RAYONG, Kingdom of Thailand
- Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, alongside military services from five countries in the Asia-Pacific region, combined forces to execute a multi-national non-combatant evacuation operation exercise here, Feb. 12.
Part of this year’s 31st iteration of Cobra Gold 2012, a multi-lateral training evolution in which participating nations conduct joint exercises, the NEO brought together all of the military forces to prepare them to act cohesively while evacuating designated civilians in response to a natural disaster or civil disorder.
“In this practice scenario, the American ambassador to Thailand has ordered the evacuation of designated personnel, to be handled by this multi-national force,” said Lt. Col. Will Arick, commanding officer of CLB 31, 31st MEU. “The exercise is a culmination of this week’s past training, including security operations and non-lethal weapons handling.”
Two rows of tents were lined up in front of an open field, starting with a security tent to search for any dangerous weapons or illegal contraband. Personnel then went on to a processing tent where their credentials were verified as civilians cleared to be evacuated, and ended with a holding tent where their names were added to transportation rosters. A medical tent was also in place for those simulating any disabilities or illnesses.
“The obvious obstacle throughout this whole thing is the language barrier, which everyone has to try to overcome,” said Lance Cpl. Thomas Bunn, data network specialist with Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU. “With that, all the usual complications of a NEO are harder, which is something we all are training to deal with.”
The six nations involved in the NEO were the U.S., Kingdom of Thailand, Republic of Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. Groups of American, Thai and Japanese military personnel and local civilians served as role players while elements of all six nations participated in the evacuation operation in some function.
Although its operation was a simple one, the variables thrown into the NEO to make it a more challenging learning experience were many.
“To start out, my bodyguard, my relative and I only speak English, and we’re going to be processed by foreign checkpoints,” said Cpl. Vu Ho, assistant section leader with Amphibious Assault Vehicle Platoon, Company B., Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st MEU, and role player of the U.S. ambassador to Thailand. “Additionally, my bodyguard is carrying a concealed weapon which he is going to be resistant in giving up, and they will attempt to separate me from my relative. Not everything is going to go smoothly in a real NEO, so the resistance we show better prepares everyone to be ready for them.”
As the civilian personnel made their way through the checkpoints, they were eventually broken up into groups to load into two CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, part of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265, 31st MEU, which transported them to the USS Germantown (LSD-42) as their safehaven.
While each country’s military forces are able to conduct their own NEOs, this training provided invaluable learning experiences to more easily operate an evacuation operation with allied forces.
“Even if a NEO does not call for various countries to band together, there are still many people working abroad that need to know what to do to assist,” said Sgt. Chattachi Kiripob, a Royal Thai Marine. “Without this training, we would be unable to blend together well if called upon to do a large-scale NEO.”
While only a training scenario and devoid of danger, the exercise is vital in preparing the military forces for contingencies they may face in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We conducted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in Operation Tomodachi, and because of events like this one, we were fully prepared and ready to execute a NEO,” said Arick.
Cobra Gold 2012 demonstrates the resolve of the U.S. and participating nations to increase interoperability and promote security and peace throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation’s force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.