Marines invade Grayling to battle Michigan winter

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Grayling — Railroad cars arrived in this northern Michigan city from North Carolina on a cold day earlier this month, carrying an assortment of military equipment, including six Abrams M1A1 tanks, support vehicles and a camouflaged M88 recovery vehicle.

U.S.Marine Corp reservists take part in Winter Training 18 exercises withan Abrams M1A1 tank Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 at Camp Grayling, MI.

The U.S. Marines were close behind, arriving by bus to begin two weeks of training in the snowfields of Camp Grayling in Crawford County. That U.S. Marine Reserve unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, featured Fox Company, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division.

Their mission for the training exercise: Test offensive, defensive and maneuver capabilities of the reservists in a cold-weather environment.

“We exercise what we call ‘tactical control measures,’” said Captain Andrew Bender, commander of Company F, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division. “Our training is one link in the overall scheme of combining armor and troop movements.”

U.S.Marine Corp. 1st Lt. Thomas Kizer uses a grid and toy tanks to teach reservists about the day's training exercise.

Fox Company regularly augments active duty operations around the world, having sent detachments to South Korea, Norway and Georgia in 2017.

Bender is proud of these reserve Marines, who spend two weeks each year training in a variety of environments.

“We have such diversity,” he said. “We might have a pharmacist, a mechanic and a teacher all working together toward a common goal. I have 140 Marines in my command, 59 of them are here, working and living outside to train for wherever the nation may call upon us to serve.”

The camp is set up at Camp Grayling’s Joint Maneuver Training Center, a full-spectrum, four-season center that allows military and civilian leaders to meet their unit readiness requirements, according to Camp Grayling’s garrison commander, Colonel Edward Hallenbeck.

U.S. Marine Corp reservists take part in Winter Training 18 exercises with two Abrams M1A1 tanks Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 at Camp Grayling, MI.

Founded in 1913, Camp Grayling, at 147,000 acres covering three counties, is the largest Army National Guard training center in the United States. Training covers all aspects of military training, from armor to aerial combat and troop training with weaponry.

On a recent day, the Marines set up a base in the woodlands northeast of the village of Grayling.

Seven large white tents housed the troops, who were to complete their training living entirely on the base site by using burn barrels of wood as their only heat source and cold-weather, ready-to-eat meals for food.

U.S.Marine Corp reservists pack personal gear prior to taking part in Winter Training 18 exercises.

Fuel tankers for the equipment were on site, along with portable generators to power radios and other essential equipment.

All troops had heavy winter clothing, chemical hand and feet warmers, and were armed with M-16 rifles, ceramic helmets and Kevlar vests.

“We have medical staff on board and have had some minor frostbite. We stress changing damp socks and keeping dry throughout the exercise,” Bender said.

Bender moved among his troops with ease in harsh northern Michigan winter conditions.

U.S. Marine Corp reservist Cpl. De'Andre Rogers, a field radio operator, drives a HummVee and carries a crew to take part in Winter Training 18 exercises.

“It is cold,” Bender said. “It was minus 12 degrees the other night with snow. This is our first winter training exercise. The Marines are learning a lot about surviving and working in a cold environment, which will help us for combat readiness if called upon.”

The tank crews are briefed by First Lt. Thomas Kizer with the use of a map grid on the ground that corresponds to the maps each crew carries.

The objective during this training was to find two tanks acting as the enemy that were sent out into the field to be hunted and engaged by two Marine tanks. While the mission was to find and destroy the enemy, no live rounds were fired.

The exercises were coordinated and observed by commanders in the field via radio and visual sightings.

Sergeant Michael Colbert, a gunner on the Abrams tank, hails from Michigan, having grown up in Saginaw and East Lansing. In civilian life, he is a fire-protection installer for a company outside Highpoint, North Carolina.

U.S.Marine Corp reservists relax after a day of training. The leathernecks are spending two weeks in the snow and cold during the training, living in huge tents.

“I’m learning a lot about surviving in the cold and keeping the equipment operational,” Colbert said. “It’s a challenge.”

Each tank carries food and clothing for the crew, as it would in combat. Preparation is an ongoing event with each crew, loading equipment they might need for survival in the field.

Keeping an Abrams tank operational in the cold is a challenge. Each tank, which weighs 70 tons, is powered by a gas turbine 1500 horsepower engine. The tanks are equipped with cleats on its tracks to enhance traction and control on the hard snow-covered training site.

A crew of four can perform all aspects of operating the tank, including driving, loading and firing a mounted 120mm smoothbore cannon, an M240 coaxial machine gun or a .50-caliber machine gun.

The huge tanks can travel 265 miles on 500 gallons of fuel at speeds up to 42 mph.

The Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant built the Abrams M1A1 tank from 1982-96. Each unit cost $8.92 million, considering 2016 inflation adjustments.

Planning for the winter exercise begins more than a year before the event. This exercise cost about $700,000 to move the equipment and troops to the training site.

“We bused the men and women from North Carolina to save on airplane flights costs,” Bender said. “We try to not spend any more taxpayer money than necessary.”

John Russell is a photojournalist and writer from Traverse City.