U.S. 5TH FLEET AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY
– Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Armando Arias hunts down signatures to complete his long list of qualifications needed aboard USS New Orleans (LPD 18). After talking with a few helpful shipmates he returns to his desk in the library and sits down. It’s just about lunchtime and Marines begin to trickle in to use the Internet. He loves talking with the Marines and reminiscing about his previous deployments with them, i.e., the green side of Navy operations implanted in Marine units.
Arias is interested in a number of Marine Corps programs, and particularly in their martial arts program.
The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) is essential part of a Marine curriculum, in which every Marine partakes. The Marine Corps created the martial art program in 2006 to aid Marines in hand-to-hand combat. Since Arias craves all things Marine, he yearned for the opportunity to work his way up to black belt in MCMAP.
“With the Marines I was doing great things,” said Arias. “A year ago I was a Corporals’ Course instructor. I was a black belt. I got a Navy Commendation Medal. I was personally selected for bodyguard duties for Colonels going to dangerous places.”
Arias misses his adventures with the Marine Corps, but he has a plan to share his green side skills with Sailors aboard New Orleans.
Arias has roots that connect him to the Marine Corps.
Nearly every person in Aria’s family was a Marine, including every one of his cousins and brothers-in-law. Even his wife was a Marine, stationed at Miramar Marine Corps Base in San Diego. For Arias, joining the military was something of a family tradition, so it was an easy decision.
“My wife was going to get out and finish her degree, and I was going to enlist and change my life, “ said Arias. “The Navy gave my everything, including $10,000 to be a Religious Programs Specialist for five years.”
After boot camp, Arias went to Religious Programs Specialist A-school for training in his rate. His instructors informed him of his orders to the 1st Marine Logistics Group in Camp Pendleton, Calif. But first he needed to attend the field medical training school at Camp Johnson, N.C.
Part of the curriculum at Camp Johnson focused on MCMAP. The program uses a belt rank structure with a colored hierarchy. The belts begin with tan, move up to green, brown, then to black. Once students are able to instruct at a particular level, they wear a tab on their belts of the color they are permitted to instruct.
“Part of the greenside training required us to earn our tan belts,” said Arias.
Thus, Arias went on to earn his belt.
It was October of 2009, Arias, the novice tan belt, was fresh out of A-school and ready for the field. His first deployment was to a small, remote forward operating base in a dangerous area of Helmand province, Afghanistan.
“I needed to get out of San Diego and go on deployment,” said Arias. “I had to start from scratch. I had to buy a house, buy a car, all that stuff. So, deployment was good to me, and it gave me a little experience.”
Conditions were rough during his first deployment to Afghanistan and there wasn’t a single MCMAP instructor on base. After a year deployed, he returned to San Diego, where he lived the following year. Arias was then deployed again to Afghanistan. This time he was stationed at a much larger base, Camp Leatherneck, with many more amenities, including MCMAP instructors.
When I got to Afghanistan, I replaced a chief RPC [Chief Religious Programs Specialist],” said Arias. “Everything was going well and I realized I had a brown belt; I needed to get that black belt.”
The first sergeant hand-selected Arias to be a Corporal’s Course instructor. Luckily, one of the other instructors was a MCMAP instructor. So, Arias would physically train and teach courses in the morning and train in MCMAP in the afternoons. Every day, two hours a day, he would train until he finished. He earned his black belt in April.
One goal remained unachieved for Arias. He needed to complete a 15-day course to become a MCMAP instructor. When he returned to Camp Pendleton, he enrolled in the instructor’s course, along with 22 other Marine students. He was the only Sailor.
The students, in their tan camouflage uniform and no boots, were split into two squads. Arias’ squad sat together on the red and black gym mats inside the huge gym in Camp Pendleton. Sgt. Hancock, a bald ten-year Marine veteran with half of his arm tattooed, led the exam.
Sgt. Hancock called Arias for his turn to take the test. He stood before Sgt. Hancock, who paced around him with a binder in his hands. He begins by asking Arias to execute a leg sweep. Arias executes a leg sweep on his opponent. Sgt. Hancock writes some notes in his binder. The instructor orders him to execute a counter to a bear hug. Arias executes. The instructor again marks the binder. Arias performs five more random moves from each of the four belt levels.
“I tried to test out one day early and failed,” said Arias. “They stopped me at green belt. I went home and I began to worry. I’ve been doing this for two weeks straight now. What if I don’t pass tomorrow? What if I don’t have a good day? I was already in a lot of pain and taking Motrin.”
On the final day Arias was again ready to be tested. The instructors stood before him with their binders and pens. Arias executed one move after another, each move getting more complicated. He finished all the moves, and, after a moment, the instructor finished writing in his binder. They left the room, and when they returned they congratulated him. Arias graduated along with only 17 other students.
My forearms were killing me,” said Arias. “I was in so much pain, but I was so excited.”
After his achievement, Arias looked for advice on what do next.
Arias hesitated to tell his instructors that he received orders to USS New Orleans (LPD 18) – to the blue side of ship operations at sea. He knew they put a lot of work and time into training him, and he didn’t want to squander his opportunity that could have been used for another potential Marine instructor.
“When you go and do these trainings, you’re taking up a space that another Marine could fill,” said Arias. “They need those positions to make themselves promotable. A Marine could be in that class training, but the Marine Corps will take you if you have what it take to be an instructor.”
Arias waited in the schoolhouse thinking about how to break the news. He walked up to his red tab instructors and cautiously posed the question: “Gentlemen, I got orders to USS New Orleans,” said Arias. “You’ve been instructing instructors for a while. Let me ask you this: what’s your opinion about implementing MCMAP on the ship for Sailors?”
It took the instructors two seconds for the response: “Do it! That’d be awesome!” The Marine Corp has been trying to popularize MCMAP throughout the military since its inception in 2001. This was a great opportunity to spread the program.
Now when Arias isn’t chasing down signatures for qualifications, he’s training New Orleans Sailors in Marine martial arts. The command has supported him with mats and other resources, and the crew is excited to have the opportunity to be a part of MCMAP. By running the program for Sailors, Arias is able to preserve his hard-earned instructor tab and share his enthusiasm for what he loves.