MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Marines mounted in machine gun-toting humvees and armed with M-16 rifles, M-9 pistols and the best laid plans travel down back roads making their way toward the innocent citizens of a quiet country settlement. The convoy slowly begins to make its way out of the deep country and into the rural constructs of the town.
2nd Lt. Kieran R. O'Neil and the Marines of 5th Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, set out for the towns of Pollocksville, Maysville and Trenton, N.C. to engage local businesses, medical, government and prominent leaders to determine the welfare and problems of each community as their final test in preparation for an upcoming deployment to Iraq where they will be performing civil affairs.
O'Neil, the leader of Detachment One, Team Four, watched while white picket fences, corn silos and mailboxes flew by outside his bulletproof window as the convoy left their forward operating base at Oak Grove Airfield and explained, over the deafening roar of the diesel engines, their mission and plans in the local cities.
"We’re traveling via convoy to a local bank to talk with top employees so the Marines can gather information about the business' strengths and weaknesses concerning security, cash flow, crime and many other areas," said the New York native. "This type of information would enable us to make changes for the better if we were in Iraq."
He added that the training is meant to give the Marines a realistic training environment where they will be able to meet face-to-face with real civilians and use their communications skills to conduct assessments of the local infrastructure.
The line of massive, mud-covered humvees sat among small compact cars, sport utility vehicles and motorcycles carrying local commuters. The Marines waited for a stoplight to change. The light flashed green and the convoy made a right turn into the bank parking lot.
The Marines, most from non-combat arms or civil affairs backgrounds, have been together for more than four months and have prepared to learn and perform their civil affairs role during this final exercise.
"Victor four is parked right outside the bank," O'Neil mutters over the vehicle radio before jumping out of the vehicle to join Cpl. Russell S. Mullis and other Marines who were setting up security and entering the bank.
Upon entering the bank, Mullis asked employee Kathy C. Notter detailed questions about the bank, its customers and employees.
After getting pertinent information, the other Marines asked questions and listened intently as Mullis explained the information he received from Notter which will allow him and his unit to formulate plans and strategies to help improve the business and lives of the employees.
"This is my first time doing training like this, but I can really see how this will help me in Iraq when I'm gathering information to make life better for the people over there," Mullis said.
Notter said the learning experience was mutual.
"I don't mind the Marines coming here. I'm very impressed to see how civil affairs is actually done. It's so personal and face-to-face, but then again, how else can these Marines get that real experience. It just feels good to be part of something so important, because our service members risk their lives everyday whether they are in combat or civil affairs," she said.
The civil affairs Marines finished up their assessment of the banking facility, returned to their humvees and headed back through the bustling town to the airfield.
The convoy then departed for the battalion's main operations and transportation area, bustling with service members preparing to depart for another mission.
O'Neil, Mullis and the rest of Detachment One, Team Four, hopped out of their humvees and sank into the cold, muddy ground of the vehicle staging area and prepared for an operational debrief.
While the team prepared for their debrief, Warrant Officer Harold T. Kiser, officer-in-charge of Team One, explained the civil affairs group’s upcoming mission of the day, which will take them to the Pollocksville elementary school to learn the basics of proper education and the elements required.
"We need to assess this elementary school to get a true look at what makes a school work properly and how it is structured for success, because in Iraq we will need to assess different areas and build their infrastructure up so we can get them back on track," Kiser said. "Plus, this will give the Marines and sailors a chance to flex their public relations skills with adults and children."
The Marines finished gearing up, hopped in their vehicles and made the trip to the local school.
The Marines pulled into the quaint parking lot nestled in front of the school and set up a 180-degree security detail and static displays consisting of two humvees that each class would get the chance to play on.
Pfc. Zatrick Z. Webber and at least 15 other Marines rushed out of humvees and scattered across the front of the school, taking cover behind signs, trees and other natural camouflage. This detail is just another element of training he would take part in.
"Security is important here," Webber said. "It's a little cold right now, but it's an important aspect of any Marine Corps operation and we've got to make sure we get it right."
The Marines stood security among the mix of bright, yellow school buses and dull, brown, black and green humvees as children from the elementary school filtered out of class to run, jump and play inside and around the vehicles. Leathernecks handed out Marine Corps stickers to the youngsters and answered the childrens questions.
"The kids really enjoyed getting up close instead of only seeing us on (television) and in the movies," said Lance Cpl. Michael H. Benoit, an artilleryman by trade. "Although we are going to a completely different country, hopefully we can give the children of Iraq a new understanding of the Marine Corps and that we are trying to help them."
Maj. Andy L. Dietz, the commander of Detachment Three, offered some thoughts on how the civil affairs process begins and how he thinks the Marines are responding to the training.
"We do an open-source search on the Internet to get a picture of any specific town or area to get any information we can, so when we go out there in person to do the man-on-the-street conversations, we can validate or invalidate the information we got from our initial inquiry," Dietz said. "From there, we can determine what problems there are and how to fix them and how long it will take to do it."
As the children played, the teachers explained the Marines' jobs while another group of Marines were inside the school talking to Jo Anne A. Stone, the principal of Pollocksville Elementary. She took them on a walking tour, showing them the entire facility and explaining the finer details concerning school policy, security, programs, parenting and most of all community support.
Bright colors of every spectrum mixed with the tan color of the Marines desert camouflage combat utilities as they entered a first grade classroom and children jumped up from their seats, running to give the service members much appreciated hugs. The children laughed and giggled while the service members asked each child where they were from and what their favorite part of school was. Stone said she was impressed to see how the Marines and sailors actually performed their civil affairs missions.
"This is the first time having the Marines to the school and I've really gained a lot of admiration and respect for how they help the people over there," Stone said. "We welcome their service and hope to have them back."
The Marines and sailors visited almost every classroom in the school and noted numerous details informing them of just exactly what was required of the school, its teachers and its children to function properly.
The Marines said their goodbyes and exited the building, calling back all security and mounting their vehicles for the trip back to Oak Grove Airfield.
The Marines stopped the convoy next to a wall of pine trees and scrub-brush, which made up the border between where the Marines would spend the cold night in tents and sleeping bags and where the command operations center and humvee road began.
The Marines assembled outside of the humvees to conduct their mission debrief. They discussed the good and bad of the operation and how they could do better next time.
When the Marines finished, they scattered across the airfield breaking open Meals, Ready to Eat and relaxed, taking advantage of the down-time before their next mission to visit the mayor of Pollocksville and the James County Health Department.
Dietz said this process helps missions go much smoother and bears greater morale, which he believes is shown through Marines at the airfield.
The temperatures dropped as the operational commotion subsided and Marines began bedding down for the night.
Lt. Col. Christopher T. Mayette, the battalion commander, who stayed up to make sure everything was prepared for the next day's events, finished the night off saying, "These Marines have done an exceptional job and have put a lot of energy into this mission. They have taken this great opportunity and given it a perfect finish. They are prepared for Iraq."