Staff Sgt. Derek Ferrari was heading out the door on his way to work at the U.S. embassy in Sudan on April 15 when he heard armed conflict break out.
The sounds of bombs, anti-aircraft fire and machine guns were coming from within a kilometer of his residence, itself a five-minute drive from the embassy, he told Marine Corps Times.
“It was obvious that everything had started to go downhill very quickly at that point,” said Ferrari, the detachment commander.
He rushed to the embassy, where he and 11 other Marine security guards assigned to protect the post got to work preparing for a potential evacuation out of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.
Although it was U.S. special operations forces — which reportedly included SEAL Team Six and the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group — who ultimately conducted the April 23 evacuation of the embassy’s personnel, the Marine security guards played a key role in it, according to U.S. government officials.
“Our Marines who protect many of our embassies overseas do not often get the credit they deserve,” Christopher Maier, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said in a State Department news briefing following the evacuation. “Their courage under duress represents America at its best, again, in this instance.”
The evacuation came as warring factions trying to seize control of Sudan plunged the country into chaos, leaving at least 500 people dead.
As security conditions worsened, including damage to the civilian airport and an attack on a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Khartoum, Sudan, the State Department concluded that “the only way we could do this safely for all of our diplomatic personnel was to rely on the capabilities of our military colleagues,” said Ambassador John Bass, State Department undersecretary for management.
The Marines got the official word of the planned evacuation within 48 hours of its taking place, according to Ferrari, but they had known one was likely to happen since conflict broke out April 15. So they had a little more than a week to prepare.
In an interview with Marine Corps Times on Wednesday, the Marines said they followed the “standard operating procedures” laid out by the post’s regional security office. They weren’t authorized to provide much about the specifics of those procedures.
But they did describe in general terms what the leadup to the evacuation was like.
And Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Bragg, a spokesman for the Marine security guard program, described what embassy evacuation procedures are generally like. They often involve shredding or burning documents housed within the embassy, managing the efforts to recover embassy personnel stranded outside the embassy compound and ensuring the embassy is clear right before the evacuation takes place, Bragg said.
Then the Marine security guards typically work with remaining embassy staff to weld the doors shut, according to Bragg.
For the Marines in Sudan, there was plenty of work to be done and only a limited amount of time to do it. The Marines said they generally slept around three hours a night during the leadup to the evacuation.
“All the Marines, we took care of each other that entire (time),” Sgt. Alonzo Longstreet said. “All of us made sure that we had a sense of humor. We were always there for each other. Some of us were cooking meals for each other. It was a full-team effort.”
A particularly meaningful moment for the Marines was the retirement of the embassy’s American flag, Sgt. Joshua Arledge said. In a ceremony at the compound’s courtyard, as one of the last steps of decommissioning the embassy, the Marines lowered the flag, folded it and handed it to the ambassador.
“As Marines, it’s a symbol of our presence within that country, no matter where we are,” Arledge said. “Doesn’t matter what embassy we’re currently standing in, it’s what we’re there to protect — anything that falls under that flag.”
After flying out from the embassy, the Marines landed first at an airfield in Ethiopia, where they switched from helicopters to C-17 transport aircraft, according to Ferrari. They flew next to Djibouti, then to Germany and finally to the United States.
Cpl. Christopher Wolfert recalled that when his plane landed in the United States, he had a realization. Yes, he and the other Marines had had to leave the embassy behind. But they had done their job. They had kept the embassy staff safe.
Since the evacuation of embassy personnel, additional U.S. citizens have been evacuated out of Sudan.
On Saturday, hundreds of Americans fleeing the deadly fighting reached the east African nation’s port, completing a dangerous land journey under escort of armed drones.
The United States, which had none of its officials on the ground for the evacuation, has been criticized by families of trapped Americans in Sudan for initially ruling out any U.S.-run evacuation for Americans who wanted out, calling it too dangerous.
Most of the estimated 16,000 Americans believed to be in Sudan right now are dual U.S.-Sudanese nationals and only a fraction of them have expressed a desire to leave.
When the dozen Marine security guards spoke Wednesday with Marine Corps Times, they were back at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
They’ve been kept busy, in large part debriefing the evacuation with military and State Department officials, according to Bragg. Then, some of them will likely get orders to different embassies, while others will return to the fleet, Bragg said.
“It is a more stressful environment, and it is not something we want to expect, but it is something we train for,” Cpl. Marvin McCaskill Jr. said of the evacuation. “Within the context of what happened, we kept level heads. There was no panic. There was no worry. We did what we had to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.