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MSG's In Beijing React to Riots in 199
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Posts: MSG-Beijing, China Author: Ed Vasgerdsian
Ed Vasgerdsian,
 Leatherneck Magazine, October 2000

Since the program’s inception Marine security guards have participated in the evacuation of Americans from harm’s way, repelled intruders and-in the late 1970s in Teheran, Iran-became the hostages of terrorists.

With one exception, all watchstanders and detachment commanders receive standard MSG training. Thus, an MSG posted in Cairo, Egypt, receives the same training as his or her counterpart posted in Brasília, Brazil. The exceptions are the MSGs who are sent to Beijing or the Russian cities of Moscow, Kazakhstan or Vladivostok, since these are classified as Critical Counter-Intelligence Threat Posts (CCTPs) and require an additional week of training at Battalion Headquarters at Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va. Thankfully for the Marines of “Charlie” Company stationed in Beijing in 1999, the training was just what Battalion Headquarters ordered.

On May 7, 1999, NATO forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Former Marine and now Embassy Regional Security Officer (RSO) Jim McWhirter informed the Beijing detachment commander, Gunnery Sergeant Harry Hays, that the Chinese government had given permission for people to demonstrate against the American Embassy there.

Standard operating procedures required all Marines to keep Post 1 notified of their whereabouts at all times. When Gunny Hays ordered the Marines back to the embassy to prepare for the demonstration, none of the watchstanders knew whether the order was due to a real situation or another training exercise. Conditions were slightly complicated due to repair work on the Marine House, requiring the detachment to be temporarily housed off grounds in five different locations. Within minutes, detachment Marines arrived at the embassy, and the 10 Marines realized this was no drill. The detachment commander and his 10 “devil dogs” were suddenly thrust into the forefront of a major international situation that had the potential to get ugly, and fast.

Marines quickly changed from civilian clothes into combat gear and were briefed on the impending situation. Ambassador James R. Sasser was escorted the quarter-mile drive from his residence to the embassy by two armed MSGs.

Neither the time in which the demonstration was to take place nor the disposition of the protestors was known. Post 1, the main entrance to the embassy by which all persons enter, is larger than a closet but smaller than a room. This cramped space became conference, planning and communication headquarters for RSO McWhirter, Gunny Hays and the assistant detachment commander, Staff Sergeant Adam Reynolds. As historical as events of this nature are, it was known that the demonstration would take place in front of the embassy, thus providing maximum propaganda for the protestors. Fortunately, the Marines had a clear view of the street that lay directly before them.

SSgt Reynolds reported to Beijing after completing his first tour of MSG duty in tranquil Rome. The day after his arrival in China, he found himself confronting a mob. “I didn’t have time to even find out where the various offices were. The day after I got here, all hell broke out. Although I didn’t know the physical layout of the embassy, I was still lucky because Beijing wasn’t my first post, and I was trained for these events. [In our] operational procedure, Post 1 becomes [the] communication center for all embassy emergencies,” Reynolds said.

On May 8, at approximately 4:40 p.m., the first group of 75 demonstrators gathered outside the gates of the American Embassy. A spokesperson from the crowd stepped forward to present a letter of protest. McWhirter and Hays were positioned outside the embassy gate. An American political officer walked from the embassy under the watchful eyes of 10 MSGs and accepted the letter of protest. This gesture was repeated four times, each group representing a different Chinese delegation.

Busloads of workers and students were transported in from several locations around Beijing. According to Newsweek magazine, “Officials put up metal signs pointing out the procession route in front of the embassy, and some policemen helpfully broke paving blocks into fist-sized chunks suitable for smashing windows.” Soon an estimated mob of more than 4,000 moved over a stretch of street 50 feet wide and 1,000 yards long.

The crowd focused its attention on the chancery building that houses the ambassador’s office and Post 1, but it was Post 2, a separately located building where passports and visas are granted, that received the first volley of rocks. According to Hays’ logbook, at 5:33 p.m., rocks were hurled at embassy windows. The aged embassy, complete with unprotected windows and once occupied by the Pakistani Embassy, was ill-prepared to withstand the assail. However, as quickly as the rock throwing started, it suddenly stopped, giving detachment commander Hays an opportunity to discuss what each Marine saw and to make recommendations for the mob’s anticipated reappearance.

