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Posts: Bahrain Author: Story by Ed Vasgerdsian • Photos courtesy of the author
Source:  Leatherneck Magazine Website

The Kingdom of Bahrain is one of 115 countries in which the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service (Embassy and Consulate) maintains a Marine detachment.

In the department’s formative years, a leatherneck’s assignment was commonly referred to as embassy duty. Today they are called Marine Security Guards (MSGs), trained to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Those who serve as embassy watchstanders have completed a six-week training program at Marine Security Guard School in Quantico, Va. For staff sergeants and above, who will serve as detachment commanders, there is an additional week of administrative and leadership training.

Although the first Marines were posted in 1948, the task has remained basically unchanged. Simply stated, the MSG mission is to protect classified material and equipment as well as U.S. citizens and government property.

According to Jane C. Loeffler’s book, “The Architecture of Diplomacy”: “Embassies are symbolically charged buildings uniquely defined by domestic politics, foreign affairs and a complex set of representational requirements.”

The architecture of our early embassies could be thought of as falling into two categories; on one hand, they were large imposing classic structures of ornate columns with elaborate and artistic windows, and on the other, common buildings that blended into the community so as to go almost unnoticed. In both cases, many were privately owned homes or stood as small business enterprises.

The American Embassy in the capital of Manama, Bahrain, was built in the early 1980s. It is a modern walled enclave of prescribed security setbacks and concrete road barriers. Providing the exterior security is a cordon of former Gurka soldiers. These formidable soldiers from Nepal are hired by a private contractor and wear as a part of their uniform the traditional Aussie-type headgear.

Anti-American embassy demonstrations were once the scene of noisy political denouncements of U.S. policy. As we have seen, verbal protestors have given way to rogue military groups, as well as state- and nonstate-sponsored terrorist organizations. In place of bullhorns and shrieking voices, MSGs must be prepared to deal with firebombs and other explosives.

No matter how well-conceived the security of an embassy is architecturally, the final defense barrier may rest with the MSG. Providing these leathernecks with the skills necessary to carry out this mission is a learning process. Obtaining the required Top Secret clearance from the National Security Agency (NSA) speaks to the MSG’s moral and ethical background. Of equal importance is the personal identity that a Marine brings to an embassy, whether it is in Accra, Ghana; Quito, Ecuador; or Manama.

Manama, Bahrain

Bahrain’s national flag of five white connecting triangles on a red field represents Islam’s five tenets of faith. This island country is 30 miles wide, 10 miles long and has a population of 650,000; it can be roughly compared to the populations of Austin, Texas, or Baltimore. Tourists will find more information on Katmandu and Swaziland than they will on Bahrain. Internet sites suggest not traveling during October because of Ramadan when “things slow down,” and they say, “It’s hot.”

First of all, hot doesn’t accurately describe Bahrainian weather. Hot as hell is more succinct, and there is no evening relief.

Each October, Muslims (sometimes spelled Moslems) observe the Fast of Ramadan. For the entire month, they fast from sunup to sunset. This means no eating, drinking, smoking or engaging in sexual activity. Stores, with few exceptions, are closed. After sunset, the fast is broken with a meal known as ifta, and all that was forbidden is again allowed until the next sunrise.

A simple act of walking down a street, for example, sipping from a bottle of water, or smoking a cigarette is not something an MSG is going to do. However, when within the privacy of the Marine House, an MSG, or any non-Moslem, is free to live their individual lifestyle with appropriate social interaction.

For the six MSGs who live in a city of 139,000, interfacing with local embassy employees and others mandates consideration and respect for the cultural sensitivities of the country. Imans (prayer leaders) offer Friday sermons in the mosques in Urdu and Bengalese, the languages of Pakistan; Malayalam, a language spoken in Malaysia; Tamil and Sinhalese, languages of Sri Lanka; and also in English.

A call to prayer does not mean everything stops. The chanting of “Allahu Akbar” is Arabic for “God is the greatest.” It is the call to prayer, similar to the tolling of church bells. Those who wish to pray can easily find a mosque, or they may spread a prayer rug before them and engage in prayer alone. For others, including the MSGs, life goes on. People drive by in cars, or avoid stepping on the fellow praying from a street site.

Home, Sweet Home

Generally referred to as the Marine House, the current MSG living conditions are palatial in size. A curved staircase leading to the second floor is so fashionably stylized as to expect a vision of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable in the scene from the film “Gone With the Wind.” On the basement level, televisions, a pool table, card tables and a well-stocked bar are set in a room large enough to host a small wedding.

