CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa, Japan --
A typhoon whips through an island leaving hundreds without food, water and electricity. Terrorist factions have killed government officials and taken over several significant locations. What is the best way to assist the distressed citizens, and how can the assistance be delivered?
This is the scenario the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit faced during the commencement of their Certification Exercise here, March 11.
Embarked with the USS Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group, the 31st MEU was tasked with rendering humanitarian aid to a notional island nation recently struck by a natural disaster and facing a rising threat from radical nationals. The MEU’s first step in addressing the crisis is the establishment of a Forward Command Element.
“The FCE is a portion of the MEU command located on-site to lay the groundwork for the humanitarian assistance,” said Lt. Col. Troy Roesti, executive officer of the 31st MEU. “We operate out of the nation’s U.S. Embassy to effectively coordinate and plan our assistance, and everything that goes along with it.”
The FCE inserts into the U.S. Embassy to coordinate with the Department of State and determine the requirements for assistance. These requirements are formed from communication between the embassy and the host nation’s government. The FCE then relays that information to the 31st MEU command on ship, who determines a response plan. This serves as the basic communication structure between a country in need and the Marines providing help.
The FCE acts as the eyes and ears for the command located on ship, and can articulate the MEU’s capabilities to the department of state. It is comprised of a security team and approximately 15 members from the command, all representing specific functions ranging from engineering and logistics to medical and public relations.
Members of the FCE form a Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team and use a helicopter to visit the various locations requesting aid. This allows the team to see what damage has occurred and what aid is requested. Working alongside the Department of State and non-governmental organizations, the team can begin to form joint decisions on how to provide relief. An aid delivery operation requires constant coordination and exhaustive levels of planning to be successful.
“You have to find out what supplies are needed, where they’re coming from, how they will be delivered to the people, what routes will be taken...” said 1st Lt. Tuan Pham, an engineer representative for Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU, during the exercise, and a native of Sterling Heights, Mich. “There are so many simultaneous actions taking place to meet one objective, and that all is before the first shipment goes out.”
In the scenario, a village of 200 citizens located five kilometers from the embassy is without food and water while a nearby village may also require assistance. At the same time, hostile locals with an anti-government agenda stage protests outside the embassy daily, attempting to disrupt relief operations. These protestors demonstrate the need for the FCE’s security element.
“They are not necessarily enemies, but are civilians who may have the wrong perspective about our intentions,” said Sgt. Alfredo Corona, a howitzer section chief with Fox Battery, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st MEU, and acting security squad leader for the exercise, and a native of Los Angeles. “We’re here to maintain order around the embassy and prevent any obstruction of aid we’re providing using proper escalation of force.”
Following the determination of where the humanitarian aid is to be delivered, the 31st MEU and the USS BHR ARG work concurrently to transport the necessary equipment ashore. Even then, continual coordination does not cease until the mission is completed.
“It’s a lot of planning and on-the-ground adjustments, but that’s what the 31st MEU does,” said Roesti, a native of Sherwood, Ohio. “Our FCE plays a vital role in coordinating efforts between the embassy and the 31st MEU, ensuring humanitarian assistance is provided precisely where and when it is needed.”
The 31st MEU’s CERTEX is a semiannual exercise where the unit’s full range of capabilities are evaluated by the Special Operations Training Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, with the purpose of maintaining the MEU’s proficiency.
The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.