Special thanks to former Marine Richard Wojewnik for writing this article for SOFREP! -Jack
In response to the deadly attack in September, 2012 on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Congress has called for 1,000 new Marine Security Guards (MSG) to provide additional protection for U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world. With 1,200 Marine security guards currently assigned to more than 140 countries, this will nearly double the amount of MSGs. What used to be called the Marine Security Guard Battalion is now the Marine Corps Security Group (MCESG).
In 1948, the Marine Security guard program was established through a Memorandum of Agreement between the Department of State and the Marine Corps, and 83 Marines volunteered to become the first Marine security guards. Today, Marine embassy security duty is the only Special Duty Assignment (SDA) in the Marine Corps that remains a completely volunteer assignment.
Women Marines were first put on the MSG program back in 1978. They were then phased out by the Marine Corps because of the Tehran embassy takeover in 1979, and by 1981 the last few WMs were gone. The Marine Corps, not the State Department, did not like the idea of a WM being taken hostage, though there were no WMs in Tehran. Women Marines have been since been brought back to the program in 1988 by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alfred M. Gray.
MSG duty is the only place in the Marine Corps where an enlisted Marine holds the title of detachment commander. Staff NCOs (E-6 and above) who qualify are trained to lead a detachment of 5 to 25 Marines. Staff NCOs can be married and they must meet the same requirements as a watchstander, another term used on the program for a Marine security guard. And he must have completed all required professional military education for the grade held and have 24 months time left in service.
Once accepted into the program, a watchstander will serve for three tours in three different countries for a period of 12 months each. Detachment commanders serve 18 month tours in two different countries.
Today the MCESG has additional Marines in what is called the MSG Security Augmentation Unit (MSAU) which was brought on-line recently at MCB Quantico and the first three squads became operational in August.
According to MCESG recruiting, the MSAU has all the same qualities of a typical MSG detachment, but operates like a Quick Reaction Force. Eventually the MSAU will have nine squad sized teams and will serve as a back up force that can be deployed to an embassy or consulate to provide reinforcement at the request of the State Department.
Interestingly, a request for a team from MSAU is not viewed as a request for armed forces, because just as MSG detachments are under the Chief of Mission Authority so are the MSAU. As where Marine units operate under a combatant commander, their orders are received from a military chain of command.
In an article written recently in the Marine Corps magazine “Leatherneck,” it stated that the ideal candidate for the MSAU is an MSG with at least 12 to 24 months serving at an embassy or a consulate and a combat arms military occupational specialty, such as infantry or artillery; military policemen are also ideal.
The MSESG’s screening and training process is pivotal for the program’s success. Because of the wide range of responsibilities required of an MSG, and because of all the chaotic demands they might face overseas, MSGs must be physically and psychologically fit. Applicants must obtain a Top Secret security clearance and be able to thrive during a gruelling training program designed to ready Marines for any crisis they may face at an embassy.
Those who want to apply to the program to serve as a watchstander must have a clean record in the Corps, and they must meet the following requirements:
- Be from the grades of lance corporal (E-3) to Sergeant (E-5)
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Be single (unmarried)
- Have a Secret Clarence and qualify for a Top Secret Clearance
- Have a 90 GT score (minimum)
- Pass the physical fitness test
- Be financially stable
- Have 38 months of obligated service remaining (if you don’t, you will need to extend your service contract to qualify for the program)
- Have proficiency and conduct markings of 4.2/4.2 or higher (5.0 is max)
- Exhibit a high level of maturity, judgment and sound moral character
Not all embassies and consulates are staffed with MSGs. Currently, MSGs are present in only half of the countries that host American embassies and consulates. The decision to have MSGs at an embassy or consulate is made by the State Department based on its security requirements. The first of the new detachments will go to countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The MSG detachment is the only unit in the Marine Corps that does not follow the typical Marine Corps command model. Instead, MSGs receive direction from the Regional Security Officer (RSO) on the embassy staff, who acts as the operational supervisor under the guidance of the ambassador. Regional Security Officers are federal agents who work for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS).
During the training at MSG School, six weeks for watchstanders and eight weeks for detachment commanders, the Marines are on a strict schedule or operational process, similar to what they would face while working at an embassy. The schedule includes different drills or scenarios that exercise chaos factors. For example, one of the exercises is called “60-second drills,” scenarios that thrown at the students and usually occur at Post One, which is the command and control center for the MSGs at the embassy. At this secured post, a single Marine, no matter what rank, will dictate all security operations. The drills review the actions that MSGs must take within the first minute of a crisis. A 60-second drill can consist of an RSO calling on the phone to Post One over and over again in order to provide distraction, while the Marine is “locking down” the embassy, calling in the rest of the detachment, and coordinating with local security. And that is what it can be like in real life.
Also during the training course, the topics reviewed include instructions on Department of State classified material and security equipment, such as locks, alarm systems and closed-circuit TVs and monitors. Marines also learn handcuffing and use of the baton, qualify with various firearms and learn how to react after being OC, or pepper sprayed.
They quickly learn their mission to protect lives and classified material and how to operate inside of Post One. The rest of the time is spent as part of their additional duties, which include things such as Mess NCO, MWR (moral, welfare and recreation) NCO, Response NCO, and Training NCO. The MSG detachment works for the State Department but the detachment supports itself through these additional duties.
Recently, Marines have returned to the embassy at Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sixteen years ago the last U.S. Marines left the embassy there during Sierra Leone’s long civil war; six Marines are now on duty at the embassy, which before their arrival was a “lock-and-leave” post. Security was provided by the State Departments Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). Since the Benghazi, Libya attack on Sept. 11, 2012, Embassy Freetown was the very first mission to stand up an MSG Detachment, and did so in seven months, something that usually takes two to three years. The activation is part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s three-year plan to create new detachments at 35 lock-and-leave posts.
Not only do MSGs enhance the safety and security and an embassy or consulate, but they do their part to boost post morale, too. For an example of this, read Mark Bowdens book, Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis. That may be a little outdated, but it gives you the feel for the relationship between the Marine guards and the embassy employees.
After the movie Argo came out, several former MSGs who were held during that time said in an interview that, because it was a movie about the Canadians helping people escape from the country, they quickly went through the opening hours of the takeover. They said in interviews that the RSO told the Marines not to fire their weapons, and to resist but not to cause any harm to the students. And it took longer than a couple of hours for the students to take over the embassy. They also stated in these interviews that the first students to enter were from the basement. The book gives the entire hostage crisis and ordeal in detail, and is well worth the read.
But a more current story of an MSG is the book authored by Greg Matos, Shattered Glass. The book starts off about the attack on the U.S Embassy in Jedda in 2004. The telling of the story is gripping and well-written, it gives the reader a good insider’s view of the duties, responsibilities and life as a Marine Security Guard.
Not only have I met people who have never served in the military state that they never knew Marines served at embassies and consulates, but many a Marine I have met never knew about the duty either. Marine Security Guard duty has always been known in the Marine Corps as the “best-kept-secret in the Marine Corps.” But since the Benghazi attack and the need for an additional 1,000 Marines, the Corps is putting the program out there in all forms of media within the military hoping to attract more Marines, but at the same time they certainly don’t want to drop the standards to become an MSG.
I can say from the research I have done on today’s MSG program, that the difference from my time as an MSG 30 years ago and today is that the quality of training and the process of selecting the right candidate has definitely improved.
(Featured Image Courtesy: MilitaryPhotos.net)