MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- When the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit began Fleet Exercise, with a Humanitarian Assistance Operation (HAO) exercise here June 1, 2001, real refugees were not hand, but Marines and Sailors acting as them were.
About 50 Marines and Sailors of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, and 1st Transportation Battalion, 1st Force Service Support Group, gave up their weekend to assist the MEU in training by acting as refugees, terrorists, local officials in a notional country and representatives of international aid organizations.
“We’re trying to give them the most realistic scenario as possible,” said Lance Cpl. Brian E. Anderson, 23, a rifleman with 3/1 and Phoenix native. “We are trying to get in the mindset of scared, hungry people, so we can provide valuable training to the MEU.”
Many of the Marine actors recently returned with the 13th MEU from a West Pacific deployment, which is what the 15th MEU is preparing for. Those Marines used that and other past experiences to present an accurate portrayal for the training.
“I understand how actual refugees act during HAOs,” said Sgt. Natalio Chavez, 22, a rifleman with 3/1 and Lakewells, Fla., native. “I was able to give the Marines a realistic view because I’ve taken part in real world HAOs in Kosovo, East Timor and Africa.”
While putting up with being searched, bound and even pepper sprayed, the role players stayed within character. Practices of the Muslim culture were incorporated.
“Females are treated very differently in a Muslim society,” explained Lance Cpl. Sonya R. McDonald, 24, a motor transportation mechanic with 1st TSB and Presque Isle, Maine native. “It was almost demoralizing. We couldn’t eat with the males. The Americans couldn’t talk directly to the women. Even when the MEU’s medical staff needed information from a female actor, they would have to go through the woman’s husband.”
The Marines and Sailors of MEU Service Support Group-15 processed, fed, and supplied mock medical care to the “refugees” throughout the exercise, while Marines of Bravo Battery, Battalion Landing Team 1/1, 15th MEU, provided security within the HAO site.
“Trying to care for those who wanted help while dealing with some unruly refugees at the same time really opened my eyes to the undertaking we face in this type of operation,” said PFC Juan P. Caleeron, 19, an artilleryman with BLT 1/1 and a Guatemala native. “The realism they provided us was great.”
The benefit of the actors’ participation in the training was not one-sided.
“This gives all of the actors an insight of the other side of the coin,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen a HAO through the eyes of a civilian’s standpoint now. I can better understand their state of mind.”