Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series on U.S. Marines and Navy corpsmen from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay. After laboring through training in the California desert, they are now supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Grueling days and the absence of home’s amenities here make their work exhausting and their down time precious. They labor with little and appreciate the simple. This is their deployment grind.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELHI, Helmand province, Afghanistan — Peering eerily through the scratched lenses of a menacing black and red mask, U.S. Navy Seaman Chris Mesnard’s wild eyes rake his corner of the makeshift combat-zone gym here.
The corpsman toils through a twisted concoction of conditioning exercises, forcing sweat to seep through his olive drab United States Marine Corps hoodie. With each set, his friendly disposition dissipates into an uncomfortable cycle of labored breathing, courtesy of the oxygen-restricting training mask enveloping his face.
Around him, gym mates stare at his strange get-up, but Mesnard doesn’t notice. His consciousness has since evaporated from the makeshift gym. Instead, he’s focused on the self-described “cheesy” image of a sparkling Ultimate Fighting Championship title belt.
The 22-year-old corpsman from Omaha, Neb., and graduate of Bellevue East High School, is currently on his second deployment to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
On duty, Mesnard tends to sick and injured Marines at the battalion aid station, and helps a senior corpsman with administrative duties. In his down time, he trains to fight in mixed martial arts, breaking down his body to feed a four-year obsession with the sport.
“After winning my first fight in 2007, I knew I couldn’t stop,” Mesnard said, relishing memories of the 47-second victory. “I loved MMA before that, but at that moment, I knew it was something in my heart.”
“I wake up thinking about it, and I fall asleep thinking about it,” he continued. “Training to fight isn’t only the best thing I can do in my down time here. It’s the only thing I want to do.”
When he’s not taking care of 3/3 Marines and sailors, Mesnard shifts his focus to training. Inside the gym’s dusty Hesco walls, he channels his energy into conditioning circuits, weight lifting and boxing. Here, he surrounds himself with the tools of his second trade— boxing gloves, chains, a sledgehammer, a truck tire and a makeshift medicine ball filled with sand and sealed with duct tape.
“All I need is a few pieces of equipment to use, and to break a sweat,” he said. “I want to improve, so I consciously decide to train with every free minute I’ve got.”
Mesnard calls the gym his home for nearly two hours a day. The humble surroundings are a far cry from his stateside facilities, but experience has taught him to make a little go a long way.
During his deployment to Helmand province’s Nawa district last year, Mesnard served as the ‘doc’ for a squad of 12 Marines in 3/3’s Kilo Company. For seven months, they forged an unbreakable bond, braving insurgent attacks, improvised explosive devices and the Afghan heat on daily, five to six-hour security patrols.
“Being a corpsman means a lot to me … it’s been a humbling experience,” Mesnard said. “We all moaned and complained, but no matter how much things sucked or how tired we were, I loved being miserable with my guys.”
While operating in Nawa during July 2010, he lost a close friend from his platoon, Sgt. Joe Wrightsman. Mesnard also aided several other friends injured by IED attacks during the deployment.
The life lesson was hard to learn, but Mesnard has translated these experiences to better himself as a corpsman and a fighter.
“In preparation for an MMA fight, I train to have muscle memory,” he said. “My adrenaline’s jacked and my emotions are raging, but just like in combat, I set back on my training.”
Switching billets from the corpsman of an oft-patrolling infantry squad to working at the battalion headquarters has been an adjustment to the grueling routine Mesnard grew to love, but it’s provided him a more structured training schedule.
“This was a sacrifice between my military career and what I want to do in the future, but I made it because I love fighting so much,” he said. “I can’t replace the feeling I get when I compete.”
The more regular schedule has also allowed Mesnard to better regulate his diet. He tries to eat a lot of vegetables and white meats like chicken and tuna, though he called his diet “restrained” and “random” in the deployed environment.
“Being out here restricts your diet,” he said. “I have a sweet tooth, especially for cake. Cake deprivation helps me stay in my routine.”
Though this deployment grind is one he enjoys and knows well, Mesnard is eager for the opportunity to train and fight full-time.
When his active duty service expires in two years, Mesnard plans to advance his skills kickboxing in Thailand for three months, and then return to Nebraska to link up with old teammates and UFC fighters Jake Ellenberger and Houston Alexander. His eventual goal is to fight at the professional level, a dream built off his success as the 2011 Hawaii Triple Crown middleweight jiu-jitsu champion, a title he earned in July.
For the time being, the corpsman has found satisfaction in conditioning exercises and a swaying black punching bag, hunkered in a dusty corner of a gym 7,100 miles from home.
“I have a passion for fighting, and it’s a waste of my talent if I don’t keep training while I’m deployed,” he said. “This definitely isn’t the ideal place to train, but I’ve learned to make the best with what I have.”
Editor’s note: 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.