Marines deployed as crisis responders in Middle East face daily uncertainty

By Erika I. Ritchie | SCNG

A Camp Pendleton quick reaction force deployed to the Middle East has spent its first seven months keeping ready for any crisis, training foreign forces and reinforcing security for the United State’s diplomatic mission amid heightened tensions.

The 2,000 service members — serving under the U.S. Central Command — have braved temperatures above 120 degrees over the summer and now lows of 40s this winter. They are based throughout the region, some in field camps and others on small bases. For many, the deployment is their first and has left them homesick, especially now during the holidays.

In just the past week, 21 rockets were launched near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. A company of Marines from the unit now stands guard, strengthening defenses.

Should a crisis erupt, these Camp Pendleton Marines are the first line of defense and train hard to keep ready.

“Every Marine and sailor, in one way or another, has trained alongside partner nation forces or helped to maintain our readiness to respond to any crisis,” Col. Andrew Priddy, who commands the special task force, said in a phone call from Kuwait this week. “Our ability to respond to crisis is a team effort, and our success depends on each member of the team being technically and tactically proficient.”

Training while deployed

Marine Lt. Jack Kim, a Rancho Santa Margarita native and a crisis response platoon commander responsible for 41 Marines and sailors, is keeping his unit prepared to know what to do if an aircraft and pilot were to go down.

With training made all the more realistic by simulated combat and translators and role players dressed as locals, his unit raced into the “hostile situation” to handle the situation.

A U.S. Marine observes a Qatari marine practice tactical movement techniques during a subject matter expert exchange in Qatar on Nov. 10. The Marines are the first line of defense if a crisis erupts in the surrounding area,  CPL. ROBERT KUEHN — MARINE CORPS

Speed is critical.

“On a short timeline, we load up in MV-22s (Osprey aircraft) to recover personnel or a plane,” Kim said.

Once on-site, his team has trained to establish a security perimeter letting other Marines who are explosives experts come in and destroy the aircraft, preventing any opportunity for the enemy to get its hands on classified equipment or communications systems. They also practiced what to do to get the downed pilot help.

But Kim’s unit is only one of many operating across the Middle East. Other missions are ongoing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Djibouti.

Whether a Marine is turning a wrench on an aircraft on a flight line or moving supplies across the region, the crisis response force is on alert status and at the ready, Priddy said.

Tensions are rising

As the first anniversary of the U.S. Special Forces strike Jan. 3 that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad approached, U.S. intelligence detected possible signs of threats against U.S. interests in Iraq, The Associated Press reported this week.

In the year since the strike, security at the embassy has been bolstered by additional and more heavily armed Marines. A company of about 100 from this Camp Pendelton task force took over once it was deployed to the region and now mans extra lookout points and are reinforcing positions, Priddy said.

“We continue to maintain enhanced security,” he said. “Largely to enhance diplomatic security missions.”  “The anniversary is coming, and if there are precautions needed, they are taking them,” he said.

The State Department announced a reduction in personnel, but Ambassador Matthew Tueller remains at the embassy.

In the past two weeks, the U.S. military has stepped up its visible presence in the area.

Last week, a Navy guided missile submarine made an unscheduled trip through the Strait of Hormuz, a critical waterway between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, news reports said. More recently, on Wednesday, two B-52 bombers flew a direct, 30-hour flight from an Air Force base in North Dakota over the Persian Gulf and back to the U.S.

The military “continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities” into the area “to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, who oversees the Central Command in the region, said in a statement following the B-52 flights. “We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack.”

Training with our partners

As the Marines have been sharpening their own skills while on their deployment, they also have trained with military units from the countries in the region.

“Like any military across the world you train with, you recognize how good they are,” Priddy said. “Our relationship helps them, and for us having a good relationship, it gives us access. If we serve alongside them, it won’t be the first time.”

In September, Marines worked with the 77th Jordanian Marines Battalion, preparing them for an upcoming deployment. The Marines shared organizational tips and training protocols. That same month, another unit trained in live-fire exercises with the United Arab Emirates’ Presidential Guard. Marines demonstrated some of their own tactics, including how they call in an airstrike on a ground target.

