MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, ARIZ. -- Under a blazing desert sun, Marines from 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines rushed into a building that was resonating from the sound of AK-47 fire. Just inside the door, they encountered heavy fire from insurgents. With swift and decisive action, the Marines dispatched their enemies and found the individual they had come to capture.
Remarkably, this engagement did not take place in any active combat zone. It occurred near the southern border of Arizona, in the desert east of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.
Nevertheless, the enemies 3rd Battalion faced were training warriors, disciplined in the art of battle and taught to push aside their fears and engage their enemy with relentless determination. The enemy encountered– Marines.
This situation may seem baffling to the outside observer, but it’s commonplace for the Marines of the Tactical Training Exercise Control Group, based out of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., who act as the insurgents during the Corps’ revamped pre-deployment exercise, the Integrated Training Exercise.
These Marines are known as role-players: their mission is to think like, act like, and realistically portray typical insurgent forces Marines are likely to encounter overseas. The role-players add an indispensable element of realism to training exercises, providing deploying Marines breathing, thinking opponents to confront.
“This is as close as you can get other than the real thing,” said Cpl. Kent Brown, a temporary role-player, helicopter mechanic with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 and native of Atlanta. “The last time they ran a raid, we got two of the snipers. You can train all day, but you’re not going to feel close to it until you’re actually out here.”
To better promote the realism of the situation, the role-players dress in contemporary Middle Eastern garb, speak in foreign languages, and carry AK-47s, many of which are capable of firing blanks at the Marines. The role-players also draw on their own experiences to better craft the illusion of reality.
“We try to emulate the insurgents’ mannerisms,” said Cpl. Christopher Hampton, a radio operator with 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company serving temporary assigned duty as a role-player to TTECG and a native of San Clemente, Calif. “My experience comes from my last deployment. I try to recreate what I saw as best I can.”
While the role-players fill an essential role for the Corps, many also enjoy the combat play-acting and the time away from their normal work routines, as most are on six-month detachments to TTECG.
“I love my job, but it’s nice to experience something different – to see what the ground guys go through,” said Brown.
“My favorite part is interacting with the Marines in different situations, watching them figure the situations out,” added Cpl. Joseph Isbrecht, a role-player with TTECG, originally from 8th Engineer Support Battalion and a native of southwest Michigan.
Enjoyment notwithstanding, each role-player must inevitably confront the surreal cognitive dissidence caused by the reality of the job – being a Marine, dressed as an insurgent, fighting Marines.
“It’s definitely odd, sometimes it’s frightening, to see what we can do… what we are capable of,” said Isbrecht. “But it’s a good feeling to know we are training, and they are getting the fullest effect of the training.”
No Marines, either in camouflage or Middle Eastern attire, were harmed in the making of this article.