began Jan. 26 in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, and ended Feb. 7, 13 days later in Pohang, and covered various roads and mountainous terrain as part of Korean Marine Exchange Program 14-3.
KMEP is an annual training event that provides Marines from both nations an opportunity to project their military power, cross-train in skills such as cold-weather survival and tactics, and deepen cultural ties.
The ROK Marines are with 1st ROK Special Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st ROK Division. The U.S. Marines are with 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force.
“This hike was difficult because (of the weather and terrain),” said Lance Cpl. Son Yong Kim, a radio operator with 1st Recon Bn., 1st ROK Marine Division. “My legs and knees hurt, and there was a lot of time to think about when it would end and [at times] it seemed like it never would.”
Throughout the hike, the Marines walked in freezing temperatures across terrain that included roads, forests and mountains.
“This hike shows those looking at us that we set the bar,” said Cpl. Torrence D. Fritchley, a radio operator with 3rd Recon Bn. “We set ourselves to a higher standard, and we can do things that other units can’t.”
Although other units have been invited to participate in the hike, the battalion was the first to accept that invitation, according to Capt. Chad R. Bainbridge, a platoon commander with 3rd Recon Bn. His unit took the challenge to assess their skill levels.
“We need to be able to have that ability to move long distances without vehicles or helicopters,” said Bainbridge. “This shows that we have those capabilities and can get the job done.”
The hike gave the two forces an opportunity to expand and test their strengths, skills and methods of trekking over uncommon terrain, according to Lance Cpl. Zachary Kalapinski, a reconnaissance man with 3rd Recon Bn.
“This has been good training because we got to see how our bodies reacted to the cold,” said Kalapinski. “You find out what you can and can’t do when your body reaches temperatures that cold and how it affects you … it was quite an experience.”
Even though many of the Marines sustained lower body ailments, none of them quit, according to Bainbridge.
“The cold was terrible. Every time we would stop to take a break you would cool down and just freeze,” said Fritchley. “What kept me motivated was that I didn’t want to get into the safety vehicle and let my whole platoon down, so I just kept hiking.”
Plans for future hikes involving the U.S. Marines have not been determined for next year’s annual KMEP exercise, according to Bainbridge.
“It’s still up in the air,” said Bainbridge. “It’s (hard), but it’s good cold-weather training and if we come back, we know we can do it.”
The ROK Marines have completed the 400-kilometer hike for over a decade now, and seeing the U.S. Marines as the first foreign military to hike with them increased the respect and reputation that the ROK Marines have for the U.S. Marines, according to Kim.
“The U.S. Marines are good hikers and are very strong,” said Kim. “Having them on this hike made it more enjoyable.”