BAY OF BENGAL, Bangladesh --
Reconnaissance Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) used their unique skills to help bring food, water and basic medical treatment to thousands of Bangladeshis during humanitarian assistance and relief efforts here this week.
“This was a different type of mission but no less important,” said Staff Sgt. Lawrence T. O’Connor, team leader, 1st Platoon, Company A, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, or “Alpha One” as it is known in the Recon community. Alpha One is part of the 1st Marine Division but is attached to the 11th MEU (SOC), Camp Pendleton, Calif., during their scheduled six month deployment through the Western Pacific Ocean and Arabian Gulf region.
O’Connor led one of two teams of Marines in conducting landing zone surveys that were needed to give pilots of CH46E Sea Knight and CH53E Super Stallion helicopters the “thumbs up” to land and drop off relief supplies to several villages and sites affected by Tropical Cyclone Sidr. The deadly cyclone struck Bangladesh’s southern coast Nov. 15 and killed more than 3,000 people and left several hundred thousand homeless. The Department of Defense effort is part of a larger United States response coordinated by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development.
“We had to paint a visual picture with words and photos for higher headquarters and verify that the grid coordinates they had on the map matched those on the ground,” said O’Connor.
“The cyclone caused major flooding in the area,” said HM2 Eric J. Larson, a special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman. “We had to make sure the landing zones were not clogged with debris or any other obstructions.” As a SARC corpsman, Larson’s mission is different from hospital corpsman attached to regular infantry units. Grunts have corpsman whose primary mission in combat is to take care of Marines first, then transition as fighters. Larson’s is the opposite, he’s a shooter first and then a medic, said O’Connor.
“Most of us had never been involved in this type of mission before but they are very suited for the job,” said O’Connor, who is from Indianappolis, Ind. His team included, Cpls. Andrew Perryman, Marcus Heggen, both from Illinois and Larson, who is from Tieton, Wash.
According to O’Connor, most recon Marines, including member of his team are confident and aggressive and what he calls them “type A” personalities. They have keen eyesight and observation skills and an attention to detail most would call “anal retentive.” They are also expert marksmen and fierce fighters who can handle themselves in case things don’t go as planned.
Recon Marines and Sailors are also more used to hiding motionless in the sand or grassy fields, often for days, camouflaging their movements with the blowing wind and moving only in the shadows. These are skill sets, although suited for covert missions, “can be applied to any mission,” said O’Connor.
For this mission however, the recon team had to blend in not with the shrubbery, but with the population. So they traded in their utilities and high-speed combat gear and electronics for civilian attire, digital cameras, maps and light communications equipment. They replaced their fierce gaze with a smile and relaxed as best they could to blend in with the population.
In a hostile environment this would have been difficult, but not here, said O’Occonor.
“There was never a time when I felt we were in any danger,” he said. “The people were very happy to see them and very appreciative of the help we were providing and the village elders were very helpful and concerned with getting us everything we needed.”
“We still prepared for every contingency just in case,” added Larson.
The two teams were assisted by host nation drivers every step of the way. They helped guide the recon team across several rivers on pontoon boats, ferries and drove them through the small and congested city streets and village roads to the possible landing zones.
One of these sites was a large “cricket” field in a school yard. Others were on the bank of small fishing village, and field just outside of town, said Larson. At every site, they were mobbed by curious people and it was obvious that their missions would be neither typical nor covert. They wanted to see and touch the Americans who were providing aid, said O’Connor.
According to Larson, each mission was successful and they were able to clear Sea Knights and Super Stallion helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (Reinforced) to begin transporting medical teams and supplies from amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa (LHA 1).
After the mission, Larson and O’Connor said accomplishing their objective gave them a satisfaction different from the rest. Kind of like being on the side of the underdog and helping them win, he said.
O’Connor said he was struck by the strength and perseverance of the Bangladeshi people. They have been through and bounced back from so many natural disasters, and though “they have very little, they still smile and will give you the shirt off their back.”
“Whatever they have, they have built with their hands or grown in their fields,” he said.
O’Connor said he learned that the sea water that washed over their farm fields will ruin their crops for the next couple of seasons. “So farmers are trying to sell their crops as fast as they can to feed their families,” he said.
“It feels good to know,” said Larson, that in a small way, what they did on their mission, is helping some of those families survive.
(For high resolution images of any 11th MEU (SOC) story contact Staff Sgt. Sergio Jimenez email@example.com.)