USS ESSEX, At sea - The Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) conducted a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) exercise Feb. 12 off the coast of the Kingdom of Thailand.
Conducted as part of exercise Cobra Gold 2011, the NEO was designed to demonstrate the ARG’s ability to quickly evacuate civilians during a time of crisis.
“This NEO exercise was an enormous undertaking, but it went very smoothly,” said 1st Lt. Patrick Grainey, 31st MEU NEO team leader. “Hundreds of U.S. Marines and Sailors processed and transported more than 100 Japanese, Thai and American mock evacuees to where they needed to be. We utilized helicopters and amphibious craft from various countries and hit our timelines right on the dot.”
On shore, evacuees were organized, informed of the evacuation process and thoroughly searched before being medically screened for illness, injury or special needs. Evacuees then filled out tracking and safety documents before boarding helicopters and landing craft, air cushions for evacuation to the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2).
“Essex personnel really had to work hand-in-hand for this evolution to go as planned and I think we did that very well,” said Chief Master-at-Arms (SW) Stacy Holmes, with Essex security. “Our security team, ship’s self defense force and 31st MEU counterparts responded well and got everyone where they needed to be.”
Upon arrival aboard Essex, the evacuees were searched again for contraband and guided to the valuable items station where, during a real NEO, they would be relieved of jewelry, large sums of money or other valuable items and given receipts so they could reclaim their possessions after the conclusion of the operation. If evacuees had pets or livestock in their possession, those animals would also be accommodated. After being entered into a computer database, evacuees requiring medical attention would have been escorted to Essex' medical ward.
“Our medical department is designed and staffed for the purpose of receiving casualties,” said Lt. Cmdr. Mohammad Kohistany, Essex medical administration officer. “The number of people we can take in depends on the severity of their conditions and the number of medical personnel we have at that time, but we are capable of providing intensive medical assistance to more than 300 people. In the future, we are planning to streamline the transfer of medical information from the original screening station on the beach to Essex’s medical facility.”
After the evacuees were processed, they were assigned berthing, where, in the event of a real evacuation, they would rest while they awaited transportation to a safe location.
The most predominant challenge of a NEO exercise conducted in a foreign country is the language barrier between evacuees and NEO team members. Essex handled this challenge by having Japanese speaking crewmembers on hand at the six NEO stations set up throughout the ship.
A real-world NEO requires the U.S. military to assist the Department of State in evacuating noncombatants, nonessential military personnel, selected host-nation citizens, and third country nationals from a foreign nation to an appropriate refuge during times of crisis.
Previous real-world NEOs where the U.S. Navy assisted include the evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon due to political unrest in 2006 and the evacuation of the Philippines in 1991 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.
The Essex Amphibious Ready Group reports to Commander, Amphibious Force Seventh Fleet, Rear Adm. Richard Landolt, who is headquartered in Okinawa, Japan.