Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Celebrating Veteran's Day 2014 - Operation Bold Alligator Overview

Bold Alligator 2014
  • Today's post is written by Michael Forbes, November 11, 2014. Michael and I (Carrie) participated in a media day with the US Marines & Naval Forces during their yearly Operation Bold Alligator Exercise. I'm very thankful that Michael was able to go with me, as I knew he would have the wonderful ability to retain much of what we experienced during the trip, and would be able to write a thorough and thoughtful essay of the day's events. We will both be forever grateful to all of the Marine and Navy personnel who assisted us and kept us safe as we flew over the Atlantic, gave us tours and personal interviews, along with their time and energy on November 3, 2014. 
Bold Alligator refers to a large scale training exercise conducted by the United States Navy and Marines, along with major contributions from multiple nations. 

The exercise is conducted once a year, though this year the event was at a larger scale. The intent of the event this year is to re-examine the function of the Navy and Marines, returning to their original purpose.

Originally, the Marines were the ground troops of the Navy – meaning that if the Navy needed to address a situation on shore (such as an island or coastal area) the Marines could be deployed to carry out missions. For the last several years, the Marines have been mostly deployed along with the Army in the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan especially. Though their missions have been successful, the concern is that the Marines and Navy need to be retrained for future missions in different environments, considering changes in the global political environment.

On Monday, November 3rd, a few members of the media were allowed to visit and interact with troops and commanders. By a stroke of luck, Carrie was given to opportunity to sign up, as she runs this blog, and is somewhat local to Camp Lejeune (Eastern NC). This was a rather unique opportunity as her blog focuses mostly on dietary lifestyles, specifically food. She was a bit reluctant to go by herself, and asked if I could go, as I occasionally help with the blog, and often take photos. Fortunately, I was granted permission, and my boss was kind enough to let me have the day off.

We spent the night with our friend Betty in Swansboro, since she is close to the Marine base. We got up early that morning, and made our way to the base. We were running a couple of minutes late, and then realized that we didn’t have a pass to get into the base. Fortunately, we found that they had vans ready for the visitors, so we hopped in and once everyone arrived, we made our way into the base.

After getting to the base, we go to a conference room where an overview of the Exercise is presented. Without going into the technical details, I will say this: They plan for everything. Everything.

The most probable missions are search and rescue, and humanitarian aid. They are also prepared for taking on low level threats, all the way up to the very unlikely event of a global war. We only saw the tip of the iceberg, but it was quite amazing to see the amount of planning and coordination that goes into even the “easiest” missions.

Every scenario you can think of has a plan – either to prevent it or respond to it. For example, they have entomologists who study the local insects in places of upcoming or recent deployments. They gather specimens, identify them, and check them for any dangers including venom or infections they may be carrying. That may sound a bit silly at first, but something like malaria can make a difference in the outcome of a battle, as many armies have learned in the past.

Weather is actually the most significant factor in any tactical or strategic situation. Bad weather can make it hard for us to get to work or go to the grocery store, but for the Marines and Navy, it could mean the difference between life and death. Rough seas, storm fronts, and Tropical cyclones can completely throw off a mission plan, so backup plans are needed. In movies, they have a Plan A, then a Plan B, but in real life the weather can change from hour to hour, so the Marines and Sailors have to be adaptable – ready for anything. Sometimes a situation may need action, no matter what the weather is like, and changes can be made on the fly.

One surprise was the amount of cooperation with other nations Bold Alligator displayed. Between 15 and 20 nations participated in the events. Remember that nations often need to work together to address a situation and any miscommunication can lead to unfortunate results. Tremendous effort goes into learning different languages, culture and customs so that international teams can work together to accomplish their goals. Good communication can prevent bad things from happening in the first place.

In short, training helps determine if tactics or strategies need to be altered and improved, or if new ideas can work. If something doesn't work, no problem – reset and try again. That can’t always be done in “real” life.

It’s also a chance to try out new equipment and technology, and maybe make some refinements. For example, we got to check out some bomb disposal robots and an underwater surveillance drone, which looks like a miniature submarine. The land robots have been used successfully in combat, and frankly they are very cool. They are basically remote controlled units with a camera that allows the operator to see what robot sees, and controller that looks a lot like a game controller. This allows dangerous tasks to be done with less risk of personal injury.

Next we got to take a look at a Command Center. This is basically a bunch of interconnected tents with plastic flooring, HVAC, and computer systems. I can’t describe much though, since all of the screens were blacked out. We were not able to take photos, and had to leave cameras and phones at a security checkpoint. The rest will have to be left up to you imagination, and ours too.

After this, we took a ride to an airstrip, which is composed of interlocking panels, similar to tounge and groove flooring, but bigger. These panels can be laid down over most hard, level surfaces for a temporary, movable airstrip. Along with this airstrip we saw a fuel truck, heavy fork-lift, a heavy-duty street-sweeper for airfields, and a firetruck, which can pump water while in motion. These vehicles and their operators are crucial to the safe airfield operations, and they look cool too!

After a quick lunch, it was time for a helicopter ride…

We went outside, put on inflatable life jackets, and head gear (helmet, ear-protection, eye protection) and walked out to a pair of H60 helicopters. Helicopters are loud and windy, so debris hitting you in the face would put a damper on your day. Inside, the helicopter was not what I would call a luxury vehicle. If it doesn’t have a useful purpose, it’s not there. No need for plush seats when a frame and a sheet of fabric will do. No cruise control or 9-speaker stereo system. It does have a Nav system though, and another one called a map - remember those? That’s pretty important, because once you are over the ocean, there are no landmarks. Landing on an aircraft carrier/amphibious assault ship is not easy either. The ship is moving and rolling with the seas, so the actual surface you are touching down on is moving independently of the helicopter! Good thing they know what they are doing, and that alone shows why training is so important.

