FORT BRAGG, N.C. — A foreign nation convulsed by civil war. A United States embassy at risk of being overrun. American citizens isolated and cut off from the airport.
In this crisis, there's only one unit the president can call on to fly across the ocean, jump in, and safeguard the evacuation - the 82nd Airborne Division.
Paratroopers from the 82nd's 2nd Brigade Combat Team rehearsed this fictional — but potentially very real — scenario during a Non-combatant Evacuation Exercise at Camp Mackall, June 24-26.
The 2nd BCT recently assumed "ready brigade" status for the division, meaning it could be called up on short notice to execute a variety of missions anywhere in the world. One of the missions the 2nd BCT "Falcons" have to be prepared for is a civilian evacuation operation. The exercise at Camp Mackall was designed to test this capability, said brigade commander Col. Christopher P. Gibson, of Kinderhook, N.Y.
"It's clear that among the capabilities the United States military must possess, are NEO capabilities, so we have to train for that," Gibson said.
The exercise at Camp Mackall strove for realism in size and scale, featuring more than 1,000 paratroopers, hundreds of actors playing evacuees, and Air Force pilots flying dozens of C-130 and C-17 aircraft.
The exercise scenario was based on real-life historical examples, and drew on the knowledge and experience of NEO veterans from within the military and the Department of State. A number of State Department officers even took part in the exercise as role-players.
It all began shortly after sunset on June 24 when hundreds of parachutes began filling the sky over Camp Mackall, which in this case was doubling as the fictional West African nation of Chatu. Once on the ground, the paratroopers began assembling into little groups and moving out to their objectives. Some had the mission of securing the airport, while others had to locate vehicles and begin collecting stranded American citizens from outlying areas.
The complexity of the mission quickly became apparent to Capt. Andrew Salmo and his troopers, who were tasked with transporting a group of about 30 Americans and foreign nationals from a distant village back to the airport. Out of that group, there were perhaps eight different languages being spoken, and Salmo was without an interpreter.
"One of my guys just happened to speak French, and one of them spoke French, so we eventually figured it out," Salmo said.
Other complications arose, including an evacuee with heart attack-like symptoms and another with labor pains, but eventually Salmo and his paratroopers were able to move the evacuees back to the airport.
Once there, the evacuees were funneled through a series of processing stations, including a security station, a registration station, and a medical screening station. At the medical station, Pfc. Scott Bathory, a medic with Headquarters Company, Brigade Special Troops Battalion, evaluated the evacuees for disqualifying medical conditions, such as contagious diseases. Some of the evacuees displayed symptoms that Bathory found harder to identify.
"One guy came up and said he talked to aliens," Bathory said. "Then he started barking at me."
When all the processing was complete, the evacuees were organized into groups to await the aircraft that would transport them out of the country.
For all who took part in it, the exercise revealed just how difficult evacuation operations can be. Mary Greenfield, a consular official at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, who was part of the State Department contingent on hand for the training, said she gained a new appreciation for how challenging military operations can be.
"It helps us [at the State Department] just to know how much work goes into something like this," Greenfield said. "We tend to just think, 'they can do anything, they're the military.' Seeing the complexity gives us a deeper appreciation for how much effort actually goes into an operation like this."
Salmo said his troopers also learned quite a bit from the exercise. Despite getting off to a rocky start, his Soldiers learned on a steep curve, he said.
"I was impressed by our paratroopers' resilience and their flexibility," Salmo said. "To perform as well as they did under that kind of stress was remarkable."