The detachment commander, Gunnery Sergeant Jay D. Williamson, is a native of Muncie, Ind. At age 17 he worked at a fast-food franchise, and three years later, he was working in management positions. But the volatility of the fast-food industry gave cause for Williamson to look elsewhere for employment. Entering the Marine Corps at 22, he brought with him a work ethic that gave him a quick start in leadership and management.

A Marine may have a primary military occupational specialty (MOS) as well as several secondary ones. Williamson’s primary MOS is 0511: Marine air-ground task force planning specialist. His others are bulk petroleum fuel specialist and maintenance management specialist, both of which contribute to the Marine’s experience in building efficiency into unit organizations. Twice promoted meritoriously and often in a position of assuming duties beyond his rank, Williamson brings to the detachment an honest, open, straightforward sense of how to get the best out of his command.

When watchstander Sergeant Christopher Perez saw from the television news that Hurricane Rita was headed directly toward his parents’ home outside of Houston, he became worried. He remembered the pictures of the devastation and deaths left by Hurricane Katrina. He didn’t know how he could help. “I had to try to get my parents out, but even if they did, where would they go? They were inexperienced at finding motels. Besides, thousands of other people were probably doing the same thing. I wondered how my parents were going to make it if there was an evacuation,” he said.

“Gunny” Williamson’s wife, Nicole, is a woman who easily could be mistaken for a big sister to the MSGs. At a time when her five-year banking experience was needed, Nicole stepped up to the plate. Together with the assistant detachment commander, Sgt Daniel E. Crowder, Nicole helped Perez through a difficult process. The procedure of sending money electronically from one country to another can be a complex task. Under the best of conditions there is uncertainty as to whether money sent will be money received.

Nicole became Perez’s personal banking representative and made sure things worked as they should. As it turned out, Nicole, who also works at the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Manama as the assistant manager for the Navy Federal Credit Union, helped Perez wire $1,500 to his parents and an additional $500 to his sister. “I really appreciated Nicole’s help,” Perez said. “I was saving the money to buy a motorcycle, but my family comes first.”

Once the money arrived, the Perez family had financial resources, but finding a motel was still a problem. So, the job fell to Perez and Sgt Crowder, who used the Internet to book a motel room in Texas as a safe haven. The intensity of the hurricane caused computer breakdowns and power failures, but ultimately arrangements were made for the family to stay in a motel out of harm’s way.

A New Look

Sgt Crowder attended Couch High School in Couch, Mo., before joining the Marine Corps. For this assistant detachment commander, responding to situations has been part of what he does best. He served a five-month tour in Iraq with the 2d Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment.

Ironically, Crowder, a 0331 machine-gunner with additional MOSs of 0311 rifleman and 8531 primary marksmanship instructor, went to Bahrain for a six-month deployment in 2001 as a member of the Marine Corps Security Force’s Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) Company. On Oct. 4, 2004, Crowder returned to Bahrain for MSG duty. Returning to Bahrain caught the 26-year-old Marine slightly off guard. “New buildings are everywhere. The first time I was here, everything looked almost rural by comparison to today,” he said.

Of the men and women currently serving in the Marine Corps, if not in all branches of the military services, few will have bragging rights of being selected for dignitary protection service. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently visited Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, France, Russia and England. Although the safety for the Secretary of State is the responsibility of the Diplomatic Security Service, MSGs are commonly used to lend assistance.

Sgt Steven R. Wilke served the first 12 months of his 36-month MSG tour in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He joined other MSGs from other detachments and was sent to Paris for three days for dignitary protection service. When asked how Paris was, his broad smile was as sufficient an answer as one would expect.

Before MSG duty in February 2002, Sgt Wilke was a member of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261, the “Raging Bulls.” He had embarked with the squadron in the USS Wasp Amphibious Ready Group for a scheduled six-month deployment. Part of what he did was to drop a Marine FAST platoon in Pakistan. Military experience seems to run in this Marine’s family, as his father, Dale Wilke, spent 19 months serving in the Army National Guard in Iraq.

Two years after graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., Corporal Nicholas A. Compton still says growing up in Coney Island was difficult. “I had to make choices in order to survive,” he said. Now as an MSG, he finds himself meeting an array of international American Embassy visitors.

“As a watchstander, I have challenges as to how I’m going to react to an angry employee who demands entry to the embassy without first showing an I.D. card. If something happens, the consequences of my actions can have a serious effect on the good will of the detachment, let alone the security of the embassy.”

