MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- The Marine Expeditionary Unit is a rapid crisis response force requiring a wide-array of capabilities ranging from full-scale amphibious assaults to military operations other than war.
Marines and Sailors from MEU Service Support Group 15 completed a Humanitarian Assistance Operation (HAO) exercise as part of a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation here Feb. 8.
The Marines were given 30 minutes to set up the distribution site, which consisted of two large tents for medical care, a secure staging area for the supplies, an issuing point, and a spot for the refugees to eat. The site was fortified with concertina wire and armed Marines.
"We've practiced many times for this," said 1stLt. Patricia M. Dienhart, the 25-year-old HAO site commander from Sayre, Pa. "Everyone knows exactly what he or she is supposed to do. Everyone knows who is laying the stakes, who's pounding them, who's spreading the concertina wire. Everyone has a job and they know where it fits into the overall mission."
Despite a last minute change of location, the 65 or so service members completed the site with plenty of time to spare. Then they distributed food, water and medical aid to the "local populace" of about 40 people while keeping everyone safe.
The idea of setting aside a protected point for the refugees to eat and drink came from a lesson learned in a real-world HAO, according to Dienhart. "In Somalia refugees came in, received food and water, and left. But (an opposing faction) stole it from them after they were away from the MEU's protection. Now we're going to provide a place for them to eat and drink safely."
Military Police and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Marines provided security for the site during the evolution. They escorted vehicles to and around the site.
"Every working day for the last month we've practiced some facet of our role in the HAO," said 32-year-old Lance Cpl. David W. Howard, an MP and native of San Jose, Calif. "There's a lot more to security in this type of operation than just sitting behind a gun and waiting for a bad guy to come along."
The security element also protected a landing zone for medevac helicopters and searched each refugee before he or she came into the compound.
Medical personnel had the most work once the scenario began. They faced refugees complaining of various ailments, and several injured Marines being brought in from a truck accident.
Medical teams screened sick refugees and wounded Marines, provided medical treatment, and prepared casualties for evacuation to a higher echelon of care. The evaluation tested the medical staff's ability to assess the different injuries and diseases thrown at them.
"The wide variety is extremely helpful to us," said seaman Hector Carbajal, a 19-year-old Fort Worth, Texas native with the medical detachment. "No one knows for sure what we'll face in a real HAO. Every scenario we see helps us that much more."
Actors wore realistic-looking rubber wounds and makeup while acting out specific symptoms simulating injuries. Once the wounded were brought into the site, the medical staff had to prioritize injuries and treat them.
Each aspect of the HAO was individually observed by 1st Force Service Support Group's operations section. A full written evaluation will be given to MSSG 15's leadership.
"An evaluation like this is priceless," Dienhart explained. "Someone who doesn't train with us on a regular basis but knows what needs to be done, will have a fresh and valuable take on how we're doing.
"We're just starting with the MEU now. We have to crawl before we walk, and walk before we run," she continued. "We're crawling right now, but through more good training we'll be sprinting before long."
Lieutenant Col. Carl D. Matter, commanding officer of MSSG 15, was pleased with what he saw during the exercise, but pointed out that there is a lot in store for them in the next six months before deployment.
"You've made a quantum leap from where you were during [Combined Arms Exercise] just a few months ago," Matter told his Marines and Sailors after the exercise was over. "Things are going to be on a much larger scale at the MEU level. We are going to be tasked with things like moving refugees, providing shelter and in-depth medical care. We've built the foundation for what's to come; now's the time for real construction."
Along with MSSG 15, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163 (reinforced) joined the 15th MEU Command Element Feb. 12. They will now undergo an extensive six-month training period prior to embarking in August on a routine six-month deployment to the Western Pacific, India Ocean and Arabian Gulf.