ABOARD USS IWO JIMA -- Today, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit find themselves at sea preparing to test their mettle in an attempt to become certified "Special Operations Capable" (SOC) during the upcoming Special Operations Capable certification Exercise (SOCEX) next week.
For these Marines and Sailors, a (SOC) certification will not only mean the formal culmination of a challenging and event-filled six month pre-deployment training period, but will also mean that Maj. Gen. Henry P. Osman, Commanding General, II Marine Expeditionary Force, will have given these warriors his stamp of approval on their ability to perform more than 20 different missions.
"Marines and Sailors from II MEF's G-7 branch evaluate the MEUs as they demonstrate and perform a variety of challenging missions in a compressed timeline," said Col. Lance Ledoux, the senior Marine evaluator for this year's SOCEX. "Upon completion of all graded events, my staff and I make a recommendation to Marine Forces Atlantic, via Maj. Gen. Osman, as to the readiness of these Marines for those missions. While we'll have our recommendation submitted within a day or so of this exercise's conclusion, the final announcement could take as long as a week, but we're shooting for sooner," Ledoux said.
As the Marine Corps pauses this week to celebrate its 227th birthday and recall the past sacrifices of Marines both young and old, the service members of the 26th MEU look to their past as well to gain perspective on just what a (SOC) certification could mean to them.
For years, 26th MEU Marines and Sailors have completed their pre-deployment training, earned their (SOC) certification and headed out to sea, expecting a routine deployment to the Mediterranean Sea. On many an occasion, however, their deployments quickly became anything but routine as they were called into service and placed in harm's way, sometimes within weeks of arriving in the Mediterranean.
In 1994, for example, 26th MEU Marines and Sailors earned their (SOC) certification and shortly thereafter found themselves on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia as part of OPERATION RESTORE HOPE.
In 1997, 26th MEU Marines and Sailors earned their (SOC) certification and were shortly thereafter called upon to rescue American citizens from a deteriorating situation in Tirane, Albania, as part of OPERATION SILVER WAKE. During this operation, 26th MEU (SOC) Marines and Sailors evacuated the American embassy in Albania only months after being tested on their proficiency in conducting a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) at Camp Lejeune, N.C., as part of their SOC certification.
In 1999, 26th MEU Marines and Sailors completed their SOCEX and found themselves shortly thereafter providing security for Albanian refugee camps as part of Joint Task Force Shining Hope. During that deployment, 26th MEU (SOC) Marines and Sailors took their (SOC) certification for a 'test drive' as they became the first U.S. troops used in Kosovo and responded to a humanitarian crisis in Turkey following a devastating earthquake there. Months prior, those Marines and Sailors could have been found in the Camp Lejeune area setting up a humanitarian assistance camp for a SOCEX evaluated event, not knowing of the lives that they would save in the near future as part of OPERATION AVID RESPONSE.
In August 2001, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU conducted their SOCEX training with a routine Mediterranean Sea deployment seemingly on the horizon. At that time, the World Trade Center continued to dominate the New York City skyline as millions of tourists year-round gazed in wonder at them from tour buses and taxi cabs. As the 26th MEU pushed out to sea for Vieques, Puerto Rico in July 2001 to conduct live-fire combined arms training there, little did they know that Al Qaeda terrorists were plotting their horrific acts. The world did not yet know these monsters as they would after Sept. 11, 2001.
As 26th MEU Marines earned their (SOC) certification last August, they clearly did not know that the urban training that they conducted earlier in Richlands, N.C. and Jacksonville, FL would be put to use in January 2002 to hunt down Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists near Kandahar, Afghanistan.
When 26th MEU Marines and Sailors conducted an airfield seizure at the Duplin County Airport that year, little did they know that the next time they would do it would be at the Kandahar International Airport to facilitate U.S. and coalition forces' actions to smash remaining terrorist cells there.
So, as Marines and Sailors of today's 26th MEU put their training to the test and compete for their designation as "America's 9-1-1 Force," they go forth not knowing what the future holds much as their predecessors have for the past 227 years.
In this time of reflection, let these Marines and Sailors also celebrate their rich operational history and take their place in the breach, once again preparing for whatever may await them over the next horizon or distant shore.
The Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU and USS IWO JIMA Amphibious Ready Group will return to the Camp Lejeune area in mid-November following the Special Operations Capable certification Exercise and are tentatively scheduled to deploy early next year.
To learn more about the current 26th MEU or 26th MEUs of long ago, visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.