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Chaos in the Heart of Yuma

By Story by Lance Cpl. Christian Cachola | Marine Corps Air Station Yuma | October 14, 2016

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YUMA, Ariz. (October 14, 2016) – The whine of helicopter rotors pierce the air. The blades on two CH-53E “Super Stallion” helicopters pick up speed as they circle and prepare to touch down on the empty field; a small Landing Zone (LZ) marked by an orange rectangle. Rotor-wash sends dust and leaves flying towards onlookers gathered near a chain-link fence. Within seconds, armed Marines rush down the exit ramp and squad leaders yell orders to rapidly set up a security perimeter.

The sound of chaos erupts from the heart of Yuma at Kiwanis Park. But, this is not a combat operation. Complete with medical equipment, role-players and simulated casualties, students of Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) 1-17, hosted by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1), converge to test their skills in a Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) exercise October 14, 2016.

Fifteen minutes earlier, these Marines were gearing up on the Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, flight line. Donning heavy tactical vests, helmets, backpacks and rifles in the Sonoran heat, they quickly file into the helicopters. The droning of steel slicing the air drowns out all sound as they lift off the ground and speed away towards the park.

With the support of the City of Yuma, the biannual HA/DR is a unique exercise that evaluates the student’s ability to enforce security and render aid to displaced civilians in an area impacted by conflict and natural disasters. The wild card is, like in real-world operations, the students don’t know what to expect in a constantly changing environment.

“I was thinking it wouldn’t look like this,” said Pfc. Samuel Carter, an automatic rifleman with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, based out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii. “I figured it would be a small town, not an open field.”

Presented with very little cover and concealment, the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment and Marines of 3rd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, based out of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, reinforce the Entry Control Point (ECP), a single gate joining a chain-link fence, against a small mob of role-players acting as angry protestors. The Marines must gauge their reactions carefully under the watchful eyes of the evaluators roaming the area between the gate and the LZ.

Throughout the exercise, students are graded on how they handle physical security, force resupply, extraction, on-site medical care, the role-players and food distribution within a civilian setting.

“This really tests my Marines’ ability to process the shoot-no-shoot scenarios,” said Capt. Marcus Carlstrom, the company commander of Fox Company. “It’s easy to train guys to shoot when you’re doing offensive or dynamic operations, but when you’re in a scenario where there’s local civilians, women and children, non-combatants in the area … It really tests that Marine’s decision-making process.”

Through the myriad of tasks and coordination, one thing is constant: the mob at the ECP is getting louder, larger and more intense.

Within 20 minutes, two protesters have already been subdued and detained for jumping the fence and trying to steal a “supply drop” of water by diverting the attention of the guards in different directions. Moments later, a dozen protestors suddenly push through the perimeter, linking arms to brace against the aggressive Marine security detail.

As the protestors attempt to advance, chaos erupts: fists, limbs, gear, guns and reflective belts tumble in a giant cloud of dust; a desperate melee to prevent the role-players from crossing the berm. Amid the anarchy, the Marines maintain control, and one-by-one the protestors are detained or flee.

All is quiet by the time darkness falls. The Marines are exhausted, the gate is vacant of dissenters and it appears the students finally have a moment of peace.

The stillness is short-lived as a horde of role-players, acting as civilians with minor to serious injuries, violently crash against the ECP. All available Marines and sailors suddenly find themselves handling a mass-casualty situation. The medical tent is filled in minutes with the most grievous wounds.

Sentries bark for the rest of the role-players to stay back, as the Corpsmen prepare to medically evacuate those they can save. The Marines and sailors guide able-bodied casualties towards the dark tree-line, and place them into small groups.

A CH-53E looms overhead. All available hands deftly grab the casualties on stretchers. They shuffle, in two groups of ten, across the dark field towards the exit ramp of the waiting helicopters. With haste, the Marines secure the injured inside of the dimly lit cargo bay.

In the blink of an eye, the aircraft disappears into the night sky.

Altogether, WTI students and instructors completed various tasks and exercises as part of certification and preparation for real-world incidents that they may encounter throughout their career. In turn, WTI graduates will return to their units and teach what they have learned during the seven-week course. This ensures that the Marines are prepared for contingencies in any clime or place.
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