Sweaty, spaced out, often shirtless people roaming around the desert or a beachhead with dangerous chemicals.
Is it a Marine Corps field op or a massive group experience such as the failed Fyre Festival or the annual festival event known as Burning Man?
One recently retired Marine Corps major thinks it might not matter because Marine logisticians could learn valuable lessons from either scenario.
A few years ago, while serving aboard the Mountain Warfare Training Center at Bridgeport, California, Maj. Mark Wlaschin was fueling up at a nearby gas station when he noticed a trickle of funky looking vehicles making stops on their way to Nevada.
“I’d pull up to gas somewhere and there’d be a camper decked out in fluorescent colors,” Wlaschin told Marine Corps Times.
On base he told his Marines he’d just seen the craziest thing.
The East Coast native hadn’t gotten the word that for the past three decades thousands of participants have gathered in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada to create a temporary city. This city has transported, housed, fed, entertained, enlightened and provided medical attention to around 60,000 people in recent years with zero permanent infrastructure.
To Wlaschin, it sounded a lot like a larger scale version of an expeditionary operation or training exercise, minus the gunplay.
“If we had to do (Operation Iraqi Freedom) again, most people in the Marine Corps wouldn’t have the experience level these people do because they do Burning Man every year,” he thought.
So, the major started doing his homework.
He learned about how the event began, what went into setting it up and approached his then commanding officer to see if he could research further and reach out to the organizers.
The commander, now retired, granted him some leeway to see what might help with Marine logistics planning.
They had a few phone calls but, alas, no in-person visit to the massive event for this Marine.
His ultimate, post-retirement, suggestion is for the Corps to “take advantage of the active duty Marines who are already ‘Burners,’” or those who attend Burning Man.
“Yes, there are active duty personnel in all of the services who are Burners,” Wlaschin wrote. He advises Marine leadership to simply do a query search of Marine Online to identify who has requested leave during the event dates with Reno, Nevada, as their destination.
“I apologize to those active duty Devil Dog Burners who just got sweaty palms,” Wlaschin wrote.
He would give those burner Marines a list of requests for information for the next time they attend the event.
Secondly, a formal partnership could be established between Burning Man staff to put Marines alongside organizers and participants to analyze how the group puts it all together.
He’s not the first Marine officer to put out an unorthodox idea that might surprise Marine Corps leadership.
Maj. Emre Albayrak penned a piece in the Marine Corps Gazette’s February issue asking whether Marines should consider using psychedelic drugs to “heighten alertness, creativity, and problem solving” all in an effort to help analyze ever-growing heaps of intelligence and help Marines become “stronger, faster and smarter than our adversaries.”
“Like most hallucinogens, LSD mimics the effects of serotonin (a mood regulator),” Albayrak wrote, and activates enhanced mental acuity in the areas of learning and memory.
Wlaschin, a former enlisted Marine, reached the 20-year mark and retired in 2018. But that didn’t stop him from continuing his research and later publishing articles on the marinecorpslogistics.org blog.
But, he didn’t start with Burning Man, which he sees as a major success in logistics.
Wlaschin’s first article was about what logisticians could learn from a massive failure: the Fyre Festival.
Highly publicized in a Netflix documentary was the 2017 flop of a festival that saw concertgoers pay as much as $15,000 for a supposed star-studded, luxury music experience on an island in the Bahamas. Instead, it wound up being an event with no running water, portable toilets, disaster relief tents and multiple band cancellations.
“While military personnel have generally lower expectations than that of a concert attendee … both benefit greatly when they know what to expect in their billeting, food service, and other life support services,” Wlaschin wrote.
In his article, Wlaschin offers some technical observations that might help planners when looking at an event like Fyre.
“Many of these exercises are conducted at locations very similar in nature to the location chosen by the Fyre festival,” he wrote. “Had logistics planners been given an appropriate amount of time to plan and coordinate, the event would have likely unfolded in a very different manner.”
In his second article, Wlaschin put his sights on Burning Man.
“While there are certainly some similarities between Burning Man and your last major training exercise, there are obviously some significant differences,” he wrote. “For example, it is a safe bet that there were more assault rifles and automatic weapons at your last visit to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms, California, or to the Fort Irwin National Training Center.”
Both require life support, balancing budget priorities, environmental concerns and preparing for weather and security issues, he wrote.
Wlaschin said that both the Marine Corps Aviation Ground Support community and the Marine Corps Logistics Operations Group staff could benefit from a closer analysis of Burning Man.
MCAGS because Burning Man runs its own impromptu airport and MCLOG for the large-scale logistics considerations.
Maj. Stanley Wisniewski III serves as the Logistics Officer-in-Charge for MCLOG. He’s not attended Burning Man himself but said that Wlaschin’s observations could help military planners.
“I think it definitely stands out,” Wisniewski told Marine Corps Times. “I think it’s a pretty cool proposal. There’s definitely parity between what we do.”
Wisniewski saw immediate parallels between Fyre Festival, Burning Man and expeditionary advance basing operations, an emerging concept for distributed maritime operations that the Corps is developing, especially in the Pacific region.
While MCLOG staff do attend other military exercises and sometimes look at civilian events such as Federal Emergency Management Agency events, Wisniewski said he has not been involved in looking at a concert or something similar to what Wlaschin had proposed.
“There’s something to be learned everywhere, continue to expose ourselves to new ideas, ways of doing things,” Wisniewski said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.