CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- If 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel training seemed real Sept. 21, it was supposed to, according to SSgt. Vincent Kyzer, chief TRAP instructor, Special Operations Training Group.
"I want the Marines I train to experience every possible scenario here, so they won't experience it for the first time when bullets are flying around them," Kyzer explained. "I put them through almost every scenario (of rescuing pilots who have been shot down behind enemy lines) possible."
The Marines who attended Kyzer's TRAP course make up the Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT), Weapons Company, Battalion Landing Team 2/1. Normally, their missions are directed toward the decimation of an enemy's mechanized capability.
Their additional role as the MEU's TRAP force, one of 23 missions a Special Operations Capable MEU may be called upon to perform, is challenging and the realism of the course reflects it, according to Kyzer.
The thumping sound of helicopter blades echoed through the urban mock-up at the 25 Area "combat town" here, and dust clouds erupted from the earth as two CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters touched down near the town. It was their eighth and final mission of the two-week course, but it wasn't the easiest, according to Sgt. Eric Young, 26, recovery team leader.
Team by team, the Marines rushed out of the helicopters into a cloud of dust charging over hilly and rocky terrain. Enemy role-players lay "dead" at their feet, the work of helicopter door gunners during the aircrafts' approach.
From the sky, team leaders had scanned the area below and quickly recognized buildings from intelligence reports. Some were thought to hold a four-man reconnaissance team and pilot, and the enemy was believed to occupy others. The reconnaissance team rescued the pilot days prior but couldn't escape after being attacked by enemy forces.
"A lot of the time we (as Marines) rely on intelligence information," Young said. "That information can suddenly change, and can be the determining factor in a failed mission."
Newly appointed team leaders were disoriented after moving through the wall of dust and some weren't sure where the team had landed in relation to the town. As the teams made their way through the maze of cement structures, the pilot and reconnaissance team's location came into question.
"I wanted them to make mistakes here at the course," Kyzer stated. "If they do it in-country, people could die. In this course, they needed the ability to rebound and learn from their mistakes. They were tired and hungry, and they displayed some intestinal fortitude and got through it. This is not an easy course."
Chaos exploded in the dirt streets when Young's recovery team darted toward a two-story structure. They didn't know whether the people inside were enemy or friendly, but when Platoon Commander, 1stLt. Chris Westhoff, made the call, the teams rushed the building.
"We're U.S. Marines!" shouted a Marine as he moved into the structure's doorway and took aim with his weapon.
More role-players lay dead in the streets, a result of sporadic firefights, as Marines continued toward the building.
Inside, a man huddled in the corner, gripped his arm and grimaced at the sight of bone protruding through the skin of his forearm. The blood and bone fracture were part of the scenario, the realism a credit to the Hollywood-style makeup used by SOTG.
"I didn't think the stress level would be high after sitting through all of the mission briefs," said Navy Hospital Apprentice Joshua Leventhal, 22, platoon corpsman. "As it was happening, it felt real. The stress level progressively got higher."
The entire rescue mission lasted about 20 minutes, during which time, the TRAP force found the injured men, identified them, treated their wounds, and returned them to the helicopter before making their escape.
The most intense moments came when the Marines encountered the downed pilot and reconnaissance team. Before their injuries were treated, they had to be identified. During the course, the Marines learned tracking skills to find pilots and evaders, and were also instructed to recognize what pilots carry with them for identification.
"When a TRAP force goes into enemy territory, everyone's an enemy," Kyzer said. "Initially, there's tension between the pilot and the TRAP force. The Marines have to make sure the pilot is a friendly and assure him that they are Marines."
Inside the building, the recovery teams found the reconnaissance team and pilot.
"U.S. Marine coming upstairs. Keep your weapon on the deck!" rang out, as the recovery team searched the building.
The injuries ranged from broken bones to open stomach wounds. The injured men spewed fake blood, screamed and writhed in pain as they played out their role as the downed pilot and injured reconnaissance Marines.
"This was the best training I've had so far," Leventhal said. "It challenged me to bring the platoon's focus toward treating casualties and it allowed me to apply my knowledge. It has made me a better corpsman."
For the Marines, treating casualties wasn't part of their routine training exercises. Although challenging and stressful, the Marines were excited about their new role for 11th MEU.
"This training was awesome. It was realistic and stressful," Young said. "Our motivation level helps. I feel that being part of the TRAP force is prestigious. We want to be the best, because we might have to go in and rescue Americans."