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