NEWPORT NEWS, VA -- The early morning silence suddenly broke as CH-46 and AH-1W Super Cobra Helicopters appeared out of the orange, sun-streaked horizon and raced toward their objective, a defiant enemy vessel refusing to comply with the orders of a U.S.- enforced blockade and continuing on a threatening course through protected waters.
That was the scenario which members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit's (24th MEU) Force Recon Detachment and Helicopter Squadron HMM-266 envisioned as they circled around an abandoned cargo ship. The vessel rested in a graveyard of old ships -- some decommissioned military vessels, others former commercial cargo ships -- all of them now serving as a training site at Fort Eustis, just outside of Richmond, Va.
As the Super Cobras circled the objective providing aviation security, two CH-46s hovered at the forward and aft decks of the ship just long enough for the 24th MEU's Force Recon Marines to fast rope down and begin the difficult part of their mission.
The exercise is called Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS), and serves as a routine but crucial part of the 24th MEU's predeployment training. Simply put, it is an exercise that trains Marines in how to board a foreign vessel, thoroughly search its contents for armaments or combatants, and secure its main control sites. Only then can the vessel be eliminated as a threat.
Such training will prove vital to the Marines and Sailors tasked with keeping the waters of the Mediterranean Sea safe.
"It's more realistic. It is the most probable mission for the MSPF," said Sgt. Greg Wrubluski, from Jacksonville Fla., 24th MEU Force Recon, Assault Element.
"Typically, we have about six hours from the time we get the word to the actual drop," said Capt. Brian McAvoy, from Lowville, N.Y., HMM-266 MEU CH-46 Helicopter Pilot.
"The Cobras are there to create a diversion circling the vessel and making noise while the CH-46's can use two ropes each for fast roping onto the vessel," added Capt. McAvoy.
Once on board, the Marines secure key spaces in order to stop the ship's progress or turn it around.
"We try to neutralize the bridge and the engine room, then we manifest the captain and if it is necessary, we conduct a more detailed search of the vessel," said Sgt. Joe Weirsky of Phillipsburg, N.J., 24th MEU Force Recon, Assault Element.
During their VBSS training, the Marines worked on two different boats and against many different degrees of opposition.
As they began their search on one run, the opposition was noticeably heavier. There were more "enemy" rifleman to contend with, thus forcing a more detailed search in order to root out all threats. Both sides used simulation rounds, splattering each other with blue and pink paint.
Throughout the evolution, the Force Recon Marines rose to the challenge, seizing the key control areas and securing hatches as they left them. "Prisoners" were bound and searched, and "casualties" were evacuated to rally points. By the last run, the CH-46 Pilots and the Force Recon Marines had perfected the coordination of the drop. The exercise proved a success.
Weather it is a vessel that is transporting drugs and weapons, or a ship planning a terrorist attack, the 24th MEU possesses the ability to combine air and land assets in an organized strike against any threat that arises.
No matter what circumstances they encounter, the men and women of the 24th MEU must be prepared to complete the mission at hand. VBSS training has undoubtedly expanded their capabilities for mission accomplishment.
Follow the 24th MEU deployment on their website at http://www.usmc.mil/24meu.