An hour later, the Chinese police, who were providing external protection, began to feel the crowd trying to push them aside in the hopes of scaling the embassy walls. Students shouted anti-American slogans through megaphones. One demonstrator was seen holding a paper target against himself while taunting the Marines. Additional uniformed and plain-clothed Chinese police were brought in to shore up their own defenses.

As paint balls and rocks began to pepper the embassy, Molotov cocktails followed. Much to the Marines’ amusement, some Molotov cocktails were made with plastic soda bottles that bounced back onto the crowd when thrown against the embassy. Other Molotov cocktails found their mark, and the Marines hurried from room to room putting out fires. Although the majority of civilian workers were aware of the circumstances at the embassy and stayed home, others were trapped in the building and depended upon the Marines for protection.

As external security cameras were knocked out of commission, Marines without protective face shields now had to expose themselves to rocks and Molotov cocktails in order to determine the extent of any intrusion. Some demonstrators hurled themselves over the embassy walls; Marines rushed forward, pounced upon them and handed them over to the Chinese police. Although not seriously injured, Corporal Jason Akes received facial cuts from shattering glass. Ambassador Sasser, who was surveying the crowd below, saw the MSG take the hit and assisted with some first aid.

There was little sleep for the Marines during this time, and for Gunny Hays there was an extra twist. His wife, Shelly, and daughters Chantell, 12, and Lauren, 7, were 10 minutes from where the action was taking place. Ironically, Shelly Hays had previously participated in her husband’s “react drill,” playing the role of a hostage. While they were out of harm’s way, Shelly Hays said, “We wanted to do something.” Both Mrs. Hays and Mrs. McWhirter participated by volunteering to drop food and medical supplies off at safe locations whereupon it was picked up and brought back to the embassy.

After four days, the demonstrators left, leaving behind enough debris to fill four dump trucks. Every window on the front of the embassy was cracked or smashed. One of the two official plaques attached to the front gate was ripped from its base. The other was left dangling, dented and burnt.

As with any other detachment commander, Hays was to have one tour of duty in Beijing and a second at another post. Owing to his experience in the May 1999 demonstrations, he will serve the remainder of his MSG tour in Beijing.

On June 11, 1999, Hays was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. SSgt Reynolds was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and is presently assigned to security for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sergeants Austin Griffin and James Reilly received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and all other Marines received Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.

As per battalion procedure, incidents such as this become the subject for discussion with other detachments. Gunny Hays and each watchstander compiled recommendations on how to better protect the embassy, its personnel and themselves during future demonstrations. Months later, these recommendations were presented to peers at a battalion detachment commanders conference. Many of the MSGs’ recommendations addressed areas of communications, but another was most notable: “All MSG helmets should have face shields.” Oddly enough, in the May 24, 1999, Newsweek story, an accompanying photo showed the Chinese police wearing face shields. In fact, the use of face shields is common in police departments worldwide.

For those civilians who experienced the events of May 1999, rotating back to the States meant taking with them recollections that will stay with them for many years. As new civilians fill those positions, the MSGs are aware that issues of security are not at the forefront of their thoughts, and the civilians are not apt to treat security with the same consideration as the MSGs who are specifically trained for the job.

During the last 50 years, the MSG program of standardized training has assured Marines and civilians of continuity. Sgt Travis Toee said it best: “I would emphasize the need for civilians to be made more aware of security issues, but I understand my role and appreciate theirs. The toughest job we have here is to enforce security regulations and not lose the cooperation of those we’re here for.”

On Feb. 10, 2000, a White House fact sheet issued a statement regarding American Embassy security measures: “The President’s 2001 budget includes more than $1.1 billion to reduce further the risk of loss of life from terrorist attacks on our overseas diplomatic missions.”

Among those things under consideration are substantial increases for security improvements to existing facilities, perimeter barriers and alarms. The recommendations made by the Marines in the aftermath of the Beijing demonstrations will be made known through MSG Battalion Headquarters Commander, Colonel David W. Hurley who, as an enlisted Marine, served as a watchstander in Beirut, Lebanon.

