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1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command
Q&A with MARSOC Battalion Commander

The San Diego Union-Tribune
By Gidget Fuentes - Aug 26, 2015

Three Marine Raider battalions with the North Carolina-based Marine Corps Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, provide highly trained troops for special operations missions worldwide. One of those battalions calls Camp Pendleton home.

The 600-member 1st Marine Raider Battalion is housed at a modern compound on the base. It often operates with, and supports, conventional forces and other special-ops units.

In early May, Lt. Col. Andrew Christian took command of the battalion, which he first joined at its onset and later led its Alpha Company on two combat deployments to Afghanistan. Christian’s most recent postings position him well. He was MARSOC’s liaison to Naval Special Warfare Command, the headquarters for Navy SEALs.

Then he led the first Special Operations Forces Liaison Element in a successful run as a proof-of-concept test with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit on its recent deployment.

In an interview last month at MARSOC headquarters, Christian talked about the command, its missions and how it fits within the Marine Corps and the greater world of special operations.

Q:What do you want people to know about MARSOC?

A:We have a lot of the same core missions as the rest of the special operations forces do. Direct action, special reconnaissance, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense are all within our portfolio. Everybody has niches and strengths and weaknesses. ... We’re capable of doing any full-spectrum special operations. Whatever the demand signal is from the boss, we’re ready to fill it.

Q:How do you prepare for that range of missions?

A:We prioritize .... So if you’re going to Afghanistan, you may tailor your mission sets and your mission essential tasks toward the geographic area that you’re in. We have had a shift as we move from Afghanistan; now we are regionally aligned.

Q:How does the 1st Raider Battalion make that transition to a specific region?

A:We are regionally aligned, being West Coast guys, to the Pacific, which is a big place. We are looking at areas where both the (U.S. Pacific Command) and the Special Operations Pacific commander want us to be really focusing. I’m not at liberty to say which countries we are habitually going to, but there has been a shift to make sure that we are focused on the priority countries that the boss is interested in.

Q:Does that require more language training and classes on social and cultural issues?

A:Absolutely. A big part of every special operations operator is your understanding of the environment you’re operating in and the importance of relationships — and persistent relationships, not episodic. We’re making sure we try to go back to the same places over and over again. You can’t surge trust. You have to build those relationships so when there is a crisis, you can leverage those relationships and mutual trust.

Q:Will Marines work more with local people, like some Army Special Forces do? Are there similarities?

A:I think the lines are blurred between all of the special operations forces. We are asking them to do relatively the same amount of work when it comes to language skills and relationships, training, developing a capability within a country, so they can be trained to a higher standard and they can take care of those problems themselves. Essentially, work your way out of a job. That’s important.

Q:Are you doing more sharing with the U.S. military?

A:Yes, there’s cross-pollination. It’s not only with special operations forces but with general-purpose forces — Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force. When a crisis develops, you need that joint team to come together and solve the problem. ... The host nation gets a vote, obviously, on what you can and cannot do in its country. MARSOC doesn’t own helicopters, it doesn’t own planes, so how do we get to where the crisis is? We may have to rely on the Navy or the Air Force to get us there.

Q: Any new initiatives or focus areas?

A:We’ve realized to be a highly effective fighting force, you need to figure out how you are going to collaborate — not just with other special operations organizations but also with our own service. So the first time we’re coming together isn’t during a crisis, sitting off the coast of some country, but we’ve done that and worked a lot of the bugs out off the coast of Camp Pendleton. You’re going to see more of that, because it just makes sense. We have to get smarter about aligning our resources so we get those opportunities.

Q:What’s the level of experience and expertise in your battalion?

A:We start out with a more mature Marine, to begin with. I think our average age is somewhere between 25 and 27, mostly sergeants and above. We start out with somebody who has a higher baseline of training. He could have spent four, five or six years in the infantry, been an infantry squad leader, led Marines in combat. So we’re blessed from that aspect of starting with a very good product, and now we turn around and refine that product and make them more capable, more lethal, etc.

Q:Are many of them married?

A:It depends from company to company. It’s usually about half.

Q:MARSOC will turn 10 next year, and the community is maturing. Is it a good time to be in MARSOC?

A:It’s been amazing to see where MARSOC was when it started in 2006 and how fast it has grown, how the capabilities have expanded. Ask the (theater and regional commanders). I think you will be told the MARSOC stock is very high. The commanders we support down range understand our unique capabilities. One of the strengths of a forward deployed (company) is its unique ability to rapidly task organize for any mission that’s at hand. They are very capable, they come with a lot of key enablers that most units don’t have, quite frankly.

Gidget Fuentes is a freelance writer in Oceanside.