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Legacy of Benghazi: Marine force stays ready for quick Africa deployment

Lance Cpl. Anthony Cardella prepares for a convoy during Trident Juncture 18, Oct. 29, 2018. Marines and equipment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit were rapidly projected ashore from USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) during an amphibious landing. Trident Juncture exercises tactics and procedures in different environments which enables forces to increase readiness and improve interoperability with international partners and allies. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by lance Cpl. Margaret Gale)

The U.S. Marines here sprint the Spanish hills daily, charging past palm trees and through lush fields in a regimen built all around being ready for the absolute worst in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

If a sudden crisis happens in Africa, they’re likely the first to go.

It’s an important mission, said Sgt. Joseph Czajkowski, a joint fires observer with the Marine Corps’ ultra-ready task force in southern Europe.

“If coalition forces get into a tight bind in Africa, we would be able to support them. Or an aircraft goes down, we can go get them,” Czajkowski said. “The more support for this region, the better.”

The task force was developed in the wake of the 2012 Benghazi attacks on U.S. diplomatic buildings in Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens. It was a wake-up call for U.S. Africa Command, which lacked its own forces at the ready to send in an emergency.

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Enter Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa, a rotational unit based in Moron and Sigonella, Italy, which was established in 2013.

The unit of about 1,000 Marines formed in time to aid an emergency embassy evacuation in Tripoli in 2014, but most of the time the job for Marines here is all about staying ready, even when the odds of being called into action are slim.

The challenge is staying sharp, which the Marines said they do by keeping a high operational tempo that involves lots of time on the range firing weapons and training for fights that can take unpredictable turns.

“Daily life for us is: we wake up, do physical training, do the plan of the day, whatever it is — we do a lot of field (operations) while we’re here — then eventually make our way back to the barracks,” Czajkowski said. “We spend a lot of time working with other forces here.”

In the six years since it was stood up, the unit has also trained with many African militaries in a variety of roles, such as logistics training in Uganda, small arms and intelligence training in Tunisia, and transportation training in Ghana. Just last month, a team of Marines went down to Morocco to respond to a mock crisis.

They have yet to respond to another Benghazi-like attack, but if the attacks were to happen today, it would only be a matter of hours before the Marines could reinforce an embassy in the continent’s north, where militant groups are active, said Col. Thomas Dodds, the task force commander.

In such an emergency, the Marines could also provide a quick reaction force or evacuate casualties, Dodds said.

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To maintain this state of vigilance, scout snipers routinely train with their Spanish counterparts. In a typical recent training scenario, after shooting out of a Spanish armored vehicle, the snipers sprinted to the next station to fire at targets at an unknown distance.

There were simulated ambushes, close-quarters pistol fights and mock battles using Spanish G-36 carbines and sniper rifles. At the end, the Marines had to hike up a hill to shoot at targets even further in the distance.

Though the training involved lots of running, hill-climbing and high-stress situations, the Marines took it in stride.

“I had a great time here,” Cpl. Jackson Sluder said. ““We love doing what we do. Working with the Spanish is great too. They treat us really well, and we respect their skillset.”

And Spain is a pretty comfortable place to be deployed, the Marines said. Many speak the language, including native Spanish speaker Lt. Steven Barrios, a joint terminal attack controller.

Translators are available but speaking directly with their Spanish partners makes the job easier, Barrios said.

“It helps me to talk to their marines and Spanish officers and form a relationship with them,” he said.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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