MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Marine Expeditionary Unit Service Support Group 11, 11th MEU, successfully conducted a Humanitarian Assistance Operation exercise, Jan. 19 – 23, in the rural landscapes of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The 5-day training evolution was part of the 11th MEU's Joint Task Force Exercise and was spearheaded by the Marines and sailors of MSSG-11, Camp Pendleton.
"The HAO went very well," said 1st Lt. Emily Barnes, HAO site commander, MSSG-11. "The Marines did a tremendous job."
The 11th MEU's other major subordinate elements, including the Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Company A, Camp Pendleton and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (Reinforced), Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, also took part in the exercise.
Providing relief with food and water, dental and medical aid, the Marines and sailors of MSSG-11 assisted three makeshift towns that were suffering from the aftermath of battles between the townspeople and insurgents.
Each morning, within the first minutes of daylight, the troops would gather in a formation to receive information regarding the objectives of the day. A convoy would ride out to the famished towns with an armada of 7-ton trucks and humvees equipped with tractors, tents, and tools needed to rebuild the crumbling town.
During one such mission, upon their arrival, the convoy halted at a safe distance and had their explosive ordnance disposal team survey and inspect the roads leading to the town. Once the roads were cleared, the Marines commenced with the assistance.
"(The Marines and sailors) interfaced with the villagers and (in return) they fully cooperated and were very permissive," said Barnes.
Faced with real-life townspeople portrayed by Marines, the Marines and sailors were cautious at first when meeting with the townspeople and they remained that way throughout the duration of the exercise.
One of the biggest challenges the Marines had was balancing security concerns with the desire to be perceived as friendly.
"The Marines must remain vigilant, but hospitable at the same time. Something could happen," said Barnes.
Lt. Col. Stephen D. Sklenka, commanding officer, MSSG-11, told his Marines to always be careful when dealing with civilians. He warned the Marines and sailors that the same people they help, may be the same people who plan an attack on them.
"Concentrate and focus on what you've got to do," Sklenka told his Marines and sailors. "We owe it to each other to survive and succeed."
Initially, before interacting with the populace, Marines from Company A did a quick sweep through the streets of the town and cleared any possible threat to the Marines, but more importantly the townspeople. With no eminent danger, the Marines quickly set up tents to facilitate people in need of medical aid.
During the HAO exercise the Marines faced numerous challenges and obstacles but were prepared for whatever problems came their way. Improvised explosive devices going off, hostile fire from insurgents, frustrated crowds awaiting food or medical attention and even spontaneous celebratory gunfire by the townspeople, were just some of the dilemmas faced by the Marines. Through it all the Marines responded to the needs of the people, which was the purpose for the exercise.