UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, Southwest Asia — The memory of Benghazi casts a long, heavy shadow over a dusty and austere military base in the heart of U.S. Central Command.
A forward-deployed unit of about 2,200 Marines was created in the wake of that controversial attack on Sept. 11, 2012, when Islamic extremists stormed a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya and killed a U.S. ambassador and another American civilian.
The attack – and the lack of an immediate U.S. military response – prompted the creation of Marine units specifically tasked with "crisis response." And while that initially meant embassies, the role of this Marine unit near the tip of the spear has expanded significantly the past few years.
These days, embassy reinforcement is a top priority. But the Marines' mission is rapidly expanding to include quick-response evacuations and combat support, as well as advising and assisting local allies both in the air and on the ground. The Marines are standing by 24 hours a day for any crisis that might require infantrymen with their own aircraft.
With small teams of Marines and their roughly two dozen aircraft scattered across the volatile region from Egypt to Pakistan, the distributed nature of the mission is a challenge to manage, but it's something commanders are getting used to.
"It's a peek into the Marine Corps' future," said Col. William Vivian, commander of the sprawling unit, known officially as the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command, or SPMAGTF-CR-CC.
"We are doing just an unbelievably wide variety of things," he said. "The range is just breathtaking. I have never seen anything quite like it before in my career."
The Marines hosted a Military Times reporter at the unit's headquarters in CENTCOM, but officials asked that the specific location not be disclosed.
Because of the task force's genesis, an embassy support package of Marines is on standby 24 hours a day, ready to respond anywhere in the CENTCOM area of operations, Vivian said.
One of those units was called to action last year amid growing violence in Baghdad. In May 2016, the Marine task force already had a company-sized element of infantry Marines boosting security at the embassy in Iraq.
But when protests began "approaching the international zone, the [U.S.] ambassador requested some additional forces to reinforce, to augment, an existing security posture at the embassy," said the unit's former commander, Col. Kenneth Kassner.
About two dozen Marines from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment and 1st Law Enforcement Battalion boarded Marine aircraft and within hours they were inside the embassy compound.
'TRAP' TEAM RECOVERY OPS
In addition to Benghazi, another recent tragedy defines the Marines' mission here. Muath Al-Kasasbeh was a fighter pilot with the Jordanian Air Force in December 2014 when his F-15 fighter jet crashed near Raqqa, Syria, in territory controlled by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.
The pilot survived and was captured. A few weeks later, ISIS released a video showing the pilot being burned to death while trapped inside a cage. The killing fueled outrage in Jordan, one of the most reliable U.S. allies in the Middle East.
The pilot's death was a disturbing worst-case scenario — one that U.S. commanders want to avoid at all costs. Concerns led to the creation of a Marine team dedicated to responding to downed aviators.
Next to the flight line, in two rows of beige tents, a platoon of Marines from India Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, is always ready to respond to a call for tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel, or TRAP.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Tomlin, the TRAP Force commander for the day shift, said he and his Marines are "basically on alert, ready for anything."
The TRAP Marines stay in the tents during their 12-hour shifts, ensuring they are as close as possible to the flight line. After all, every second counts: As Tomlin spoke to a reporter inside the tent where the platoon stages its flak jackets and weapons, Marines began moving into the tent and gearing up. They had been called.
"The guys, they live down here every day, day in day out, training with their enablers and the pilots," said 1st Lt. Hayden Lawson. "They'll grab their gear and they'll go to the Osprey aircraft; they'll load up and they'll take off to go accomplish that mission."
The Marines are constantly monitoring all flights taking place in the CENTCOM area from a Crisis Response Operation Center, so they're ready and aware in case something goes wrong.
"It could happen in the blink of an eye," Vivian said. "In the event a pilot and aircrew were actually in jeopardy, then we would very quickly push that information down to the TRAP line."
The TRAP mission is generally focused on Operation Inherent Resolve, because most of the flying in the region is in support of OIR, Vivian said—but it is a theater-wide capability.
About 200 yards away from the TRAP team's tents, on the windy flight line, Capt. Chris Conklin, an Osprey pilot with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 165, said he's been busy. "We take Marines to the fight," he said.
A short walk from the Ospreys, the KC-130s stand ready, with the open desert stretching out behind them. The landscape is reminiscent of Twentynine Palms, Calif., though a Marine here is much more likely to see a wandering camel than an endangered tortoise.
Capt. Matthew Cruse, assistant operations officer for Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, said his unit does as much logistic support as possible, including all SPMAGTF assets that move anywhere in Iraq.
The KC-130s and Ospreys move "about 98 percent of the Marine-specific assets," he said, and the Hercs also participate in TRAP missions by refueling the Ospreys. The KC-130s also have refueled Harriers involved in air strikes in Iraq and Syria, Cruse said.
The Hercules unit is unique within the task force, in that it is a constant presence. About a third of the squadron deploys from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., at a time, and is replaced by another third while they return home.
The arrangement makes it "much easier to kind of jump right back into the flow of things," said Cruse, who is on his second deployment to this base.
During his first deployment, which was the second iteration of the task force, the mission was more focused on getting things set up at several bases in Iraq – Al Asad, Taqaddum, and Baghdad air bases. Planes were flying into Iraq fully loaded, he said.
Now, Cruse said, there are many different assets all over the area of operations, which is helpful. "We share a lot more of the load than we did when we initially got here," he said.
Task force Marines also support OIR on the ground. In mid-December, the unit was "actively involved in advising and assisting the Iraqi security forces in the performance of their missions, supporting them in particular with the latest operation in and around Mosul," Kassner said.
Marines from the unit "also support the Iraqis through our maintenance support teams, helping them to better maintain and repair their weapons and their vehicles … before certain types of operations, whether it was operations in Fallujah and Ramadi when we first arrived here this past spring, and currently for the Mosul fight," he said.
The task force also provides OIR support in the form of intelligence support packages, airfield damage repair, and an "exploitation analysis cell" that can take enemy materials like documents, phones and hard drives and analyze them. Kassner calls them "NCIS in a box."
Additionally, the Marines have a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear element, and when ISIS destroyed a sulfur plant near Mosul, the CBRN Marines were able to use test kits to determine the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, Kassner said.
The concept of a Marine air-ground task force trained in crisis response is certainly not a new one: Marine Expeditionary Units or Marine Amphibious Units, as they were previously called, have existed for decades.
But while the similarly sized MEUs generally deploy on ships, moving around several areas of operation over about seven months at sea, SPMAGTF-CR-CC stays put on shore, focusing on one area of operations throughout its deployment.
"The MEUs, they've been the crown jewel of the MAGTF for decades now," Vivian said. "We are complimentary with what they bring to the table."
The unit also will still be available for crisis response if no MEU is in the region or if it gets called to another mission.
"That's a benefit that we enjoy – we're able to focus on a specific AO. So, for our West Coast MEUs, they spend a third of their deployment focusing on things in (Pacific Command), and then they're here in CENTCOM, and they even occasionally get pulled into AFRICOM. … But we're solely focused on, at least to date, on this AO."
Staff writer Stephen Losey contributed to this report.