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08-17-09, 08:12 AM
Marines perform training exercise at YPG
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August 16, 2009 3:31 PM

The ground shook as six CH-53 helicopters cut through the night sky during a Marine training exercise Saturday at the Yuma Proving Ground.

The helicopters landed with accuracy and efficiency, guided by neon green glow sticks piercing through the dark, defining the landing zone. Marines quickly unloaded from the helicopters and positioned themselves outside a compound where two "high value" targets and about 30 other "insurgents" stirred, yelling and firing blanks out of their AK-47 assault rifles. A "firefight" erupted between the insurgents and the Marines.

Suddenly, a pop, then smoke poured out from several canisters, providing the Marines with a thick blanket while they entered the compound.

About 250 Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, based at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Cali., participated in the exercise Saturday to earn necessary qualifications before they deploy in September as the Battalion Landing Team for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

And it was more than just the raid that took place on the ground at YPG Saturday night. Since Wednesday, the Marines have conducted reconnaissance and gathered intelligence at two "camps" located at YPG - from the ground, as well as a ship in the Pacific Ocean.

Marines piloted aircrafts such as the AV-8B Harrier and P-3 Orion to gather intelligence and help them plan their raid, where their mission was to find terrorist financiers. Then, they provided Marines back on the ship with the information, just like they would in a real mission.

That kind of "real-time" intelligence gathering really drives the mission, said Capt. Travis Martin, with the I Marine Expeditionary Force, Special Operations Training Group, who helped coordinate the exercise.

And if something goes wrong, just like in a real mission, "then they could throw the whole plan off," Martin said.

Since Wednesday, they monitored the two camps at YPG, where role players lived in the desert and made their plans, including conducting phone calls that the Marines intercepted as part of their intelligence gathering. The role players were made up of Marines from Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as well as reserve Marines from all over the U.S. They also included about 30 Iraqi-born Americans who helped bring another level of realism to the exercise with their ability to speak Arabic.

The role players were incorporated into the exercise by Veteran Government Solutions, a company that helps provide customers with staff to support training scenarios. The company also brought in a make up artist to help make the "injured" or "dead" role players look real.

There were about eight casualties and several injured during a "bombing" that happened just before the raid began.

It didn't take long for the Marines to clear all four of the buildings in the compound, detaining the surviving insurgents, including one of their "high valued" targets. One by one, they entered every room of the buildings, performing Tactical Sight Exploration, TSC.

In one room, the Marines searched through a filing cabinet, pulling out the drawers.

"(The Marines are) looking for intelligence, anything that can tell them something about the insurgents that are in the camp," said Jared Darensbourg, director of operations for Veteran Government Services.

For the insurgents that didn't survive, the Marines conduct "battlefield forensics," said Luis Arroyo, training exercise manager for YPG. Arroyo said recording what happened during the raid can help assist any dispute that could come from the mission, such as whether or not a person killed was an insurgent or a civilian.

During the entire exercise, a Cobra and a CH-553 circled above, just in case they were needed, Martin said.

Next, the Marines organized the insurgents' weapons and artillery into a pile in the middle of the compound to "detonate."

Martin said it's crucial that the Marines position the weapons and artillery correctly.

"They don't want to leave anything for the enemy to come back and salvage," he said.

It took just over two hours from the time Marines dropped the first "bomb" on the compound to the time the last helicopter took off, heading back to the ship.

And an exercise such as this one isn't an easy thing to pull off.

"It's a lot more complicated than it looks," said Lt. Col. Andrew Wilcox, with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. "This is about as real as it gets."

Wilcox said the exercise went well and the Marines had "nearly perfect intelligence."

The Marines will finish their final qualifications within the next week before deploying in September, Wilcox said.

Martin said two evaluators were on the ground during the exercise as well as several others on the ship. Martin was also watching the entire exercise and keeping a timeline that he can reference later.

"The exercise may be over, but it's not the end of their training," Martin said.

"(We'll) write a full report for the unit and their superiors," Martin said. "They base their future actions off the After Action Report.

"It's a non-stop evaluation."