SLUNJ, Croatia -- When the 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps watched the first Javelin Missile ever launched overseas eradicate the innards of a Soviet-made tank, it summed up the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)'s final training evolution: groundbreaking.
The Javelin shoot and Gen. James L. Jones' visit came at the end of the pioneering Exercise Slunj 2000, which began when the unit conducted the first ever MEU offload into this country.
Slunj 2000 was a different type of evolution before it ever began, according to Capt. Jeff Holt, Dallas, Texas native and Assistant Operations Officer with the MEU's Command Element. The MEU planned this bilateral training exercise in just three week, while most large-scale training packages take months to develop.
"This exercise was developed from the ground-up," said Holt, who noted that most multi-national training evolutions originate at higher commands and filter down to a MEU. "We started planning right here on the MEU level and drove it all the way up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
This rapid, low-level planning, according to Col. Kenneth J. Glueck, 26th MEU(SOC) Commander, served as a test of his MEU's ability to respond to any situation quickly.
"They had a chance to do something a lot of MEUs do not get to do," he said. "They worked through all the little details, and they did it well."
Part of working those details rested on the shoulders of Battalion Landing Team 2/2. Slunj 2000 offered the ground combat element a chance to fire every type of weapon in their inventory. This included the nearly $90,000 Javelin missile, a weapon that is able to photograph its target and use that image to find and destroy the objective.
"Talk about realistic," said Holt of the largest military training area in Croatia. "You're doing a combined arms company attack; you have mortars launching and machine gun bases of fire.
"We even threw grenades. Nothing can add to that type of realism. When you have a live grenade in your hand, you know you can't drop it."
Company Commanders agreed the Croatian training area provided ranges that simulated potential battlefields.
"I had my rifle platoons doing company-size live fire training," said Darrel Benfield, BLT 2/2's Echo Company Commander and Atlanta, Ga. native. "On a MEU deployment, you really do not get a lot of opportunities for large live fires like that. Add to that you're in a mountainous terrain. This isn't a large flat range. That presents a lot of challenges to things like maneuvering, which is good. Combat is challenging."
For some elements of the BLT, this was the first time during the deployment they have had an opportunity to train on each of their capabilities. For example, tanks with Echo Company's M1-A1 Abraham's Battle Tank Platoon were able to fire their 120mm main guns and the BLT's India Battery was able to fire their artillery cannons, the M-198 155mm Howitzer.
"I'm glad I'm getting a chance to fire," said Sgt. Highhorse Little, Gunner with India Battery. During the deployment, India Battery trained in performing many secondary missions, such as Embassy Reinforcement. "I'm getting back to my original [military occupational specialty], and that feels great."
The Battery also had a chance to cross train with the Croatian military's artillery personnel.
Though located many miles away from the other elements of the MEU, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 264, who flew more than 670 hours during the exercise, had a chance for many firsts. Marines and Sailors with the reinforced helicopter squadron turned an old runway into an expeditionary airfield, and the helicopters were able to shoot every weapon they were capable of firing.
"We started with almost nothing at the airfield," said Maj. Bud Sichler, Farmingdale, N.Y. native and operations Officer with the squadron. "We set everything up, from the [air traffic control] tower to the living facilities."
The squadron also used their time to give crew chiefs and pilots practice and qualifications in many areas, to include firing the 50-caliber machine gun from a CH-46E Sea Knight and performing external lifts with the helicopters.
Even the MEU's Command Element had an opportunity to take a break from their tasks of overseeing and planning the training to take advantage of the many opportunities the exercise offered.
"I have not fired my weapon since [Marine Combat Training]," said LCpl. Daniel Medina, a Diary Clerk with the 26th MEU(SOC) and Boston, Mass. native who has been in the Marine Corps less than a year. "I was able to do that and more here. I think it made us all a little more comfortable in our abilities as Marine riflemen."
Colonel Glueck, who commanded the 26th MEU(SOC) through three real-world operations in 1999, said the realistic exercise was everything he had hoped for. He said the reason for that success was the hospitality of the Croatian government and military.
"I think we built something here in Slunj future MEUs will do," added Holt. "I can't think of any other place in the Mediterranean region that could provide as much live-fire opportunity and host nation support."