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Ambassador’s Wife Causes Problems : Marines Save Embassy Entourage in Complex War Games Scenario

Times Staff Writer

It started with the ambassador’s wife. It was 90 degrees in the shade in some scenic Latin American jungle; the hillside snipers had been picked off, and a mammoth chopper, thwacking blades atwirl, was outside the embassy ready to evacuate the Hon. Carl Butcher, U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of White, his attaches and security officers and his wife, Terra.

But Terra wanted to take four suitcases, two more than the official allocation. What’s more, she wanted to take her maid, Linda Gomez. And Linda wasn’t budging unless her boyfriend came along, a White national who, unbeknownst to the 13th Marine Amphibious Unit, was really a member of the terrorist White Liberation Force. Boyfriend, if not detected, stood prepared to blow Mr. Ambassador, Mrs. Ambassador and everyone else aboard the CH-53E Sea Stallion chopper back across the Rio Grande with the bomb in his valise.

Fortunately, these weren’t just any Marines. These guys were from Camp Pendleton, El Toro and Tustin, and when Boyfriend produced a piece of identification that didn’t check--and when explosives were found in his luggage--he was in custody faster than the M-60 machine guns could lay fire on the nearby hillsides. And the rest of the embassy staff (with Mrs. Ambassador’s suitcases slung over the shoulder of a drooping Marine) was safely on the way to a fleet of American ships moored just off the coast of San Onofre.

Whew. Another crisis fended off. Another day saved. Another in the series of exercises performed several times a year at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base to ready Marine and Navy troops destined for the Pacific for the day they might be called on to evacuate an embassy in some far-off banana republic.

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The nearly weeklong exercises, code-named Kernel Usher 85-3, involved nearly 10,000 Marine Corps and Navy personnel, including the

1,800 Marines participating in Sunday’s mock embassy evacuation at Camp Pendleton. A day earlier, most of the Navy and Marine troops had completed a massive amphibious landing on the Camp Pendleton seashore as a prelude to the embassy evacuation.

“The main purpose is to give some realism to their training. Who knows, we may save some lives someday because of this, and that’s what’s really important,” said Master Sgt. Curtis Graham, one of two choreographers for the evacuation.

The scenario: The Kingdom of White, a nation historically friendly to the United States, has been troubled recently both by internal strife and by a nearby nation, the Socialist Republic of Orange, which has received weapons from an even larger power, the United Republic of Red. The United States, at the request of the White government, has been providing assistance, but after several homes near the embassy are bombed in terrorist attacks, Consulate General Butcher calls the Marines to evacuate the embassy staff and their families.

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Complications Develop

That’s the nut of the “problem,” as the Marines like to call war games that potentially involve billions of dollars of military equipment and hundreds of lives. But there are complications. Three of those are the ambassador’s wife (who is only occasionally hysterical), the maid, and the boyfriend she met at the university when the ambassador decided to help expand her horizons.

Moreover, one of the Peace Corps volunteers is trying to take a small parcel of cocaine home as a souvenir. And the embassy political officer’s wife is seven months pregnant.

The ear-splitting explosions emerging from the M-60s are blanks. The guns thrusting from the Cobra helicopters swirling overhead aren’t loaded.

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But when Mr. Ambassador, learning the Marines plan to evacuate the staff through the mine-laced countryside in tanks, screams at the commander to “tell that captain, if he’s got helicopters on that ship, to get his (derriere) in gear and get ‘em out here!” and when Mr. and Mrs. Ambassador finally come rushing out of the embassy surrounded by a dozen armed troops firing against snipers on the hillsides and when the thundering, monstrous blades of the waiting Sea Stallion, the largest helicopter in the world, catch up every loose bit of weed and pebble and Coke can in a quarter-mile, well, it seems real.

Gunnery Sgt. Jose Flores, who co-wrote Sunday’s scenario, said it was the all-too-real 1979 hostage crisis in Iran that, for him, proved that today’s war games would have to reflect the new realities of real-life warfare, in which the enemy cannot always be recognized.

“After that, I said, we’ve got to teach people to do this. We’ve got to give them something for dealing with these situations,” he said.

Capt. Jerry Brockert added: “As the world situation changes, you have to develop contingency plans to deal with it. If anything, you want to stay one step ahead of it.”

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Capt. Russ Thurman, an information officer who was present 10 years ago during the real-life evacuations of Saigon and Phnom Penh, said Saturday’s exercise was realistic, “very much so.” (The amphibious assault ship Okinawa, the primary evacuation ship during Sunday’s exercises, also was the waiting haven for several hundred embassy staffers, clerks and reporters evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975, he noted.)

“It was very much the same,” he said after the exercise, though he said the Phnom Penh evacuation, dramatized in the recent movie “The Killing Fields,” was accomplished without gunfire. “That was probably the most classic, flawless evacuation--if you trained forever, you probably wouldn’t get one like that.

“The ambassador and a few Marines flew in first and prepared everybody, and by the time we got there, everybody was already designated; everybody was cleared; everybody was tagged, and it was a good thing, because we landed in a hostile situation . . . . When the last helicopters came out of the landing zone, the zone actually took some fire; it took some mortar fire, and probably some artillery, too. It was a classic.”

6,000 Were Evacuated

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In Saigon, about two weeks later, he said, 6,000 were evacuated without need for gunfire.

“I took two things away from those exercises. One, I was very proud of the older Marine, who was kind of frustrated by that time. You know, when you go onto the football field, you go to win, and it seemed like we could never progress past the 20-yard line, and we weren’t allowed to kick field goals . . . .

“Two, I was proud of the young guys out there, the guys that had never even heard a shot. Remember, in 1975 we did not have what you would call America’s finest; you know the problems we were having with the military then,” Thurman recalled. “In that evacuation, there were 19-, 20-, 22-year-old corporals and privates that did that. And there’s something really magnificent about that that’s never been told.”


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