Marines, Navy Hone Skills For Embassy Evacuations

By Allyson Park
Marines prepare for evacuating role players via LCAC on Onslow Beach.

Allyson Park photo

CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina — “Looks like the protests have started already,” 1st Lt. Max Berry said casually as he glanced at a group of protestors outside the front doors of the embassy.

The protestors yelled, banged on oil drums, played loud electronic dance music and threw tennis balls over the fence at the embassy security guards and members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit guarding the building.

The tennis balls were a giveaway that it was not a real riot. The protesters were role players, and the embassy was actually the main building at Camp Lejeune.

The Marines, alongside additional forces from the Navy and participants from the State Department, were executing a non-combatant evacuation operation, or NEO, training exercise, exploring how to improve the process of evacuating civilians and senior officials from deteriorating security conditions similar to what happened in Sudan in 2023.

The exercise is part of the Marines’ pre-deployment training program, and it is one of the mission-essential tasks for the Navy’s Amphibious Ready Group and the Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“This is supposed to simulate a deteriorating situation around a consulate or embassy overseas,” Lt. Col. Adam Wilkie, assistant officer in charge at II Marine Expeditionary Force G7/Expeditionary Operations Training Group, told National Defense. “So, if diplomatic issues start arising or protests start happening around those embassies or consulates, the Marine Expeditionary Units and the Amphibious Ready Groups may be called in to do that evacuation.”

Primarily involving the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the exercise officially began on April 12 and continued for about a month.

Run exactly the way non-combatant evacuation operations are executed in real life, the exercise started when State Department officials reported that they needed embassy reinforcement, and the Marines deployed a fleet anti-terrorism security team, flown in on three MV-22 Ospreys. That night, the State Department asked the expeditionary unit to conduct an evacuation of essential personnel due to a deteriorating diplomatic situation.

The following day was “the culminating event,” with about 150 role players acting as protesters and civilians both at the embassy and at the nearby Onslow Beach where Marines established an evacuation control center, ferrying evacuees via Landing Craft Air Cushion to the ships, said Berry, who is the communication strategy and operations directorate officer at the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Operations Training Group.

Wilkie said that overall, the exercise appeared to be going well.

“You got a lot of rhythmic banging on those oil cans out there, some music, tennis balls being thrown,” Wilkie said, glancing outside. “The 24th [Marine Expeditionary Unit] seems to be reacting well to it.”

The whole purpose of this training exercise was to prepare warfighters for the battlefield and replicate the threat environment as accurately as possible.

“If they’re not stressed, and they don’t feel the weight coming down on them, we’re doing something wrong,” Capt. Andrew Cannon, stability operations officer in charge, said. “They need to be put in a situation that’s going to prepare them to go downrange and actually conduct operations.”

There are numerous factors that can impact the operation and outcome of a NEO, like environmental and political conditions, cultural and language barriers and logistics. “A lot can go wrong,” and that’s exactly why these exercises are vital for the Marines, the Navy and the State Department, said Maj. Mark Moore, executive officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 24.

The training was not tailored to any specific political climates in any particular regions of the world, as everything the Marines prepare for is applicable throughout the entire geographic combatant command, Cannon said.

“Everything has its nuances, everything is different, whether that be Lebanon NEO, Afghanistan NEO, everything is ever-changing,” he said. “We always present the [Marine Expeditionary Unit] with different challenges, and we present them with something new every time. It’s never the same answer, whether that be a land-based course of action that they have to conduct, whether it be an air-based course of action that they have to conduct or any combination there in between.”

Maj. Brian Hubert, executive officer of 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, said the Marines “never want to be surprised” in a NEO scenario.

“Before we get here, we take a look at the atmospheres and what’s occurred recently,” he said. “We plan for the worst, but at the same time we can be as gentle as possible, so that if it has to go to that, we’re ready, but we’re also ready to care for kids and infants and hand out water.”

The Marines “can’t do anything” without logistics, said Lt. Col. Adam Coker, executive officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“It depends on what mission we have. We may have to shuffle things around in the ship. We do that beforehand before we go from ship to shore,” he said. “So, we come ashore with pretty much hand-carried stuff. The bigger stuff may come in later using some trucks. But you would be amazed once you see the beach — all the stuff that we bring out from the ship is impressive.”

Another aspect of the exercise was establishing sufficient command, control and communications as quickly as possible, which grows more challenging with the number of services involved. The Marines, Navy and the State Department all have their own systems and even their own lingo, and being able to bridge that communication gap is extremely important for seamless and efficient operations.

“We’re all on different networks. We can cross-talk through email, web, chat, all of that, to include single-channel radio,” said Capt. Jade Seabrook, assistant communications officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “It really is just a little bit more coordination. … We just have to make sure that we’re coordinating with any other branch or NATO partners, that kind of thing.”

Communications officers like Seabrook ensured commanding officers were able to link with the amphibious ships, the onshore forces and both the Navy and State Department, providing data services for all the teams involved in the exercise and communicating via web, email, chat and phones to both classified and unclassified systems.

“In addition to that, we do single-channel radio,” she said. “Essentially, we connect our systems to the satellites to provide any sort of communications they would need. With that, we send back intelligence reports, we send back situation reports. Anything that’s happening here on the ground that the Marine Expeditionary Unit commander needs, we send that back to them to include all three ships.”

Seabrook said the communications side of the exercise went well. At the beginning of the exercise, the Marine Corps team set up comms within five minutes, she said.

“I think we’ve worked through some lessons learned that we have, at least on the communication side of the house, with just ensuring that before we leave the ships, or before we insert anywhere, we just have to make sure that everybody can communicate beforehand,” she said. “We just have to do checks prior to make sure that all units can communicate so we’re not troubleshooting on the ground. … But with all the other subordinate elements, we just have to make sure that they’re on the same page as us.”

Moore said the most important thing to consider when conducting a large-scale exercise is command and control.

“There are four or five different units that come together as a team to make this thing happen,” he said. “That’s really the key, is how do you integrate everything, and how do you command and control to accomplish the mission?”

The Marine Corps and the Navy have been actively training together for a long time, and working both with the sea service and the State Department in the April exercise was “integral” because of the importance of establishing and strengthening relationships, Hubert said.

“We’ve formed relationships, and we understand now what the Department of State and the Department of Defense have to know about each other,” he said. “So, when this does occur, we’re doing it [seamlessly], and we’re efficient.”

Patrick Connell, senior advisor at the State Department, said it was an honor to participate in the NEO training exercise with the Navy and Marine Corps and that it is “critical” that the government and military learn how to communicate and operate together more effectively.

“When the military lands and comes in to assist an embassy or consulate, there are different communities that are coming together that don’t always communicate as easily as one might expect, all being from the federal government,” he said. “It’s important for the military to understand how things operate in an embassy.”

After every training event, the Marine Corps has a “hot wash,” completing an after-action report that compiles all the lessons learned, Wilkie explained.

“And then we will take any lessons that we learned from the previous pre-deployment training program and apply them to the design and construction of the next branch expeditionary units’ pre-deployment training,” he said.

Cannon said that it is vital that training evolves with the modern battlefield and with the modern world.

“Marines adapt, Marines overcome,” he said. “If we get stuck in our ways, that’s never a good thing. So, we take most recent events, and then we try to adapt to those. So, even though I’ve run this multiple times, it’s never the same.” ND

Topics: Navy News, Training and Simulation