MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
Sand swirling around the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters provided light concealment for the Marines as they touched down to seize the airfield. Weapon-toting enemy fighters milled about the area and watched as the unit systematically closed in from across the tarmac toward the airport’s facilities. Like cats waiting for their prey, they waited patiently for just the right moment to attack.
The Marines and sailors with Battalion Landing Team, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, were taking part in an airfield seizure exercise at the Twentynine Palms Airport, just minutes from the Combat Center gate, March 4, 2011. The exercise is part of their preparation for their upcoming deployment as Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, the ground combat element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. The seizure exercise was part of a larger training evolution known as Exercise Pacific Horizon 2011, taking place aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and the Combat Center from March 2-7.
Minutes later, the role players attacked. Enemy fighters let loose a barrage of simulated gunfire and rocket propelled grenades. They detonated pre-positioned improvised explosive devices and suicide bomber vests in an attempt to pick off the Marines.
As if operating from a script, the heavily-armed Marines and sailors with E Company, 2/7, absorbed the assault, then trained their massive firepower on their enemy. Within minutes, the hunted became the hunter, and all that was left were dead enemy fighters and several insurgents with no other option but to run around the airfield, shouting and trying to evade capture and making it as difficult as possible for the Marines.
Airfields are tactically crucial to any fight, not only for their ability to base and house units, but also for bringing in supplies to friendly forces, said Capt. Richard McKenzie, company commander of Co. E, 2/7. This is why it is also crucial to practice taking control of these favorable facilities from enemy forces.
“We came in to take these buildings; we landed multiple birds on the airfield and provided security,” said Cpl. Ryan Graham, the company radio operator with Co. E, 2/7. “As soon as security was set, we started pushing by squad rushes up to the objective.”
The helicopters lifted off, but stayed close and circled just a few hundred feet above the area, waiting for the call to drop down and retrieve the Marines as soon as the airport was under their control.
The Marines were especially careful in their approach to the role players. In a real world airport seizure, not everyone would be the enemy and not all hostile individuals would be armed. Trainers made it tougher to distinguish friend from foe, by dressing all roles players in jeans and T-shirts.
The element of unpredictability and free-thinking role players adds to the experience and makes it harder for the Marines and ultimately provides the most realistic training scenario possible, Mckenzie said.
After sustaining light casualties and taking control of the airport, the unit called in a notional medical evacuation, another skill the unit needed to practice before heading out to the South Pacific with the MEU.
Being able to perform flawless evacuations is an important skill for a battalion landing team, whose responsibilities could include spearheading assaults and amphibious landings, Mckenzie said.
“Being on a MEU, you’ll never know what kind of task you are going to have,” Graham said. “You could be going to Afghanistan one minute, and a week later being doing something like this in another country.”
In less than an hour, all hostile role players were either dead or subdued with flexi-cuffs, and the assault was over. McKenzie said the Marines did well and were successful in accomplishing their mission.
As quickly as they had landed, the Marines boarded waiting helicopters and swooped away into a clear blue sky.