ABOARD USS IWO JIMA -- Somewhere in a small corner of the world - be it at a ball game or a hole-in-the-wall restaurant - a former Marine or Sailor is reminiscing about his or her time spent on the open seas. The image of the solitary Marine or Sailor clutching his well worn sea bag or pack as he fights the chill of the whipping wind to head out to sea is now as much a part of our collective national consciousness as is the Statue of Liberty or the St. Louis Arch.
Albeit less dramatic, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Amphibious Squadron-6 are embarked this week aboard the USS Iwo Jima, USS Carter Hall and the USS Nashville for their final underway training evolution before deployment.
The nearly ten-day exercise is scheduled to include as many as five raids in locations throughout Eastern North Carolina and is intended to refocus the Navy-Marine Corps team on what it takes to be successful operating from the sea.
"We're getting ready to deploy," said Capt. David C. Taylor, Commodore of Amphibious Squadron-6. "It's been nearly six weeks since we have worked together as an [Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit] team. The skills that we have developed throughout the challenging work-up cycle are perishable. Training such as this helps us refine those essential skill sets."
As the scenario unfolds on the second day of the exercise, Marine and Navy planners learn that several dozen armed enemy insurgents have established at least three strongholds ashore with the intent to reorganize their forces and attack U.S. installations or personnel. Designed to challenge the Marine and Navy planners, the scenarios oftentimes offer no easy solution and require innovative thinking.
"As the Commodore, my operations officer [Lt. Col. Kevin Wooley] and I looked at this training, we saw a golden opportunity to challenge our Marines and Sailors with a number of complex problems that would require sometimes different or innovative approaches," said Col. Andrew P. Frick, Commanding Officer, 26th MEU (SOC). "My overarching goals were to continually present realistic, yet complex problems for them to solve through innovative thought and solid execution. By giving them as many different looks as we can, it fosters their thinking, which better prepares them to meet the unknown."
Over the radio, one of the reconnaissance teams reports several armed insurgents moving in and out of "building 6" in the training area. He notes that three of them appear to be trying to start a generator and they have established a roving patrol around the dilapidated structure. These details could prove crucial for a raid force commander as they could establish periods of enemy vulnerability or enemy alertness. As the temperature drops with the arrival of a cold front, the recon Marine knows that he must not only keep a steady stream of information going to his fellow warriors at sea, but he must also watch himself and his fellow Marines closely for signs of hypothermia.
"This training is important, but let's be safe," Frick reiterated to his Marines prior to their departure from the USS Iwo Jima. "If someone needs medical treatment or sees something unsafe, let's take a training time out and take care of the Marine or the problem. Let's not break our gear or our people. Every Marine is a safety officer."
As another reconnaissance team makes preparations to go ashore and scout out another suspected enemy stronghold, other elements of the MEU make use of their time to prepare for the upcoming deployment.
"This underway period was good for us in that it allowed us to embark everything - our computers, our publications, our files and field gear - it really sped up the timeline for getting that stuff ready to move," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Jackson, administrative chief, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced). "But now that the packing is done and it's all out here, we can go home after this exercise and just focus on spending some time with our families," said the Bronx, NY native.
Over the course of the next several days, reconnaissance Marines will brave colder than average temperatures to maintain continuous observation on identified targets, Battalion Landing Team 1/8 Marines will raid these targets with precision and violence, MEU aviation assets will provide close air support, precision air-strikes and aerial command and control and everyone in the Navy-Marine Corps Team will get another good taste for the challenges of conducting offensive operations from the sea.
"I told my Marines to stay motivated," Jackson said. "This is an experience that they'll carry with them for their whole lives."
To learn more about this underway-training period or the Navy-Marine Corps team, visit the MEU on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.