FORT PICKETT, Va. -- Marine Expeditionary Units are often deployed to uncertain environments to fulfill the mission of defending American interests around the globe. In hostile areas, protecting the MEU command is crucial to maintaining the unit's ability to carry out a variety of missions.
The 26th MEU has a specially trained security detail, known as the Headquarters Security Element, to ensure that the MEU leadership is kept as safe as possible.
The HSE is comprised of 15 Marines from the Low Altitude Air Defense Platoon, part of the Marine Air Control Group Detachment that falls under Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264, the MEU's aviation combat element.
Aside from being able to provide the unit with defense against fixed-wing and rotary aircraft flying as high as 10,000 feet, the 26th MEU's LAAD platoon is especially suited to its security role said 1st Lt. Jason C. Yurisic, the platoon's commander.
"It's a lot of the same concepts used in the convoy security [operations] these Marines were doing in their last deployment to Iraq," he said. "A lot of the immediate action principles are the same. It's just a matter of making small adjustments during training."
The HSE continued preparing itself for its protective missions with a day of scenario training here, Sept. 28, during the Marine Expeditionary Unit Exercise.
The first scenario began as the HSE rolled their humvees into a ramshackle village of flimsy wooden houses made to look like a Middle-Eastern hamlet.
The force was there to deliver a member of the MEU staff to meet with the local Sheikh.
Strategic Operations, a San Diego-based battlefield effects company, provided professional actors and movie-style pyrotechnics and explosives that made the troops feel as if they had ventured out of the woods of Virginia and into an Iraqi village.
The Leathernecks were thronged by more than a dozen actors who peppered them with rapid questions and accusations in fluent Arabic as the team cautiously escorted the staff member into town.
The troops stood security after making their way through the mob and the staff member entered the Sheikh's dwelling.
The force began to make its way out of town back to the relative security of their vehicles after the meeting adjourned, the Sheikh accompanying them. Suddenly, the locals burst into a frenzy of panicked activity.
The Marines looked on as a cart loaded with propane tanks at the village center erupted in a fiery explosion.
The HSE Marines who had been to Iraq before said the scenario was startling in its accuracy and attention to detail.
"It was incredibly realistic," said Cpl. Anthony F. Funderbunk, a vehicle commander with the LAAD Platoon. "It was a lot like our last deployment to Iraq, where we had to overcome the language and mannerism barriers with the locals."
Staff Sergeant Lance Gruben, the platoon sergeant for the MEU's LAAD Plt., echoed Funderbunk's sentiments.
"The realism was in everything they did," said the Iraq veteran and Roswell, New Mexico, native. "They were swarming and chattering, I even had one guy come up to me trying to sell me old radio parts for five dollars."
After concluding the escort mission, the HSE rumbled on to the base convoy live-fire range. They didn't know Strategic Operations had another surprise waiting for them up the road.
The convoy engaged the first set of the range's road-side pop-up targets with their M240G Medium Machine Guns, and was subsequently rocked by four pyrotechnic pieces acting as improvised explosive devices.
As the smoke-cleared, two actors clad in flak jackets, helmets and Marine Pattern utility uniforms lay on the ground in the center of the shocked convoy.
The troops quickly dismounted and came to the aid of the simulated casualties.
The chilling cries and moans of the "wounded" actors echoed around the scene as the Marines and their Corpsman tried to calm the casualties while preparing them for movement to a landing zone for evacuation.
Stu Segall, the president and founder of the effects company, said that troops who go through training augmented by Strategic Operations often find it eerily similar to real combat.
"We've been told by Marines returning from Iraq that it's tremendously realistic," he said. "Commanders have actually told us personally that what we do has saved lives."
The realistic operations at MEUEX are not the only high-profile training the HSE has received so far during the MEU's six-month pre-deployment training program.
The HSE learned advanced defensive driving tactics and VIP escort techniques during an extensive 10-day security course at the Blackwater Training Facility at Moyock, N.C., in mid-August
Putting the HSE through realistic training is critical in enhancing the unit's readiness for its missions, said Captain Shawn A. Rickrode, the 26th MEU Anti-Terrorism and Force Protection officer.
"The exposure to situations that mimic real-world combat are second to none," he explained.
The HSE and the rest of the 26th MEU continue to train here during the MEUEX and the Training in an Urban Environment Exercise.
Following completion of its rigorous six-month pre-deployment training program, the MEU is scheduled to deploy in early 2007 in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
For more information on the 26th MEU, visit www.26meu.usmc.mil.