A group of townspeople gathers behind a simple concrete building as the sun rises. Some wear a traditional dishdasha over their blue jeans. Several of the women have scarves worn like a hijab covering their heads. An older man with a weathered face directs some of the group onto a bus that will take them across town.
This could be a small town in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in fact is a training range at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms. These people are contractors with Glacier Technical Solutions, hired to bring life to the fictional town of Hidalgo. They act as civilians during the Marines’ urban field exercise and are only allowed to speak in Arabic throughout the event.
“We show our culture, language and customs for Marines so when they go to Iraq at least they have experience,” said Suhad Nawaf, a civilian role player with GTS. “They should know us so they can deal with the problems there, deal with the people, understand the culture, understand the people – their customs, their language.”
On each day of the four-day exercise, the role players present different challenges to the Marines through scripted scenarios. After clearing the town, building by building, and directing the civilians to safety, the Marines must hold the town by conducting satellite patrols and vehicle checkpoints to locate any remaining insurgents. At this stage, the role players approach the Marines requesting food, medical treatment and other assistance.
“They bring a lot of realism to the training event,” said 1st Lt. Evan Campbell, an officer with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. “They’re very immersive. They give us a lot of difficult situations and the training’s been phenomenal.”
The training is as much about cultural awareness as it is about logistics. The Marine Corps has learned from over a decade of conflict in the Middle East and has developed this training to teach Marines what to expect from the urban environments they will face during deployments.
“I was a Marine from 2001 to 2005, and I wish I had this kind of training when I was in,” said David Sieczkowski, a site manager with GTS.
Nawaf moved to the U.S. from Iraq and has witnessed the conflict in her country firsthand. She says it’s valuable for the Marines to understand the people they will encounter.
“It’s not good that Marines go to Iraq without having at least an idea about our culture, our customs, our habits,” she said.
At the end of the exercise, the Marines will have experienced dozens of interactions with the locals, including medical evacuations, community disputes and key leader engagements, all in the midst of responding to insurgent attacks. The civilian role players make this more than just another training event. It is a unique opportunity for Marines to be immersed in another culture.
“When they have this information, they can help Iraqis. They can understand them,” Nawaf said. “I think I help my country by doing this job.”
Story by 1st Lt. Virginia Lang