26th MEU completes first '04 amphibious exercise

31 Aug 2004 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark E. Bradley

After nearly 11 months ashore, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit recently found itself right back where it ended its last deployment, aboard the USS Iwo Jima in Onslow Bay.  The short-lived reunion Aug. 24 - 29 marked the first major 2004 exercise for the 26th MEU.

Dubbed Amphibious Specialty Training-II (AST-II), the exercise took advantage of a unique opportunity for elements of the MEU to train together prior to the formal activation scheduled for the end of September.

The exercise included participation by components of Combat Service Support Detachment-26; 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-162 (HMM-162); Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron-464 (HMH-464); Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron-269 (HMLA-269); and Marine Attack Squadron-231 (VMA-231).  These components will comprise, in part, the combat service support, ground combat and aviation combat elements of the MEU when it is activated.

USS Iwo Jima, along with USS Ashland, USS Austin, USS Normandy and USS Kaufman, joined the MEU, enhancing the training with the presence of the broader Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). The MEU is scheduled to deploy with the Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group in early 2005, but because USS Kearsarge deployed in support of the 24th MEU, the Iwo Jima was chosen by the Navy to provide support for this AST-II exercise.

The exercise, the first in a "crawl, walk, run" approach to preparing the Marines and Sailors of the MEU for deployment, focused primarily on baseline and unit-level training.

"We went into this exercise with two key thoughts in mind," said Col. Thomas F. Qualls, 26th MEU commander and officer in charge of the exercise. "The first was that we are training for combat operations. That's the long-term goal. The specific and most relevant thought for this exercise was that we were going to 'precision crawl,'" Qualls stated. "This crawl stage focused on unit level training that will allow us to pick up the pace in subsequent exercises."

The goals of the AST included conducting day and night deck-landing qualifications for fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft, training Marines and their drivers for embarking and debarking the ships, exercising command and control between the MEU and the ESG, and familiarizing Marines and Sailors with shipboard life.

A key portion of the training was executing the MEU's loading and landing plan.  This involved the movement of more than 120 major equipment items and approximately 1200 personnel between ship and shore.

A Marine who played a critical role in this portion of the exercise was the MEU embark chief, Sgt. Roger D. Ralls.  The 9-year veteran from Scott City, Mo., stated the embarkation phase of the exercise went very well with the on-load going pretty much as planned. 

The focus of the on-load was to familiarize the different MEU elements with "the intricacies of moving vehicles from the staging area to the beach and then to the ships," Ralls said.

When the on-load was complete, the embark team, led by Capt. Juan M. Ortiz, went to work on the offload plan.

The offload plan is directly tied to the MEU commander's amphibious landing plan and dictates the order the MEU will unload its combat power in a given situation, Ralls said.  It is up to the embark team to ensure the vehicles and gear are staged aboard the ships in the correct order to facilitate the landing plan, Ralls said.

The landing started out as planned but took am unexpected turn when Tropical Storm Gaston moved up the North Carolina Coast. 

The high seas halted the movement of the Navy's Landing Crafts Air Cushioned (LCACs).  These massive hovercrafts glide just a few feet over land and water and are the primary mode of ship-to-shore transportation during an amphibious landing.

Moving quickly to stay ahead of the storm, the ships of the ESG departed Onslow Bay for their home port in Norfolk with several MEU vehicles and personnel still aboard.  Already on shore, Ralls received word to refocus his efforts.

"The word I got was 'everything left on ship is going back to Norfolk.  Get it back here,'" Ralls said.  But that was all the guidance he needed.  "With my job, you already know what to do," he said.

Less than 48 hours later, 13 tractor-trailers and six passenger busses were heading south loaded with 26th MEU personnel and equipment to bring the exercise to a close.

"Each of our objectives were fully achieved, including successful flex in the middle of the landing plan," said Qualls referring to the storm. "The team effort and inherent flexibility of the afloat Marine Air Ground Task Force was clearly at work."

The MEU will begin its normal pre-deployment training upon activation in late September.