In November, Marines worked with their military counterparts in Qatar. They exchanged tactics on military movements using smaller units and helped them perfect rifle use.

The Marines also trained with other American forces in the area.

As part of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s emphasis on more integration with the Navy, members of the deployed unit also met up with crews from the USS Nimitz — the Navy aircraft carrier left Southern California in June on its own deployment.

In the joint training, two F-18s from the carrier landed in Kuwait for a ground refueling mission at a makeshift airport the Marines created in an area that would typically not be equipped for fueling capabilities.

Maj. Andrew Simon oversaw the training, which he knows from experience is important. In 2011, the KC130 pilot was part of a real life event in Japan where the Marine Corps created a temporary landing space for aircraft to refuel while providing humanitarian aid following the tsunami.

“It highlights our ability to rapidly respond,” said Simon, 36, on his second deployment to the Middle East. “Working with the Nimitz validates our ability to integrate with them and expands their ability to respond.”

In addition to aircraft, the expeditionary refueling sites also work for military ground and amphibious vehicles.

Based in Kuwait

President Donald Trump had announced a reduction of 2,500 troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by the end of the year. But Priddy said he has not been told his unit will leave earlier than the end of the scheduled deployment in spring.

So training will continue over the next few months.

For the Marines and sailors who aren’t spread out across the region in garrisons or field camps, a small base in Kuwait where the unit’s headquarters are located is what they are now calling home.

Those stationed there live in buildings with rooms that each have four bunk beds. There are two bathrooms for each building.

For Cpl. Kassandra Soberanis- Sosa, a logistics training chief, the deployment has presented its own challenges and rewards.

The 21-year-old from Rialto was married only two months before deploying. Her husband is based at Camp Pendleton.

“It’s definitely been tough,” she said. “Being away from family, you want time to stop and wait for you to get back.”

But her job has kept her busy and focused, and she has been tasked with new responsibilities.

At Camp Pendleton, she spent most days working in warehouses. Now she’s out and about conducting physical fitness tests and overseeing Marines qualifying with M-9s at the range.

Thanks to an Anaheim military support group, there has been a lifeline for the Marines from Southern California. The group has kept a steady flow of mail and packages coming. Most included basic essentials, but there have been surprises.

“For the Fourth of July, we got a lot of patriotic items, pictures and memorabilia,” said Cpl. Nelsieli Guerrero, who works for the command element of the task force. “The care packages have things that aren’t easy to find here.”

Recently, they received more packages with Christmas and 2021 décor they’ve used to brighten up the space, Guerrero said.

“It’s a big comfort there is someone back there supporting us,” the 22-year-old from the Bronx said. “They provide us hope and help us continue to do our jobs out here.”

Carolyn Walters, the chairwoman for the Anaheim 13th MEU Adoption Committee, said she and others also look out for the family members left behind and help them fill needs as much as possible. When the deployed troops return, they also will provide the service members with round-trip airplane fare to visit their families.

Walters said the Marines, whether deployed or at home, are in her thoughts every day.

“We’re all religious people and we pray for them every day,” she said. “There have been training accidents here and on deployments. All we can do is pray.”

On typical foreign deployments, service members are able to get out into the surrounding communities and visit festivals and historical sites. But like Southern California, Kuwait and its neighboring countries have coronavirus related restrictions in place, prohibiting the visiting Marines from leaving the base, said Capt. Joshua Hays.

So instead they’ve been swapping badges with and getting to know the Polish and Italian service members who share the base.

But mostly the Marines and sailors don’t have a lot of time for leisure, Hays said. “Crises are unpredictable and geographically agnostic.”

And that’s what has been the most challenging for Kim in leading his first overseas deployment.

“The hardest thing is we don’t know what a crisis will look like,” he said. “It’s hard dealing with that uncertainty every day.”

A United Arab Emirate Presidential Guard and U.S. Marine task force members discuss combined arms integration during the bilateral engagement named Falcon Sentry in the United Arab Emirates on Sept 24.  SGT. BRENDAN CUSTER — U.S. MARINE CORPS

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