For several days this week a portion of the Marine base at Barstow became Country X: a desert nation where a mob had taken over and personnel at the U.S. Embassy needed to be rescued.
Marines from the base at Twentynine Palms were being trained to evacuate U.S. personnel and other friendlies during moments of chaos and danger. Some Marines and civilian “role-players” acted the part of insurgents and, in some cases, civilians in need of rescue.
Non-combatant Evacuation Operations training is common for Marines. But two real-life facts may be seen as giving greater moment to the Barstow exercise.
For one thing, the exercise was underway just as Marines were assisting in the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen as Iranian-supported tribesmen seized control of the country. Embassies are prime targets for headline-grabbing takeovers in a volatile region.
Also, the Marines training at Barstow will deploy this spring to the Middle East as part of a second round of “crisis-response capability" troops. If embassies or other key facilities are in need of evacuation, the Marines could be ordered to assist Marines already assigned as embassy guards.
The Marines, from the Twentynine Palms-based 3rd Battalion, 7th Regiment, will replace an earlier unit, also from Twentynine Palms, that deployed in the fall. Along with the 3/7, the second rotation will include other West Coast units.
Officials have declined to be specific about where the deployed Marines are located and what missions they are performing, although they have confirmed that several hundred are in Iraq training the Iraqi army.
In all, 2,300 Marines, including a headquarters and logistics group from Camp Pendleton and an aviation unit from Miramar, became the first of what the Marine Corps is calling a Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force.
Some of the Marines are at the base at Al Asad where the perimeter came under attack this week by Islamic State fighters.
Training of the 3/7 Marines in preparation for the spring deployment will continue for weeks, including how to support humanitarian aid missions. The role of the Marines in the Middle East is evolving (including possible integration with special forces) and the future is uncertain.
“We have to remain flexible and be trained across as many mission sets as possible,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Duffy, executive officer of the second group assigned to “crisis response” duty.
And learning how to rescue Americans without loss of life?
“It can be complex,” Duffy said.