Darkness falls over a village just south of Natural Bridge. Suddenly, the sounds of an Osprey helicopter cut through the night.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, is moving in to take this village. Captain Keith Toucey says the planning for this day started more than a year ago, saying "What we do is over a period of 3 exercises, and a short 6-month work up, we prepare these MEU's for their long deployments.". The Marines are holding the exercises in several locations in Virginia, including Natural Bridge and Dinwiddie.
The village area is inhabited with Marines, long before the helicopters touch down. For several days, surveillance units in the nearby mountains and hills gather intel on the village's inhabitants - Marines who are role-playing civilians and enemy forces. One of those role players is PfC. Elizabeth Contreras, who is playing a civilian cook, working at the village. Contreras notes her role, and the ongoing surveillance, play a crucial role, saying "They have to coordinate them, and make sure who is coordinating them can tell the difference between a civilian and the combatants."
Guards, cooks, military leaders: These Marines stay in these roles, 24 hours a day. While the weapons are real, they are loaded with blanks, and capped for safety. Local law enforcement officials from Rockbridge County were on hand to witness the exercise, and residents received visits from military officials, door to door, over the last week, to warn them of the exercises.
Coming into the evening's "raid", the role-playing enemy doesn't know the specifics, but they do have an idea about what's to come. Lance Corporal Kiernan Kirby from Alexandria just knows that "...some helicopters are going to land, and a lot of stuff is gonna get loud."
Under the cloak of darkness, helicopters roar into the area and touch down. A barrage of gunfire and explosions opened up over the camp, with only limited visibility. Night vision goggles assisted superior officers and visiting guests in viewing the action in progress.
For Capt. Keith Toucey, "The objective is to feel confident that they can execute if given the mission."