A roleplayer is escorted through an entry control point as the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit practices non-combatant evacuation on April 24, 2023, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

A roleplayer is escorted through an entry control point as the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit practices non-combatant evacuation on April 24, 2023, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Defense One / Caitlin M. Kenney

Marines Update Evacuation Playbook

A pre-deployment exercise allowed the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to practice what they learned from the Afghanistan withdrawal and other non-combatant evacuation operations.

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN—Hours after U.S. special forces rescued diplomats from  Sudan, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit was practicing evacuations of its own, using a playbook updated after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The 26th MEU’s leaders learned from fellow Marines who had helped U.S. and Afghan civilians escape through Kabul’s international airport, including Brig. Gen. Farrell Sullivan, who commanded the Joint Task Force-Crisis Response there.

“We've done deep dives into the Kabul [evacuation], the challenges and some of the things that the military had to work through in order to get to that distance. I mean, it's much further than what our scenario is. We're off the coast and they had to go inland to get to Kabul to actually do it. So, there's a different challenge there,” said the 26th MEU’s commander, Col. Dennis Sampson. “But there's a lot of the same things that we need to be prepared to deal with. And then we certainly looked at Lebanon [in 2006] and then northwest Africa, we've done—historically have done a couple of NEOs. So, we've looked at all those and tried to identify some lessons and then learn them, and put them into reps and sets here.”

Non-combatant evacuation operations—NEOs to Marines—are a core task of a MEU, whose troops can sally forth from the three Navy warships of an amphibious ready group with aircraft, watercraft, unmanned aerial systems, and of course, weapons. NEOs are generally run by the State Department, which calls on Marines in time of need.

The 26th MEU is training aboard the USS Bataan, USS Mesa Verde, and USS Carter Hall—as well as ashore at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune—to deploy this summer to three of the world’s regions.

If the violence in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum had erupted this summer, the 26th might have gotten the call to respond. But there was no ARG/MEU in the region—shades of Turkey in February—so special operators flew from neighboring countries to retrieve the U.S. diplomats. The U.S. Navy has sent ships, including the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Truxtun and the expeditionary sea base USS Lewis B. Puller, to help. But an amphibious ready group is the ideal organization to carry out an evacuation like this 

“Breaking it down very simply, if there’s not an airport available on the ground, or there's not an easy way to move [assets] out, bringing in an Amphibious Readiness Group and a Marine Expeditionary Unit into the littorals close to shore, and then going in and getting folks and getting them out, that's a unique capability that our Navy-Marine Corps team brings to bear,” Navy Capt. Martin Robertson, the commander of Amphibious Squadron Eight, said Monday aboard the Bataan.

Robertson, Marine leaders, and officials from the State Department said the 26th MEU’s preparation for NEOs had been shaped by a review of the Kabul evacuation and others. They didn’t list any specific lessons from those events or how they had been incorporated into training.

“I think you can certainly take historical examples that the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps team has been doing NEO operations for decades,” Robertson said. “We can always take those historical examples and learn from those, implement those in how we plan, how we do the procedures, how us as the amphibious readiness groups support the Marines who go forward and set up the evacuation control centers and do the NEO processing.”

This week’s evacuation exercise used a headquarters building at Camp Lejeune to simulate an American consulate amid a deteriorating local security environment. Role players portraying protestors gathered outside its gate, chanting, waving signs, and throwing tennis balls and foam bricks at Marines.

Inside the building, a sense of urgency gathered. Marines’ gear lined a hallway and medical supplies were laid out on a table in the lobby. Upstairs, a State Department official briefed reporters over the din of chants and drums.

What happened in Afghanistan was “very unique,” said Tony Pontarelli of State’s Crisis Management Training division, which organizes exercises with the military. “It's not necessarily the great benchmark to compare against [the other] 300-plus evacuations that we've had since 1988.”

The State Department has been collecting lessons from exercises and “real-world crises for years,” Pontarelli said, and they examine them to determine whether policies or training needs updating. 

“One thing for sure is that we know that the interaction between the Department of State and [Department of Defense] is critical, and that we have to continue to maintain this, and that it's a key partnership,” he said. “As we're doing this exercise, it aligned almost perfectly with what was unfolding in Sudan. So there is that affirmation that this is important, that it's real-world, what we're doing here really [is] what is happening,” 

Pontarelli added, “It's not just lessons learned. We've got a lot of best practices that come out of this. And that's another focus to have, we know things are working. This exercise is a key point to say that it's working.”

Among the 26th MEU’s updates to its NEO playbook is adding medical capabilities and working to decrease the response time. 

“We're really focused on how long it takes getting care to the Marine, and making sure that we put every effort and capability to get in that care to the Marine as rapidly as possible,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Hawkins, the 26th MEU’s operations officer. “I think it's just prudent planning on our part. And it’s a capability that the [II Marine Expeditionary Force] has been able to provide us coming out of the Marine Logistics Group. And so we're obviously going to take it, incorporate into how we fight ashore, as well as how we do steady-state operations when we’re embarked on the ship.”

The increased medical support includes shock trauma capability and having care teams on the ground that can continue treatment en-route, instead of simply stabilizing a patient for their flight back to the ship for further treatment, Hawkins told reporters on the Bataan.

1st Lt. Justin Steiner, the landing support platoon commander with Combat Logistics Battalion 22, who ran the exercise’s evacuation control center, said they had several corpsmen and two en-route care teams at the ready, and if more Marines were sent to the center they could add a medical provider on site.

The 26th MEU has sailors from Naval Special Warfare Command attached to the unit, and they’ve participated in the pre-deployment training, which the MEU’s commander called “unique.” Sampson said that the unit “included the SEALs really as a part of our NEO planning and execution, taking lessons learned from … what [Special Operation Forces] activities were happening, really in the background, during the Kabul evacuation.” 

That helped provide a “better understanding of how they would be the ones that would have to go out and get an isolated person and bring them to the consulate within this scenario,” he said.

Along a side road behind the simulated consulate was an entry control point set up and manned by Marines from Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/ 6. Marines with long riot shields and rifles stood throughout the corridor of zigzagging razor concertina wire, which slowed down anyone coming up to the building’s black iron gate. People who approached were given a quick search and had to show documents before being let inside, where they received a more thorough screening.

Some of the most harrowing images of the 2021 NEO at the Kabul airport were those of Marines manning the entry control points and trying to manage the crushing amount of people desperate to get through. But Maj. Adam White, the company’s commander,  said the entry control point setup and force posture were not directly influenced by a specific NEO mission, and rather were informed by  their own training experience and unspecified historical examples.

“Really just a fixed-site security mission, utilizing the training that these Marines have had from the day they joined up to now,” White said. “And it really just comes down to discipline and being able to maintain that discipline throughout, regardless of how long we are here, postured and ready to support this crisis response mission for the duration until they tell us to wave off.”

Once inside the gated area, people were processed through the evacuation control center, where they had to hand over or sign necessary documents, like an agreement to reimburse the State Department for their evacuation, Steiner said. State Department officials were there to provide advice and confirm a person’s eligible citizenship for evacuation. After that, each person was registered into a database via a tablet and given a wristband that would be scanned throughout their journey. 

Small tents were also set up to give evacuees shelter and a place to receive services from the State Department or other entities until they are put on a manifest and leave, Steiner said.

What White and his Marines with the battalion landing team learn from the exercise will go through an after-action process, which is intended to help other units train for this mission.  

“The big point of that is that MEUs in the future…should learn from us,” White said. “If the next MEU comes to this compound and makes the same mistakes, then we failed them just as we’d fail ourselves if we didn't do that critique.”