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Marines Hold Full-Scale Civil Affairs Training Exercise

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10, 2006 – A makeshift town constructed of a dozen squat cinderblock buildings located in the Virginia woods stood in for an Iraqi village yesterday during a Marine Corps 4th Civil Affairs Group training exercise.

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An angry villager speaks through a translator with U.S. Marine Corps Maj. John Harding, 4th Civil Affairs Group, during civil-military operations training at Marine Base Quantico, Va., Aug. 9. Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The exercise was a full-scale dress rehearsal that included pyrotechnics, Humvees, various weapons, and Arabic speaking actors playing simple townsfolk. It was held at “Combat Town” at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., and was meant to simulate various scenarios Marines might face when entering Iraqi towns to conduct civil-military missions.

“What we’re trying to achieve is to make sure that our Marines have a very clear and comprehensive understanding of immediate action drills,” said Lt. Col. John Carl Church, a veteran civil affairs officer tasked will helping train the reserve unit.

The 4th CAG unit will deploy this fall to Iraq for the third time, but it will be the first deployment for most of the Marines who participated in yesterday’s training exercise. These Marines have already completed specialty and tactical training and other civil affairs requirements. The exercise was an effort to combine all these factors, officials said.

The exercise began as role players dressed in Iraqi garb meandered about the fictional town of Dawhat as a convoy of several dozen Marines pulled into the village. The drivers and gunners stayed in the vehicles while some Marines secured the area and others began interacting with the villagers in an effort to locate the town elder to discuss a water-supply issue.

The situation soon deteriorated, and the Marines found themselves being angrily confronted by the town’s citizens. One even grabbed a Marine’s rifle barrel. The Marines then fanned out through the town to secure all the buildings.

Before long a bomb exploded, sending sparks into the air, and shots were fired at the Marines. As the Marines began pulling back toward their vehicles, four lagged behind in a building and instructor Lt. Col. Bill Hagestad ordered them to lie down on the ground. They had been “killed,” he said. Two other Marines were “killed” soon after.

After much chaos and a firefight that resulted in several “dead” Iraqis, the Marines pulled out of the town.

Church said the training exercise was meant to teach Marines how to avoid this outcome in real life. Such training teaches Marines how to better respond to a situation that has gone bad, he said. Aside from hostile villagers, Marines conducting civil affairs operations might receive sniper fire, get hit by makeshift bombs or suicide bombers, or have to deal with car accidents.

“Anything from the benign to the dramatic, we want the Marines to instantly react and go through a procedural process in their mind of how to respond,” Church said. “This takes practice.”

Even though the civil affairs troops are there to help Iraqis, they need to know how a non-combat situation can become a firefight very quickly, Church said.

Each civil affairs unit is made up of two security teams and one assessment team. “This is done so the Marines conducting assessment, or the non-kinetic piece, feel comfortable that someone is watching their back so they can talk to the mayor or town leader,” Church said.

Sometimes other units will provide security to a civil affairs unit, he added.

Church explained that civil affairs Marines are there to help the locals resolve issues ranging from infrastructure problems to helping them maintain a banking facility.

For example, if a local bank has not had any transactions for several months, the civil affairs unit will investigate why this is and track down the source of the problem, whether it’s corruption or lack of security. They will then help local officials to try to find the best way reestablish the bank. If the problem is lack of security, the civil affairs unit will ask Iraqi forces to beef up security around the bank or make other suggestions, such as having the bank hire its own security.

“What we basically do is look at the problem holistically and say, ‘Here are some things you might want to think about.’ We see ourselves as facilitators or conduits to solutions,” Church said.

Church said there were some immediate lessons learned from yesterday’s exercise. The exercise reinforced the importance of maintaining situational awareness, remaining calm and improving communication, he said.

The unit will do the exercise all over again today. This time, Church promised to ratchet up the intensity and throw his Marines more curveballs.

Lance Cpl. Norman Tompkins is the only member of the 4th CAG who was in both of the units’ two previous deployments to Iraq. He said he feels good about going back for the third time because he thinks the Marines have done a lot of good for the Iraqi people. During his previous deployments, the unit helped supply schools with needed materials and resolved a fuel supply crisis, he said.

“We’re received well, because we’re helping repair the infrastructure,” Tompkins said. “I feel good about going back. It’s a good thing to do.”

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Related Photo Essay

Click photo for screen-resolution imageAn angry villager tries to speak to U.S. Marine Capt. Charece Martin from the 4th Civil Affairs Group during civil-military operations training at Marine Base Quantico, Va., Aug. 9. Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageVillagers run out of a building where a bomb exploded during civil-military operations training with Marines from the 4th Civil Affairs Group at Marine Base Quantico, Va., Aug. 9. Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Staff Sgt. Marines Francois (left) and Pvt. Brian Brock, both from the 4th Civil Affairs Group, take cover after a bomb exploded in a mock village during civil-military operations training at Marine Base Quantico, Va., Aug. 9. Photo by Cherie A. Thurlby  
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