AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — More than 30 Naval officers currently deployed to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, in support of Multi-National Force-West have spent the past months boning up on their Marine Corps knowledge and skills in pursuit of the coveted Fleet Marine Force Qualified Officer designation and the right to wear the unique gold and silver breast insignia.
According to Lt. Cmdr. Todd Lewis, the deputy surgeon and medical planner for MNF-W, earning this warfare qualification is a boon to a Naval officer's career and professional competence.
"Attainment of the FMFQO designation for a Navy officer signifies an achieved level excellence and proficiency in Marine Corps operations," said Lewis, who is on his second deployment to Iraq with Marine forces, and is one of the architects of the current FMFQO designation course for MNF-W. "It indicates a fundamental understanding of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force and its components."
The FMFQO program is optional for Naval officers who are attached to a Marine Corps unit or a part of a unit that directly supports a Marine Corps unit, and MNF-W's ongoing FMFQO candidates include chaplains, medical officers, staff judge advocates, and officers from both the Al Asad Base Command Group, Riverine Squadron Two, and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 24.
Done only in their spare time and aside from their primary duties, these officers study all aspects of the Marine Corps including history, organization, weapons, land navigation and a host of other skills to enhance their service alongside Marine units. The officers must also participate in the combat marksmanship program, complete a series of conditioning hikes and pass the Marine Corps physical fitness test.
After completing the required classroom instruction and practical applications, the Naval officers take a 100-question written exam. If they pass, they later participate in an oral test, given by a board consisting of two FMF-qualified Naval officers and one Marine officer. They must pass with an 80 percent or better on both the written and oral exams to earn their FMF insignia. While most Marines are familiar with seeing FMF insignia on the chests of corpsmen and religious programmers, the FMFOQ insignia is a bit rarer, and those officers supporting MNF-W leapt at the chance to earn the designation.
"Officers who wear the FMFQO insignia stand out as significant contributors to the Naval services' ground warfare mission," Lewis added, "and signifies additional general knowledge that enhances their understanding of warfighting."
Much of the classroom instruction is given by Marine instructors, who also supervise the PFT and practical application scenarios. During a recent vehicle familiarization aboard Camp Ripper, Marines from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, lent a hand in improving the Naval officers' understanding of all things Marine.
"The purpose of the vehicle familiarization is for the students to learn more about the vehicles," said Lt. Cmdr. John Brooks, a preventative medicine officer with MNF-W and a FMFQO program coordinator. "When they see the vehicles outside of a textbook, it reinforces knowledge and gives them hands-on experience."
The sailors looked at five different variants of the light armored vehicle, including the basic LAV-25 as well as mortar, logistical, command and control, and recovery variants. Marines from 3rd LAR explained the nomenclature and functions of the LAVs, as well as the crewmembers' roles, and how LAVs have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allowing the sailors to interact with the Marines and climb in and over the vehicles gave them an understanding no amount of classroom instruction could duplicate.
Navy Capt. Gerard Hayes, the battalion surgeon for NMCB-24, said he not only learned more about the vehicles from hands-on experience, but also enjoyed interacting with Marines, something Hayes does not get to do on a regular basis.
"The 18, 19, and 20-year-old Marines are very knowledgeable and professional," said Hayes, who is serving his first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "The class was great, and I learned a lot. I always wanted to serve with Marines, so this is a good opportunity."
Gunnery Sgt. Lance Anderson, who serves in 3rd LAR's operations section, said the course was also a good learning experience for the Marines in the battalion, because it allowed them to interact with a variety of people.
"It's great to be able to open up and share knowledge with some of the other branches of service," said Anderson, who is on his second deployment to Iraq. "The only time we usually work directly with the Navy is with our corpsmen, so this is a unique opportunity to give the Navy officers an understanding of what we do."
Navy Lt. Corinne Devin is a dental officer with Combat Logistics Battalion 7, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), and said participating in the program helps her gain a well-rounded perspective of the Marine Corps.
"I believe it's very important for a Naval officer to have a solid understanding, especially in the Medical Corps," said Devin. "To understand [the Marine Corps] will not only aid in getting my job done, but strengthen the Navy-Marine team."
Anderson said the pin not only represents hard work and commitment, but also shows the great relationship between the Marines and sailors.
"This shows us they are willing to go above and beyond their normal call of duty, and we respect that," said Anderson. "In turn, this gives them a better understanding of the combat arms portion of the Marine Corps in a deployed environment."
Similar programs are being run for enlisted sailors across MNF-W who are seeking to earn their own FMF qualification.