Onboard the USS Kearsarge

Once clear, we hopped off the helicopter and walked down a long steep ramp to what is basically a huge garage. This is where other helicopters and Harriers are serviced, maintained and stored. Busy place, and kind of a dangerous place to be, so we were scooted away through a maze of tight corridors and very steep stairs (really more like ladders) checking out the exercise room, and mess hall (which included a brief Q&A session with a Major and the Admiral of the ship. The room would not have been out of place in an office building. As we were listening to further details about the operation, I noticed the whole room was gently rocking – along with the rest of the ship -  to the waves. I’m sure you get used to it, but it felt a bit strange to have the entire room slightly moving as you sat at a table as if you were in any other office meeting.

So where were we? Not sure. We were “at least 12 miles” off the coast of North Carolina, and I suspect maybe 20-24 miles out. That’s the farthest I’ve ever been out to sea, and looking at the marines and sailors going about their daily routines, I felt a little out of place. These people have probably been all over the world – living on the ship for weeks or months at a time. Imagine going to work (or school) and not being able to leave for weeks at a time, and your office building being surrounded by an endless featureless horizon. I hope you like your job, because you’re gonna be there a while. I can only imagine the cabin fever, and general homesick feeling these people have to deal with while maintaining their professionalism. That gave me a new appreciation for my 15-20 minute “commute” every day – in a climate controlled truck with nice comfy seats.

The Sailors and Marines were all extremely courteous and professional. Everyone has a job to do, and each is important. This is sort of like a floating city, with 100% employment and everyone does their part. One thing I noticed was that the ship was incredibly clean. No dirt or trash to be found, and there is obviously a lot of pride in keeping it that way. Another thing that stood out was the amount of female Sailors and Marines, which made up about 1/8 of the total population, which itself could be up to around 3,000 personnel.

When we entered the Bridge, and met the captain of the ship. Keep in mind, it doesn’t look like the bridge from Star Trek. It’s far more utilitarian. There are some state of the art display systems, but also WWII era technology right alongside the new stuff. There is a redundant system for everything. If something fails, the job still has to be done, so time and battle proven systems are there too. Even the voice pipes are still used. They do not require electrical power and are immune to radio frequency interference, making them a practical solution. The captain chair isn’t in the middle of the room. His chair is on the left side, so that he can see the flight deck. The Ensigns have a station as well. They are the ones who actually pilot the ship. Imagine driving a car that’s the length of two football fields and then some. No pressure – especially when you are 19-20 years old! I really wanted to ask if it would be OK for me to man the controls, but I figured that would be pushing it.

After this we went to a sort of holding room, and then up to the flight deck, were we saw one of the aforementioned H60 helicopters performing touch-and-go drills. Upon taking off, the helicopter rolled a bit to one side, allowing the rotors to blow against us. The resulting wind is enough to knock you down, so you need to brace yourself and lean into it. The entire drill seemed almost effortless to the crew and aviators.

After checking out some of the other aircraft, including Cobra attack helicopters, it was time to return to the shore. We geared up and flew home. We landed back at Cherry Point, but on a runway. The helicopters actually landed like a traditional airplane, and taxied to position. I honestly didn’t know they could do that, and that was a nice reminder of the skill level involved, as well as the capabilities of the fine aircraft. After a final Q and A session, we headed back out to the vans to ride back to our cars, and watched a Harrier II take off in the distance.

As the day ended, and we went back to my truck and talked about everything we saw. The day seemed to fly by, and honestly it was a lot to process. Being civilians, much of the terminology was over our heads, but we knew enough to get the basics, and understand the sheer immensity that goes into military operations.

We saw that the vehicles and equipment are awesome, but are actually worthless without the people who use and support them – mostly kids only a few years out of high school. It’ not something that anyone can do – being so far away from home in a wide variety of conditions, dealing with situations that may not be safe or friendly.

These are not action-movie stars. They are regular people who have made a commitment and work hard every day, often putting their lives at risk so that we can enjoy our own daily routines without worrying about being invaded by a hostile nation. We take them for granted. We don’t even acknowledge their presence most of the time, but they remain ready for whatever they need to do. That’s kind of mind blowing. Today is Veteran’s Day, and because of this opportunity, I have a little better understanding of what life is like for our military – the professionals who have willingly decided to keep this nation safe, and why events like Bold Alligator are so important.

Semper Fidelis (“Always Faithful” Marine motto.)

Non sibi sed patriae (“Not self but Country” Navy unofficial motto.)


My participation in exercise Bold Alligator is the outcome at the outset of my nomination by Dennis Hall, founder of Avere Group LLC in California. Jenny Lauck of BlogHer referred me to Dennis Hall. He has nominated community leaders on a pro bono basis to the military for public affairs embarks for over 22 years. He is neither an employee nor contractor of the military.

Dennis Hall initially submitted my nomination to Lieutenant Commander Jereal Dorsey, Public Affairs Officer, and James DeAngio, Deputy Public Affairs Officer for the US Navy Commander, Naval Surface Forces, US Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk, Virgina. They in turn referred Dennis Hall to Navy Lieutenant Commander Candice Tresch, Public Affairs Officer for Expeditionary Strike Group 2, Navy Lieutenant Michael Sheehan, Public Affairs Officers for the U.S. Fleet Forces Command Public Affairs, and Marine Corps Major Matthew Bellaver, Public Affairs Officer for the Marine Forces Command. They selected and invited me to exercise Bold Alligator media day on November 3, 2014.

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