Today, more than a year later, the American Embassy has been scrubbed and painted, windows have been replaced, and the Stars and Stripes wave as proudly as ever. A uniformed Chinese guard continues to stand at attention atop a wooden box directly in front of the embassy gate. Official cars carrying foreign diplomats enter and leave the compound, commissary business is transacted for its employees and the MSG-now permanently housed on embassy grounds-continues to protect. All along embassy row, Chinese guards with eyes front and shoulders squared away are positioned in front of the Irish, Pakistani, Egyptian and Bulgarian embassies, all standing on wooden boxes, all neatly in a row. Normalcy has returned.

Beijing Today

Beijing is not a beautiful city, if one were to judge it from the lack of a definitive skyline or modern architecture. The people are friendly and often smiling beneath broad-brimmed baseball caps. Dust, the constancy of wind and the burning of fossil fuel provide substantial work for those employed to keep the city clean.

Despite the presence of McDonald’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, the Hard Rock Cafe and Round Table Pizza, few people speak English with ease. There are no theaters showing Hollywood-type movies, but an occasional Disney film will appear at some obscure Chinese theater. The food in most hotels is quite good, and the Marines quickly point out that tipping is not permitted. Within walking distance from the American Embassy is a Starbucks Coffee complete with decaf latte made with nonfat milk. Inside the same shopping mall is the Friendship Store, which sells cigarettes, film and souvenirs as well as snake wine. There is also a large selection of glass bottles and jars containing the dried innards of animals, which are sold to assure an active sex life, prevent baldness and cure disease.

With the exception of the detachment commander, Marines are not allowed to own or drive a motor vehicle while on MSG duty. There are exceptions in some worldwide detachments, but in Beijing it may be a lifesaving order. Main roads leading in and out of Beijing are paved, wide and congested. The danger is in the driver who very suddenly decides to cut across four lanes of traffic to make a left turn from the right lane. At the same time, pedestrians and the ever-popular bicyclists play dodge, desperately trying to navigate safely through traffic. Oddly enough, there is little road rage.

What do Marines do if their detachment resides in a city where jogging can be harmful because of environmental issues like smog? Gunny Hays solved the problem by finding the funds to rent the ice arena in the shopping mall of the China World Hotel. The Marines didn’t have NHL equipment, but the lack of it didn’t take away the spirit of their play. Hays divided the teams up as equally as you can with seven players. These young Americans, some playing with shin guards held on with masking tape and some in shorts, crashed against the boards and provided entertainment for a small group of Chinese shoppers.

The Men in Blue

Often heard is the phrase, “MSGs are diplomats in blue,” referring, of course, to the Marines’ dress blue uniforms. Many of those watching the Marines playing hockey were seeing Americans from a different perspective. They were watching Americans unlike those portrayed in the movies, seen on TV or read about in the news media-they were just having good, clean fun. Cpl Eric Hodges played goalie and reflected on his service as an MSG.

“I’m 21 years old; how many people my age are ever going to get to Beijing?” he said. Or play hockey in China, for that matter.

Sgt William Diaz was en route to Beijing when the demonstrations broke out.

“I had to wait in Japan for a week and a half because I couldn’t get in. I wanted to participate in the very thing we were trained for,” he said.

And while Sgt Diaz is consoled somewhat at having qualified to meet the demands of a CCTP assignment, he still feels a little cheated at having missed the action.

Sgt Toee, who learned to roller-skate before joining the Marine Corps and “took up” ice hockey after going to Beijing, confessed that the sport was not well known in his native Burma. A nationalized Asian-American, Toee’s first MSG assignment was Ottawa, Canada. The second of two replacements who was en route to Beijing at the time of the demonstrations, he was ordered to remain home until it was considered safe to travel. Foreigners often ask Toee why he serves in the military of a country in which he wasn’t born. His answer, “Becoming a citizen places a responsibility of military service to your country, native-born or not.”

