'Noncombatants' plucked to safety by 22nd MEU

13 Dec 2003 | Gunnery Sgt. Keith A. Milks

During its 21-year history, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit has conducted more noncombatant evacuations than any other MEU.

In such far-flung locales as Lebanon, Liberia (on two occasions), Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Albania, and the Republic of Congo, the MEU has extended its arm and pulled to safety thousands of civilians seeking to escape war-torn regions.  With so many regions of the world in turmoil, the need to be able to conduct a NEO is as important now as much as ever.

In the opening days of the 22nd MEU's Expeditionary Strike Group Exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, the unit was tasked with executing a NEO to ensure it is ready should the call to action common during its deployment scheduled to begin next year.

Aboard Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field Bogue Field, elements of Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines were conducting a 'embassy reinforcement' when the scenario disintegrated to a point where a NEO was required.

Charlie Company's executive officer, 1st Lt. Kris Cozad, was on station at the mock embassy when the mission order came, and among those who worked through logistical and personnel constraints to formulate an evacuation plan.

"We came here to do an embassy reinforcement," said the Ontario, Ore., native, "but they kept throwing stuff at us, causing us to continually change and modify our plans."

Although other elements of BLT 1/6 were scheduled to come ashore the next morning to conduct the NEO, the initial force ashore would be required to begin the mission, and consisted of two reinforced rifle platoons, scout snipers from the Surveillance, Target and Acquisition Platoon, Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians from MEU Service Support Group 22, and a Public Affairs Marine from the MEU Command Element.

As the NEO plan evolved and became a reality, Cozad and his Marines had to contend with embassy security requirements, a mass casualty situation, and throngs of violent protestors incessantly probing their security positions.

"The Marines did a great job," said Cozad, responding to a question about his Marines' ability to respond to the constantly-evolving mission.  "We couldn't have asked for anything more from them."

While some Marines remained at the embassy, others were detailed to establish an Evacuation Control Center where potential evacuees are safely, efficiently, and properly processed for evacuation.  Portrayed by off-duty Marines and Sailors, American citizens and designated third country nationals soon began arriving at the ECC seeking protection and evacuation.

Once through an initial screening that included a check of credentials and thorough search of their person and belongings, the evacuees also went through administrative processing and medical stations.  Making the most of available personnel, Petty Officer 1st Class Juan T. Dozier was pulled from the Forward Command Element at the embassy to run the ECC's medical section.

"We [he and Charlie Company corpsman] were responsible for screening the evacuees for injuries and diseases," said Dozier, an independent duty corpsman from Atlanta, Georgia assigned to BLT 1/6.  "If they were injured, we'd get them stabilized and ready for evacuation, but if we diagnose a communicable disease like cholera or small pox, they'd be quarantined and taken care of locally."

Once through the screening process, the evacuees were kept safe until the arrival of helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the MEU's aviation combat element.  In time, the primary ECC force from BLT 1/6's Headquarters and Service Company and Golf Battery arrived at the site in a convoy of seven-ton trucks led by machine gun- and anti-tank weapon-equipped Humvees from the Combined Arms Anti-Tank Heavy Platoon. 

Concurrent with the ECC force's arrival, a 'terrorist bombing' threw the Marines and Sailors into a mass casualty situation which they handled with relative ease.  As the helicopters from HMM-266 (Rein) arrived on the scene, the bombing casualties were treated, the bombing site secured by BLT 1/6 and MSSG-22 personnel, and the evacuees ushered onto the waiting aircraft which flew them to further processing aboard amphibious ships off the coast.

"I was with the react squad and on duty at the ECC when the 'bomb' went off," said Lance Cpl. Mitchell F. Vocke, of Fairfield, Ohio, a Charlie Company rifleman, who watched his fellow Marines and the corpsman peel away from the ECC to deal with yet another mission. 

"Our platoon sergeant [Staff Sgt. Christian A. Boles] is always hammering it into us about being flexible and ready for anything, and this mission is when his philosophy has come in handy."

Without interruption in the evacuation process or dealing with the mass casualties, the primary ECC force fell into place and took over the ECC mission, allowing Charlie Company to fully reassume its security mission at the embassy. 

Within hours, the mission was complete and elements of the force retrograded to amphibious ships offshore, with Charlie Company the last group extracted the next morning.

"The entire exercise went really well," said Sgt. Anthony L. Viggiani, of Strongsville, Ohio, a squad leader with Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon.  "This has been some of the best training we've received.  We had to continually improvise and adapt to the situation, but we still made it happen."

The 22nd MEU is scheduled to deploy early next year aboard the amphibious assault ships WASP, SHREVEPORT, and WHIDBEY ISLAND as part of ESG 2. 

For more information on the mission, organization, and status of the 22nd MEU, visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit