SAM HILL, QUEENSLAND, Australia --
The Marines got the disturbing intelligence in the early morning; a local source said a mass grave was nearby, and 1st platoon was tasked with finding and securing it.
Marines and Sailors of Company G., Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, moved quickly in amphibious assault vehicles to locate the mock mass grave site, marked by upturned earth in the middle of the Australian bush.
As part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011, the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service, Australian Federal Police, U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Marines of the 31st MEU came together to ensure the mock grave site was secured and processed, and possible victims identified thoroughly.
“What is believed to be a mass grave has been discovered by the U.S. Marines,” said Sgt. Rod Anderson, disaster victim identification team leader with the Australian Federal Police. “We are now conducting a forensic examination of the scene to assist in identifying the deceased that may be here.”
A five-person FBI rapid deployment team from Los Angeles worked closely with counterpart groups from the AFP and ADFIS to conduct the investigation. The LA office of the FBI has rapid response capabilities within the Pacific region. They deployed in 2008 to investigate American citizen deaths after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, said Meredith Burke, FBI special agent and evidence response team leader.
“What we see here today is the mass grave site, which we are going to forensically examine and document, primarily to identify victims,” said Burke. “This is the first time we’ve worked together with the Australians during a field exercise, so far everything is going great and we seem to be on the same page, our protocols are the same.”
The bilateral disaster victim identification team worked side-by-side to survey the site.
“We approach the scene carefully, we properly document the scene, we ensure we search slowly and carefully, collecting our evidence in the best way in order to prosecute any possible criminal acts,” said Burke.
Next, the team carefully marked off the area, searched the surroundings for evidence, and then processed the site.
“The search needs to be methodical, it needs to very carefully examine not only where human remains are, but the circumstances of how they are found,” said Anderson. “This process would normally take quite a long time.”
As the U.S. and Australian forces operate in unstable environments around the Pacific, the interoperability within investigative and military services is critical, Anderson commented.
“It is vitally important that the Marines secured the site initially,” said Anderson. “The forensic value of the scene is really based on how intact we find, and [the Marines] have done quite well.”
The end result is to identify the people involved, and if there have been any crimes involved, who may be responsible, said Anderson.
The Marines guarded the site for several days while the U.S. and Australian investigative team worked together to get the job done.
“After we got the intelligence on the situation, we were told to find the site, and then form a perimeter in order to allow the FBI and the Australian agencies to investigate the scene,” said U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Jose M. Cueva, platoon sergeant, 1st platoon, Company G., BLT 2/7, 31st MEU.
Cueva added that in addition to holding security, his Marines were also assisting by conducting small patrols through the surrounding bush to ensure no one contaminated the area or tampered with the evidence.
This is a great opportunity for our agencies to all work together, to iron out any issues, and network, said Anderson.
The simulated mass grave site scenario was part of the larger U.S. and Australian cooperation in the Talisman Sabre exercise, in which 14,000 U.S. and 9,000 Australian personnel are participating.
“I am very impressed with the way the Australian and U.S. military are working together, and so it is very exciting for us to have that same opportunity from the law enforcement side,” said Burke.
Exercise Talisman Sabre provides an opportunity to conduct operations in a combined and joint environment that will increase both countries’ bilateral war-fighting capabilities to respond to crises and provide humanitarian assistance. This exercise will increase interoperability, flexibility, and readiness, all of which are force multipliers in maintaining peace and stability in the Pacific.