WASHINGTON — What was supposed to be a normal Reserve drill weekend here turned a U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel into both a hero and a villain – a hero for finding and saving young teenage girls allegedly forced into sexual slavery, and a villain to the transnational criminal organization whose detestable operations were disrupted.
The Marine Corps is withholding the identity of the Marine due to an ongoing investigation to bring down more of this criminal organization, as well as sensitivities surrounding his civilian job in law enforcement.
On May 5, 2023, the Reserve Marine officer saw what he presumed to be indications and signs of human trafficking within the hotel he was staying at, off Route 1 in Alexandria, Virginia.
At around 6 p.m. he returned to the hotel after a day training with his Reserve unit headquartered on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling just over the Potomac River in D.C. The officer is assigned to Marine Advisor Company A, Force Headquarters Group as a Select Marine Corps Reserve Marine.
“I came back from drill and noticed a young girl acting strangely and dressing out of place in and around the hotel lobby we were staying at,” the infantry officer filling the billet of operations advisor recalled.
Upon looking a little closer he noticed the numbers “13” tattooed on each arm and the blue and white colors on her clothes – telltale signs of the violent transnational criminal gang MS-13, also called Mara Salvatrucha.
“They often ‘brand’ or ‘mark’ their human property,” he explained.
Units like his constantly send Marines around the world to advise and build partnerships.
“We constantly educate our personnel on how to spot and respond to suspected human trafficking situations. I never stop reminding Marines that human trafficking often manifests as prostitution and if Marines are against it, the criminals cannot win,” said Col. John D. Cowart, commanding officer, Marine Corps Advisor Company A.
Early the next morning on Saturday the unit was scheduled to take the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test, or PFT, and according to the Marine.
“All I wanted to do was get back to my room, relax, stretch and get some sleep to be ready for the test,” the Marine said.
Selfishness crept in as he debated just looking the other way. He recalled the inner dialogue going through his head as he struggled to take action, even talking himself out of it at one point. But being a father himself to a girl roughly the same age and a United States Marine, he knew his own comforts would be put aside and the night would be dedicated to – as the Marine Corps commercial lays it out – ”moving toward the sound of chaos…the first to move toward the sounds of tyranny, injustice and despair.”
“The way she was walking back and forth, in and out, it almost seemed like she was hoping to be noticed by someone,” he said.
Over the next seven hours going late into the evening, he watched, followed, and ultimately freed the young girl, along with a handful of others, from the safehouse with the help of the Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.
He explained how he noticed alleged MS-13 “handlers” on a bike also keeping the girl in their sights. When a car came to pick her up from the hotel, the officer sprung to his own car to pursue. He followed the vehicle for a short distance until it came to a ritzy condominium building in Alexandria.
“The driver and girl definitely seemed out of place at this building,” he recalled.
The Marine stayed put and talked law enforcement onto his position. Disregarding his own safety and despite the late hour, he and other law enforcement entered the building and spoke with the bellhop confirming suspicions that the girl and handler were out of place. They then proceeded to the residence where the driver and girl entered to perform a welfare check.
What they found inside confirmed suspicions of human trafficking and other criminal activity.
“Inside we found a handful of young teenage girls,” he said, with one believed to be as young as 13.
They also found suspected drugs and drug paraphernalia, which is often used to keep the young women controlled, sedated or dependent, he explained.
Nearly seven hours later around 1:30 a.m., he made it back to his hotel for the evening only to wake back up in a few hours to accomplish the Marine Corps PFT. Despite the busy, late night of disrupting an alleged MS-13 criminal gang operation right outside the nation’s capital, the lieutenant colonel knocked out a first-class PFT score – a 278 to be exact – and continued with his unit’s drill weekend.
For his quick-thinking, selfless actions, his unit commanding officer presented him with a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal before the drill weekend was over – extremely fast timing for those familiar with the military awards process.
“His judgment and initiative in this situation are perfect examples of how Marines should feel about human trafficking,” Cowart said. “He demonstrated that Marine leaders are part of the solution to the world’s problems. Marines are always on duty, observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing; and this Marine exemplified that.”
According to the award summary of action, his attention to his environment, keen observations, commitment to justice, and dedication to service directly disrupted a suspected transnational criminal organization conducting human trafficking and directly impacted the lives of the individuals affected and indirectly on the community at large.
While the case remains under investigation, this Marine continues to uphold the values of honor, courage and commitment, no matter the uniform he has on.