TANDUO. Malaysia -- Darkness fills the confined space. The aroma of exhaust and burning fuel is in the air. Some rest their eyes while others bow their heads mentally preparing.
Suddenly the sound of metallic tracks making contact with the beach catches everyone’s attention.
“We’re on the beach,” shouts Lance Cpl. John Figueroa over the sounds of the screeching tracks and roaring engine.
Everyone inside grips their rifles tight and adjusts their helmets in preparation for what they know is coming.
“Dropping ramp,” shouts Figueroa. There is a burst of intense light, and, for a moment, everyone inside is blinded. They quickly compose themselves.
The ramp hits the sand with a thud, and U.S. Marines with Malaysian soldiers burst into action.
This was the scene at the culminating training event for Malaysia-United States Amphibious Exercise 2015, a four-day-long bilateral training exercise between U.S. Marines with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Malaysian Armed Forces.
The exercise aimed to strengthen military cooperation and interoperability in the planning and execution of amphibious operations between the two countries.
“The relationship between [U.S. military] and the Malaysian military are essential to theater security in the Western Pacific,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher J. Mahoney, deputy commander of Marine Forces Pacific, during the opening ceremony. “Exercise like these ensure we continue to build on the foundation of a strong working relationship.”
Training included amphibious operations, jungle survival, weapons and tactics familiarization, and cultural exchange between Kilo Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 15th MEU, and Malaysian soldiers.
Almost immediately after arriving on the beach, Malaysian soldiers were geared up and getting acquainted with the AAV7A1 Assault Amphibious Vehicles, or AAVs.
“They were mostly excited to see the tracks,” said Sgt. Russell Bloxsom, an AAV section chief with Kilo Co., BLT 3/1. “They had never seen them before, so they asked a lot of questions and took a lot of photos.”
Bloxsom and his Marines taught the Malaysian soldiers the capabilities, limitations, and how AAVs are used in combat.
“They picked up everything we taught them fast,” Bloxsom said. “Mostly, I think they were surprised at the many uses of the [AAVs].”
After getting a firm understanding of the AAV, Marines and Malaysian soldiers paired up and began sharing infantry tactics and rehearsing for an amphibious beach assault.
“The first day we did a beach assault to show them what it should look like,” said Cpl. Kevin Ta, a team leader with Kilo Co. “After that, we integrated a fire team in with one of their squads so we could break down the basics of a beach assault.”
While the Marines were integrated into the squads, their role was mainly to provide guidance when needed. The Malaysian soldiers planned their scheme of maneuver and were responsible for its execution.
“For never having worked with [AAVs] before they did really well,” Ta said. “They put the tracks where they wanted them and their scheme of maneuver looked good.”
In addition to the amphibious operations, the exercise also included jungle survival training led by the Malaysian soldiers.
The training included building shelters, traps, snares, fires, as well as locating edible vegetation, and fresh water.
“The training was great. I didn’t know there was so many terrains you had to prepare for in the jungle,” said Lance Cpl. Gary Gomez, a mortarman with Kilo Co. “The jungle is very giving, but it can be just as unforgiving if you don’t respect it.”
During the course, the Malaysian soldiers taught the Marines how to prepare meals such as monitor lizard, python, bats, birds, turtles, and monkeys. At the conclusion of the course, Marines were presented with a feast of all the animals prepared in various ways.
“You’d be surprised at how tasty those animals are,” Gomez said. “It’s nice to know that if I ever find myself lost in the jungle I can at least count on having a good meal.”
The exercise also allotted time for cultural exchange between the two militaries, which included friendly matches of volleyball, American football, and a version of baseball that used a wooden bat fashioned from a log and soccer ball.
“For me, that was the most rewarding part,” Ta said. “I’ve worked with foreign militaries before, but never with the Malaysians. It was great to take the afternoon off and just learn from each other and just hang out.”
Marines and Malaysian soldiers traded personal gear, such as rank and shirts, to remember each other by. The cultural exchange ended with the two services coming together to break bread and enjoy a barbecued meal.
On the final day of the training, Malaysian soldiers with Marines showcased what they had learned in a final amphibious beach assault, which was overseen by Col. Vance L. Cryer, commanding officer of the 15th MEU, and senior officers with the Malaysian armed forces.
Standing on a nearby hill, they observed what can only be described as controlled chaos.
A simulated battle space filled with gun fire, multi-colored smoke providing concealment for troops closing in on the opposition, pyrotechnic explosions signifying mortar impacts, and the shouting of orders.
After several minutes of intense training, laughter replaced the sounds of the guns firing, and when the smoke cleared, all that could be seen was Malaysian soldiers high-fiving each other and fist bumping Marines. They had successfully taken the beach.
“If we are going to operate together here in the Western Pacific, then we are going to have to integrate and build on these foundations of training,” said Cryer during a speech at the closing ceremony. “These core skills of discipline, communication, movement to contact, and esprit de corps are what will make the difference in the fight.”
Before loading onto AAVs and departing, last-minute photos and embraces where exchanged between Marines and Malaysian soldiers. Although the training lasted only four days, the lessons learned and relationships made are sure to last.