AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Army Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Delta Force - you've probably heard of those special operations forces. What about MARSOC? Well, it stands for Marine Special Operations Command. The unit has been around for a decade, but in the last couple of years these Marines have been rebranded, given a name taken from the pages of World War II history - Raiders. Reporter Jay Price of member station WUNC takes a look at the nation's youngest, smallest and least-known special operations unit.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Here in Stone Bay, N.C., this is the sound of Marine Special Operations coming of age. Earthmoving equipment - it's everywhere on the unit's high-security compound, which is like one big construction site.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's awesome to see how we've progressed.
PRICE: The Raiders made this captain available for a brief tour on the condition that his name not be used. They keep a low profile, even by the standards of special operations, which include some units that aren't even officially discussed. Partly that's because the Raiders are so small and young and partly because they want it that way.
This is the site for the Raiders intelligence center being cleared and smoothed. Five new buildings are under construction and 13 more are planned as the unit tries to pull all its functions together. Right now, some things are here and others are scattered across the sprawling Camp Lejeune next door. Building an entire branch of special operations from scratch means the Marines have been able to craft their base and their force like they want. They started with decades of lessons other special operations units had learned about what works and what doesn't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When we first started this thing out, it was a group of guys sitting down and saying, how do we really shape a course that creates the individual that we want?
PRICE: The Raider captain says the unit first developed a tough selection process and then its training course based on input from Navy and Army special operations. Now, after several years of their own missions, the Marines are refining that training based on their experiences.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The great part is we've got a unique group of guys here that have been assessed and selected and have been doing this job for years. And they are constantly seeking to improve and better what we do here.
PRICE: A big step in shaping the unit's identity came two years ago when it reached back into Marine lore and revived the name of its closest ancestor. Those earlier Raiders were elite units that fought tough missions in the Pacific during World War II. The modern Raiders identity is evolving. Col. Craig Kozeniesky is the deputy commander. He says it retooled its three combat units last year after ending a heavy cycle of deployments in Afghanistan to focus them on individual regions of the globe.
COLONEL CRAIG KOZENIESKY: Each one looks just a little bit different in they do with for that commander out there.
PRICE: Often, small Raider units are sent to advise and assist local forces in countries like Tunisia and the Philippines. They also are working with Iraqi troops in the fight against ISIS. This role is somewhere between training locals and outright combat. It's become routine for special operations units with the Obama administration's shift in emphasis from direct military action to helping other countries take on threats themselves. Military analyst William Arkin says that focusing on specific regions makes sense with American forces deploying to so many places these days.
WILLIAM ARKIN: We really do need that specialization, and the Marines are not large enough to necessarily take over any one of those missions. But they certainly can be the primary force or the exemplary force in terms of their role.
PRICE: But the Raiders say their size is also a strength because it means a tighter team. They have only about 3,000 Marines. That's little more than a tenth of the number of troops in Army special operations and less than a third as many as Navy special ops. Arkin says a big question is whether their identity will be distinctive. He thinks they should lean heavily on the traditional Marine expertise in brief, hard-hitting missions and coastal fighting. The Raider compound is taking shape adjacent to the shooting ranges at Camp Lejeune, which is handy for Raiders like these, who are honing their handgun skills.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Every time you anticipate, you hit a little to the left.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Same sight (unintelligible).
PRICE: The compound has a fancy climbing tower next to a C-130 transport plane and an Osprey tiltrotor transport, both decommissioned, that they use for training. The buildings include some that are odd-looking, sinister even, with no windows and strangely angled walls. One is dominated by a tower for drying parachutes. Most people try to avoid parachuting into water. For the Raiders, that's routine. There are shoot houses where instructors up on catwalks follow operators as they practice moving room to room, shooting live ammunition.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
PRICE: Kozeniesky says the Raiders' capabilities are a unique blend with more emphasis on amphibious operations than, say, Army Rangers, but less than SEALS. And they offer something else, that aggressive can-do Marine ethos.
KOZENIESKY: You're Marines first, and then your special operations is what you do. And we try to live by that.
PRICE: Much of what they do isn't public. Twenty nine have died in combat. But Marine operators have won seven Navy Crosses, a decoration just below the Medal of Honor. The Raiders are planning a birthday event this summer. All the details aren't in place yet, but as military celebrations go it will probably be low-key. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Stone Bay, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.