Multinational forces storm Mayport beach for drills
The surprise scene at the shore startled beachgoers, but readied the troops.
Sailors and Marines along the beach at Mayport began moving the crowd away from the water Saturday afternoon as the amphibious assault vehicles approached across the waves.
"Everybody back up!" a sailor shouted. "Keep backing up. Now move back just a little more."
Moments later, the vehicles - looking like the offspring of a submarine and a tank - burst through the surf, surging forward as their treads bit into the sand.
The hydraulic brakes slammed into action, and the rear of the vehicles opened, disgorging more than 100 troops from eight countries.
"Left, go left!" shouted a U.S. Marine. "Shape up over there!"
Overhead, a brace of helicopters rented the sky.
The assault on the beach at Mayport Naval Station was part of the Marine's Partnership of the Americas exercise, held in conjunction with the Navy's Unitas exercise.
"It's really a learning environment for everybody," said Col. Jay Huston, commanding officer of the task force doing the exercise.
During the past week, the troops - Marines from the U.S. and six countries in Central and South America, as well as soldiers from Canada - worked together at Camp Blanding, fast-roping out of helicopters, firing weapons and sharing tactics.
They jelled quickly.
"The only difference in identity" said Lt. Col. Jorge Garcia of Colombia, "is in the color of the uniforms. We have the same objectives."
That was evident on the amphibious transport dock ships the troops boarded in the past few days: Throughout the USS Mesa Verde, for example, gaggles of marines from Chile conversed with those from Peru and troops from Colombia shared war stories with those from the United States.
That type of interaction is vital considering that multinational forces operating in the region need to cooperate in the field.
"We are better for these exercises," said Maj. Gen. James Williams. "At the end of the day, you can't do that sort of thing unless you figure it out in advance."
For the vast majority of U.S. Marines, Saturday's exercise was the first time they'd experienced an amphibious assault.
That made riding in the assault vehicles - which plow along beneath the water until approaching the beach - an experience.
"It was pretty great," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Rene Quintero, a medic working with the Marines. "When we hit the surf, it just jumped up."
The entire exercise, Quintero said, brought the troops from all the nations together. "They're true professionals," he said. "We've gathered the best out of all the nations."
A few minutes after those professionals hit the sand around their assault vehicles, the exercise was over. The troops stood, brushed sand from their uniforms and shook hands with one other.
The next mission: An hour-long bus ride back to Camp Blanding. As the men lined up to march over to the vehicle, the crowd applauded.