By Cpl. Natalie Dillon, III Marine Expeditionary Force
When disaster strikes, most people observe from the outside. They cringe, they pity, they pray.
POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA, Hawaii -- However, some brave men and women choose not to be casual observers. They are the volunteer force who respond to emergencies, like Force Reconnaissance Marines with III Marine Expeditionary Force and Special Tactics Airmen with 353rd Special Operations Group, Air Force Special Operations Command.
As part of Rim of the Pacific 2016, these specially trained Marines and Airmen teamed up during a humanitarian assistance and disaster response exercise, July 8-9, to ensure they are ready to respond when confronted with the next calamity.
The mission began after sunset, in the chilly hills of the Pohakuloa Training Area. Under the cover of darkness, a team of Reconnaissance Marines with full combat loads crammed themselves into sports utility vehicles. Load-bearing vests bristled with magazines of 5.56 mm rounds and packs bulged with supplies to sustain the Marines for multiple nights at altitudes of more than 6,000 feet above sea level. The vehicles sped along a lonesome dirt road, kicking up dust.
Finally, the tactical operations center radioed a two-minute warning to the team leader, indicating that they needed to be at their reconnaissance point, ready to debark the vehicles. When the vehicles ground to a halt, the Marines clambered out, lowering their night vision goggles to eye level and peering out at the eerie green landscape. They stealthily plodded a hilly course through gristly scrub brush, gathering information about the landscape throughout the night and passing it to the team of Special Tactics Airmen. In the morning, the Airmen would use this information to determine the best way of reaching those who required aid.
Marine Capt. Joshua Winters, platoon commander of 2nd Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, III MEF, said his Marines embedded 24 hours before the Airmen insertion to provide the Air Force Special Operations Forces with critical information to mitigate risk during the operation.
As part of the exercise, Marines from other units training at Pohakuloa Training Area role-played as victims.
Using the intelligence gathered by III MEF, the Air Force mission commander decided the best option of recovering the simulated victims would be to infiltrate by high-altitude, low-opening airborne jumps. Eighteen Special Tactics Airmen infiltrated the affected area and immediately moved to the disaster location. One team would travel 25 kilometers by all-terrain vehicles to take control of a remote airfield, while the other team concurrently patrolled by foot through rugged, rocky terrain to recover and provide emergency medical assistance to victims of the disaster. If medical assistance was not needed, the teams called for material aid to be brought to victims.
Once the team of Special Tactics Airmen took control of the airfield, they were able to provide quick recovery efforts of victims affected by the catastrophe by establishing an austere airfield, opening a forward area refueling point and providing critical air traffic control duties for aircraft in the area.
With the airfield open and secured, the air assets were able to safely begin evacuating critical patients and bringing aid to the victims. In addition, the rotary wing aircraft were then able to insert the Special Tactics Airmen into the most critically affected areas, providing an air-enabled line of supply to those in need.
Immediately after the Airmen exited their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, they moved to triage their victims to treat them accordingly. They moved quickly and methodically, arms bowed out from the bulk of medical equipment tactically compartmentalized on their vests. The simulated injuries varied from lost and broken limbs to unconscious patients. The Airmen moved back-and-forth, collecting and treating patients, and controlling the air traffic to evacuate the patients to advanced medical care.
Within nine hours of taking control of the air assets at Bradshaw Army Airfield, the teams of Special Tactics Airmen had rescued and provided relief to 75 victims and delivered more than 1,500 pounds of aid.
As a role player, Marine Pfc. Jason Murillo, an intelligence specialist with 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3, III MEF said the relief teams communicated well with each other and with the simulated victims.
“They came in, they knew what they were doing, and they treated and removed us from the situation pretty quickly,” Murillo said.
RIMPAC has provided III MEF and Special Tactics Airmen from the 353rd SOG an opportunity to showcase their partnership and the benefits of having an ongoing relationship between conventional forces and SOF.
“The relationship that we’ve built with Air Force Special Operations helps us carry out missions like this more effectively,” said Winters.
Few Marines and Airmen can say they’ve had the chance to work together extensively. Yet, when it comes to helping those who need the armed services the most, joint operations can be the difference between life and death.
"The speed in which our joint force can answer to the range of military operations is substantial," said U.S. Air Force Capt. John Rulien, mission commander for the task force. "We've been investing into this concept for some time aiming at creating increased contingency response value for our commanders and now we're using the RIMPAC exercise platform to capture that value and formalize it."