Prior to joining the Marine Corps, Sgt Blaine Jones won his weight class in the Golden Gloves boxing championship. While stationed in Paris, he was one of the MSGs who participated in the ceremonies honoring the warriors who fell at Belleau Wood during World War I. Jones also will be assigned to the security detail for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

Sgt Clarence Jenkins was in aviation supply before volunteering for the MSG program. His story is not unlike others of Marines who show a determination to achieve a goal. Jenkins knew about embassy Marines before he enlisted but thought it was a separate MOS-one that he could sign up for when he enlisted in 1994. Ultimately, he got into the program. At just two weeks from graduation, he was dropped and found himself in Okinawa with the Third Marine Division. Unperturbed by the events, Jenkins reapplied for the MSG program, graduated and was assigned to Caracas, Venezuela. He arrived at his CCTP assignment in Beijing in December 1999.

Sgt Juvenito Cortez was in Rome for his first MSG posting. This 26-year-old Marine ammunition technician still keeps in touch with his recruiter.

“He was a great motivator,” said Cortez. “He came to my boot camp graduation.”

Unlike many MSGs, Sgt Keith Clark had no prior overseas experience before entering the program. Initially posted in Berlin, Clark states he never traveled beyond the Mississippi River before joining the Corps.

“If someone told me 10 years ago I’d be standing where the Berlin Wall once stood or see Lenin’s Tomb or see the Great Wall in Beijing, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.

Arguably, one of the greatest sights in China, if not in the world, is the Great Wall. Some MSGs climb the wall several times during their tour of duty. The wall’s dimensions vary. In some locations it measures 30 feet wide by 25 feet in height, and it runs for 1,500 miles-mostly up hill. While there are easier climbing areas, the Simatai section of the Great Wall is considered the most dangerous. For these leathernecks, the history of the Great Wall had great significance when viewed from one of its lookout towers.

When one thinks about what a Marine does when not on duty, shopping is not often on the list. Perhaps the word shopping is too closely related to images of Sears, Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue. Located a click away from the American Embassy is Silk Alley, a clothes shopper’s paradise, at least while you’re with an MSG. Chinese shop owners operate on the belief that an early sale brings good luck.

Among the “must dos” of the detachment is studying conversational Chinese an hour a week. There is particular interest in words like, “how much,” “too much,” and “you can do better”? Each shop is the size of a small closet, where Reebok shoes, Polo shirts, socks or backpacks are available for next to nothing. Many of the items are knock-offs, but these Marines know their goods.

Although traditional rickshaws are a thing of the past, Beijing has become somewhat modernized through its use of the pedicab, a chain-driven rickshaw. Located near the Forbidden City is Beihai Hutong, one of Beijing’s oldest neighborhoods. Made up of narrow alleys with entrances leading to homes or shops, the Hutong becomes a virtual labyrinth. A walking tour is possible but not recommended. The Hutong can only be seen with a pedicab or similar transportation, and in a city where labor is plentiful, stout-hearted drivers can be rented for less than the price of a beer. Although the tour can take up to three hours and be culturally rewarding, it can also be dangerous. Despite the low crime rate, tourists may find themselves abandoned by the pedicab operator who suddenly demands more compensation than what was first agreed upon.

Marines look to care for one another whether it is on a group tour through the Hutong or a shopping spree in Silk Alley. For Cpl Jason Whittaker it is an important part of being an MSG. Five days after graduating from high school, he joined the Marine Corps. During his training period at Quantico he was urged to put in for CCTP. It gave him a sense of pride to believe that others saw in him the maturity to succeed at a demanding post. The bonus for being in Beijing meant seeing a part of the world that few people ever see.

“This is history because of what’s going on internationally,” Whittaker said. “We aren’t seeing Beijing through the window of a tour bus. The Marines here get out and do things in the community.” In the late 1960s China’s cultural revolution led to religious temples being destroyed and believers prohibited from worship. Although temples are now being restored, when Sgt Kenneth Winston arrived at a concert hall with Cpl Hodges for Easter service, they witnessed Chinese authorities asking for ID cards. Winston knew he was going to have a different experience from his prior post in Bangkok, Thailand.

This present detachment of MSGs may or may not experience what their predecessors did. What is for certain is their continued commitment to anticipate the unexpected and act professionally in the face of adversity. Their readiness is a tribute to their instructors, training and character.


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