By Gidget Fuentes
About 1,000 Marines with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit will go ashore to Timor-Leste in Southeast Asia starting Wednesday to train with local military troops and help with medical and community projects.
The Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based unit, which deployed last month from San Diego on three Navy amphibious ships, will participate in the weeklong bilateral exercise called Crocodilo, which includes humanitarian assistance training and cultural exchanges, according to the U.S. embassy in Dili, the capital. The annual training is part of the Theater Security Cooperation program, which U.S. officials are counting on to build and sustain partnerships and alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
Marines will help train several hundred Timorese ground troops in basic small-unit skills and tactics, said Col. Scott Campbell, the 15th MEU commander.
“Their level of expertise is improving, and our role in that is continuing to help them improve,” said Campbell, speaking by phone from the amphibious assault ship Peleliu, which is carrying the MEU along with dock landing ship Rushmore and transport dock Green Bay. “We’ll be doing patrolling and small-unit tactics,” such as raids, he said.
Marines, operating mostly from local bases and ranges, will join the Timorese in a squad competition “and taste that sense of camaraderie and some military-to-military engagement.”
Timor-Leste’s fledgling military is small, numbering a little more than 1,000 troops, Campbell said.
“When we go ashore with a foreign military that isn’t quite as challenged as ours, we’ve got to be patient. We focus on them,” he said. “We find out where they need to improve.”
In recent days, Marines and sailors with the 15th MEU got in-depth briefings about Timor-Leste and its people, history, culture, environment and language, which is Portuguese. Formerly known as East Timor, the country is in the tropics about 400 miles northwest of Darwin, Australia. It won its independence in 2002 after a 24-year occupation by Indonesian forces, which followed centuries-long colonial rule by Portugal.
Timor-Leste will be a new environment for many. While the 15th MEU participated in Crocodilo in 2010, its two major subordinate units this year — 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, nicknamed “Darkhorse,” and the “Purple Foxes” of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 — were in the desert during their recent combat deployments.
“Most of the Marines haven’t left (the continental U.S.), or they’ve been to Afghanistan or Iraq,” Campbell said, “so exposing them to Asian culture is a good thing. This is a unique opportunity for them.”
That includes experiencing the jungle, he said, an environment “they have to respect.”
Ashore, Marines and sailors will find the tropical rainforests populated by critters like scorpions and leeches.
“I think that is an eye-opener for the Marines,” Campbell said of the leeches. The MEU’s medical team has distributed anti-malarial pills and hand sanitizers, and the MEU has equipped Marines with one-person tents with mosquito netting to ward off potential bites and infections. “There are a lot of preventative things that we have done,” Campbell said.
Along with medical and dental assistance projects, the 15th MEU will join a contingent of Navy Seabees for engineering and construction projects to fix schools and clinics. They will also distribute books, school supplies and sports equipment.
For the Marines, the exercise gets them ashore to do helicopter and mechanized raids, landing zone security and patrols, things that Campbell likened to “block and tackling-type things for a MEU.”
“Every place we can, we want to practice our basic skills,” he added.
SOURCE: Marine Corps Times