WHITE LAKE — Marines descended on Bladen County, literally, on Wednesday night.
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted training at the Bladen County Emergency Services Training Ground, bringing a flurry of lights not normally seen and explosions seldom heard to this recreational destination community.
The old prison camp’s facilities became this week the site of a realistic urban training exercise, a practice going back to 1985.
“Marines undergo a lot of training on base,” said 1st Lt. Zackary Buckon, “but in real-world scenarios, we can’t control dogs, or passersby, or any number of other variables, and we wouldn’t be familiar with our surroundings. This type of training gives Marines unfamiliar facilities in order to impose friction and realism into their training.”
Members of the expeditionary unit undergo six months of training prior to deployment, including the urban training excercises conducted this week. While military spokesmen would not reveal the exact scenario being played out in Bladen County, it involved “much time and planning,” according to Buckon, and would be a situation Marines would encounter in real life.
Having been solicited from multiple units, Marines role players arrived in White Lake earlier this week to simulate the scenario for which the expeditionary unit has been preparing. Around 7 p.m., the role players could be seen walking around the compound, or lounging in the shade with fake rifles and pistols — a quiet and leisurely scene.
Less than three hours later, things changed. Although they couldn’t be heard, and hardly seen until pointed out by Marine personnel, three aircraft were circling high above the area.
“In a real-world scenario, they wouldn’t be running the lights,” Buckon said. “The Marines have this down to a science. They know exactly how high and how far they can run without being heard or seen, and they won’t fly if the atmospheric conditions aren’t just right so the con trail can’t be spotted.”
The aircraft, he said, were doing reconnaisance on the area.
Out of nowhere, and true to Buckon’s word, a deep thwump-thwump of the aircraft could be heard — the V-22 Osprey, the Marine Corps’ tiltmotor aircraft was above. With a nearly 100-foot wingspan, thanks in large part to its two 38-foot rotors, the Osprey is capable of fixed-wing flight and speed, while having the capability of vertical landing. The Boeing beast holds up to 32 troops and upward of 60,000 pounds.
Less than a minute after the aircraft could be heard, the behomoth was seen just above the tree line on the east side of the property. Just above the rotor was what appeared to be light, similar to the light trail produced when a photographer decreases the shutter speed dramatically.
“That light is static electricity,” Buckon said, pointing toward the aircraft.
As soon as the Osprey landed, dozens of Marines alit from the aircraft, artillery in hand, and raced toward the nearest building.
“This is why no one wants to fight us at night,” Buckon beamed. “We have state-of-the-art night vision equipment and do a tremendous amount of training at night.”
As the Camp Lejeune-based unit made its way from building to building, loud explosions were frequently followed by the soft pfft, pfft of simulated gunshots.
“Everything is precise and timed to perfection,” Buckon said. “It’s really impressive to watch.”
As impressive as the Marines were, the planning that went into the effort was equal in scale. Eight months in the making, the exercise was a coordination of elected officials from the local to federal level, multiple law enforcement agencies, the N.C. Forest Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, fire and emergency services agencies, and private property owners.
“We can’t do things like this without the cooperation of local people, and Bladen County has been great to work with,” Buckon said. “The sheriff’s department and County Manager Greg Martin have been cooperative and timely in getting things back to us. Governments working with us to allow this kind of thing is pivotal to preparing our Marines to be prepared for any scenario, whether it’s a raid, assault or humanitarian aid.”
Local officials are equally happy to see the training facility being used.
“This is exactly why this facility is good for Bladen County,” said Sheriff Jim McVicker. “I’m more proud of this facility than I am our new jail.”
Sgt. Gary Turlington helped organize things on the local end, and he agreed with McVicker’s assessment.
“These people coming here — they eat in our restaurants, and some are staying in hotels around the county. It’s good for the economy,” he said.
Though the public was not encouraged to attend the exercise, Bladen County emergency personnel were on hand in case they were needed.
The expeditionary unit has been in July and will continue in August to be conducting similar excercises in Linville, Kinston and Randleman.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.