FORT A.P. HILL, Va. -- A long gravel road paved in heat waves led to a small village with only a handful of people milling around dressed in foreign clothing, all of which could be found in countries of the middle east and southwest Asia.
Music filled the air in a bright, colorful market where fresh fruit and trinkets were offered for sale. A black, homemade kite soared through the air, its tether leading to a middle-aged man with weather-worn hands and face.
Marines from Company K, Battalion Landing Team 3/8, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, came across this scene as they conducted a cultural awareness exercise during Realistic Urban Training at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., June 10.
Village role-players speaking in a foreign language met the Marines as they made their way up the lane into the township. The Marines' goal: meet with the elders.
"We participated in key leader engagement in which the Marines went into the town to meet with the village elders," said 1st Lt. Arthur Crocker, platoon commander for 1st Platoon, Company K. "The elders typically have a lot of power in the village, and we let him know of our involvement in the area. We were there to find out the needs of the village and gain intelligence. We definitely took away a lot of good learning points."
After their arrival, Marines were offered fruit and cold juice. This came shortly after finding out the village had water issues. The platoon commander explained that he would see what they could do to get skilled Marines to help. Part of the training is to establish and build rapport with local communities because these small gestures pay great dividends toward strengthening partnerships and increasing security and stability.
"We had two interpreters. One went with me and the other went with my platoon sergeant," said Crocker. "He was able to get information from the people as well. While meeting with the village elder, he explained that the well was dirty or dry at times. It was very realistic in the fact that we didn't understand what they were saying. I had my interpreter, so when I was speaking with one person I could understand what that one person was saying. They spoke very quickly and I was trying to focus on what the interpreter was saying while still maintaining eye contact, so that I wasn’t rude to the village elder."
One evaluation point for the Marines was when approaching a city to not look hostile yet still provide security.
"When we go into a village like this, we don't want to present ourselves as hostile to the village people," said Crocker. "The Marines did a good job of keeping two hands on the weapon but not flagging or scaring the people in the village. They go in and talk to the villagers while I am talking with the elders and find out exactly what this village is dealing with. They did a very good job."
It was a definite change from other types of training the Marines were used to conducting.
"We did a soft knock on the village," said Lance Cpl. James Chapman, an infantryman with 1st Platoon. "It's going in and knocking on the doors and meeting with the villagers, asking them questions and they show you around. We asked if they need anything and if the Taliban has been threatening them to see if we can set up security or help them in any way. There is a big language barrier and going into a village that is unknown, you need some security even though you are to be kind and gentle with the villagers. You're just trying to be yourself with them. You want to help them out as soon as possible. They are people who have needs and you want to get it to them because they are suffering."
As the Marines left the city, shots were fired from a tree-line a few hundred yards away. The Marines had to respond.
The Marines’ shift from assistance to firefight illustrates the modern battlefield in which Marines could provide humanitarian assistance on one street and conduct combat operations on another.
"If all we train for is kinetic operations, then we are selling ourselves short and really hindering what the MEU was designed to do," said Capt. David Bell, Company K commanding officer. "It's an opportunity to dust off Gen. Krulak's three-block war concept. We are here doing the second block by helping the people, meeting with the leadership of the village to find out what their needs are. If we can help them, then we will build a relationship with them and more importantly they will help us. They can tell us where the bad guys are. Then we can go kinetic."
Most Marines said they considered the village and training to be very life-like.
"The training here has been very realistic and it’s a great opportunity for us to train in a new environment as well as conduct these urban operations," said Crocker. "What we did today was a good experience for all of us."