With an older brother, Nathaniel, in the Marine Corps at Twentynine Palms, Calif., this 20-year-old Marine is grateful for having been raised by a mother who instilled good core values.

It was at this time during the interview that Compton confessed to something he has agonized over since his last home leave. “I’ve got to tell you something about consequences,” he offered. “I was crazy about a girl I knew at home and didn’t tell her, and, so, I lost her. In a way, I paid the consequences for not speaking up.” Then he grinned and shyly asked, “What’re the chances of what I’m telling you getting into Leatherneck? She might read my confession.”

It’s All in the Family

As the saying goes, like father like son. Lance Corporal Christopher Gutierrez’s father also serves in the Marine Corps. Master Sergeant Alex Gutierrez is an air traffic controller stationed in New River, N.C. Although all MSGs are in military uniform while on duty, civilian shirt and tie are mandatory while moving to and from the embassy. With an ample array of civilian clothes to augment his Marine uniforms, the lance corporal humorously offered, “This is a new experience for me—a suit and tie without going to college.”

All MSGs have collateral jobs to their basic duty as watchstanders. Gutierrez is the food NCO (noncommissioned officer), and that means making sure there’s enough food in the house to feed five always ravenous Marines. Adding to this is assisting Gunny Williamson in selecting the menu for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Gutierrez and Williamson anticipated a great attendance at last year’s ball, since there is a large Marine Corps League in Saudi Arabia whose members access Bahrain by way of a 14-mile causeway connecting the two countries. Equally as important was the attendance of personnel from U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and leathernecks of the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion’s FAST. Satisfying the celebrants’ appetites was up to Gutierrez and Williamson, whose awesome task was to act as food tasters in preparation for the evening’s menu.

For LCpl Alejandro Gonzalez, Bahrain is a brief stopover until his first post at the Consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, is reactivated. With a younger brother also serving in the Marine Corps, Gonzalez will stay in touch with him as well as with his parents through the Marine House computer.

Meanwhile, the waiting period isn’t spent sightseeing in Bahrain; Gunny Williamson checked him out on Post 1 operations and procedures. The Dhahran detachment commander was in his country assignment preparing for the arrival of watchstanders and the formal reactivation of the Dhahran detachment. When Gonzalez arrives, he will be immediately capable of carrying out his duties.

As vital as the MSG mission is to our country, the job our Marines and the other military personnel are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan demands much more of our attention.

The Bahrain detachment of MSGs and some 1,300 others stationed in more than 125 posts worldwide are not in the forefront of the evening’s TV news, nor will you wake up in the morning and read a story about them in the morning newspapers. Neither were the embassies in Khartoum, Athens, Kuala Lumpur, Teheran, Jakarta, or Kenya to name but a few, but they soon became equated with bombings and terrorism. The discerning factor lay in what Gunny Williamson called the “soft target of any embassy in any country around the world.”

These are Marines who do their jobs knowing that when terrorist forces decide to take action against American interests, our embassies and consulates will be a primary target. Who better to keep the bad guys from getting in than America’s Marine security guards?

Editor’s note: As a Leatherneck contributing editor, Ed Vasgerdsian frequently writes about various Marine security guard detachments for our readers. He is a former MSG watchstander at the embassy in Cairo and currently is vice president of the Marine Embassy Guard Association.

In October 2005, the 15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Sergeant Major John L. Estrada, dropped into the American Embassy in Bahrain for a chat with the Marine Security Guard Detachment. The visit was to be informal, friendly and personal—a chance to speak from one Marine to another.

Lance Corporal Christopher Gutierrez was on duty at Post 1, a post that is the main entrance into the embassy and requires the presence of a Marine security guard 24/7. It is through that checkpoint that the ambassador, Foreign Service officers, staff and employees must pass. Surrounded by electronic security equipment, Bahrain’s Post 1 is an enclosure of bulletproof glass that can barely accommodate two people. When SgtMaj Estrada, dressed in civilian clothing, stepped inside Post 1 to speak with Gutierrez, it gave the appearance of a person entering a confessional booth. The only thing was, who was priest and who was parishioner?

Later SgtMaj Estrada met with the remaining Marines in an embassy conference room. The sergeant major listened to what each MSG had to say and answered questions. This was not a “bitch session.” If anything, it was how to improve things. It was an exchange of ideas among professionals. SgtMaj Estrada spoke the language and lingo of an MSG in terms of their Quantico training and beyond. It was easy to see that he had done his homework.

—Ed Vasgerdsian

Marine Embassy Guard Association Archive

Leatherneck Mag Article on MSG Det Bahrain 2005
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