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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2001

Marines: America's 911 force

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Affairs Writer

The U.S. Consulate was under siege as militiamen took potshots from protected positions and fired machine guns drive-by style from speeding jeeps.

Marines from Company I, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment provide security around a landing zone as CH-53 helicopters evacuate Americans from a fictional U.S. Consulate during a noncombatant evacuation exercise at Ford Island.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Fearing for the safety of his staff and American families that had taken refuge inside, the senior diplomat called for an evacuation.

In came a company of Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment at Kane'ohe Bay, who quickly set up machine-gun positions around the complex, checked credentials and whisked the group to safety aboard CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters.

The "noncombatant evacuation operation" was just a training exercise at Ford Island last week, but it represents a real enough mission.

"This is one of the premier missions for the Marine Corps, so we need to be ready to go at any time," said Maj. Bill Vivian, a battalion operations officer at Kane'ohe. "The Marine Corps is the nation's 911 force — you call and we respond."

Tuesday through Thursday last week Marines practiced that mission over and over at Ford Island, making use of the old airfield and abandoned three-story bachelor officers quarters, which simulated an American consulate in a foreign country experiencing internal strife.

During one of the training exercises, as Marines secured the "consulate," Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters scouted the vicinity. Inside and out, the Marines were presented with a variety of challenges.

There were role players representing media. The daughter of an American "businessman" who took refuge at the consulate with his family had asthma, raising medical concerns. One woman spoke only French, prompting a quick survey of language skills. Marines had to determine who was friend and who was foe, and check for weapons. There was even a pet dog to consider.

"We don't want them to get comfortable, so we change the scenarios on them with different role players so they have to think through each situation," said Marine Lt. Col. David Close. "It's all a mental challenge — how do we handle the person who doesn't speak English? Is this a criminal or a friendly?"

At the same time, outside forces were dealing with threats such as "aggressors" firing machine-gun blanks from a jeep, requiring a quick response on the part of the company commander.

"If he's thinking, he'll run the helicopter on them as soon as they clear the friendlies," Close said. He was, and seconds later, one of the OH-58s zoomed after the jeep.

Three Marine infantry battalions are based in Hawai'i, but one is always forward-deployed to Okinawa. The Marines conduct noncombatant evacuation training two to three times a year, but other exercises incorporate similar elements. Underscoring the relevance of the training, a platoon of 50 Marines, part of the Navy's 6th Fleet, landed in Macedonia last week to enhance security at the U.S. Embassy there after violence erupted earlier in the week.

"We never want to say it could happen here," said Marine Maj. Chris Hughes, "but there are so many hot spots throughout the Asia-Pacific region where a situation like this could evolve at a moment's notice."