PATTAYA, Kingdom of Thailand -- Language and cultural barriers abound when five nations come together to train in the evacuation of multinational citizens during a natural disaster exercise. Luckily, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit has a Marine with the capability to break down those barriers.
Gunnery Sgt. Marklester M. Ecalnir, a foreign area staff non-commissioned officer for the 31st MEU, proved to be a pivotal figure in the coordination of a non-combatant evacuation operation as part of Cobra Gold 2013 here, Feb 17.
The event featured a detailed and in-depth evacuation process run by a combined force of Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian service members, in addition to the Marines and Sailors of the 31st MEU. From the onset of planning, Ecalnir demonstrated his value in helping overcome differences.
"The most difficult piece of this whole operation is the language and cultural barrier," said 1st Lt. Elizabeth A. Harrington, one of two evacuation control center officers-in-charge for Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU. (Ecalnir) has been at every point of friction to sort things out among every partner nation."
Ecalnir, who specializes in the Southeast-Asian region, brought a deep understanding of each nation's culture to the planning process and a working knowledge in four of the five languages spoken.
Every day leading up to the NEO came with new ideas and concerns from the four partner nations, and Ecalnir was responsible for communicating these issues to the 31st MEU planners.
"Ecalnir made sure we were all on the same page," said Harrington, a native of Quantico, Va., "He helped ensure the combined training mission was a success."
The multinational force processed more than 170 international evacuees through an ECC and onto helicopters with coordination and fluidity.
The skills Ecalnir used to maintain the operation's fluidity were honed over months of training prior to joining the 31st MEU. Ecalnir was accepted to the Foreign Area Staff Non-Commissioned Officer program in December of 2011.
In January of 2012, he attended the Information Operations Practitioner School to learn a combination of information operations and cultural awareness. In February 2012, he completed intensive regional area studies with the Department of State. His region of study included Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and more.
"These schools were preparing me to tackle situations that a (Marine Air Ground Task Force) commander would normally rely on other agencies for," said Ecalnir, a Philippine born native of Temecula, Calif. "I was trained to provide not only a bridge over the language barrier but that cultural aspect for the commander to consider in decisions."
In March 2012, he attended the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Planners' Course to learn how the U.S. and other nations benefit from bilateral training. Additionally, he attended the Naval Post Graduate School for further intensive regional area studies on history, economics, and culture.
Upon completion of all his training, Ecalnir reported to the 31st MEU as one of two FASNCOs assigned to support the command. The FASNCO’s job is to ensure the MEU’s command receives cultural information that can impact operations and assist in coordinating the mutual efforts of allied military units in the region.
"Having a foreign area staff (non-commissioned officer) provides the 31st MEU with an invaluable resource when taking into consideration the cultural sensitivities of our partners and allies," said Col. John E. Merna, Commanding Officer, 31st MEU. “They assist in many ways, to include language proficiency, which is a current capability gap with many of the nations we interact with.”
The 31st MEU recently participated in the 32nd iteration of Cobra Gold, a multinational exercise that promotes regional prosperity, security and cooperation among partner militaries.
The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps' force in readiness for the Asia-Pacific region and the only continuously forward deployed MEU.