CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- After nearly six months away from family and friends, numerous weeks in the field, countless days at sea and many lessons learned, Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) returned home Dec. 18.
That return marked the end of the MEU's deployment to the Mediterranean region as Landing Force 6th Fleet, and for Cpl. Rudy Almanza, a conclusion that could not have come at a better time.
"Knowing I'll be able to spend Christmas with my family is a great feeling," said the Chicago, Ill. native and Orders Chief with the MEU's Command Element.
According to Col. Kenneth J. Glueck, Jr., 26th MEU(SOC) Commanding Officer and Palatine, Ill. native, the time off is well deserved.
"Every member of this MEU trained very, very hard to make this deployment a success," said Glueck. "I think our mere presence [in the Mediterranean] was enough to deter many actions from taking place."
During their deployment, the 26th MEU(SOC) was anything but subdued. The unit cross-trained with service members from more than a dozen countries. They also participated in four major training evolutions, to include Exercise Atlas Hinge in Tunisia, Africa and NATO's Exercise Destined Glory, one of the largest amphibious exercises ever staged in the Mediterranean. The MEU even had the opportunity to fire every weapon in their inventory, to include launching the Javelin missile for the first time overseas or by a deployed unit.
Perhaps most importantly, they opened international doors and possibly more training opportunities for future MEUs in the Mediterranean by designing Exercise Slunj 2000. The 26th MEU(SOC) became one of the first and the largest American force to train on Croatian soil after performing the first ever full offload into that country. It was in Croatia that each Commander of the MEU's major supporting elements said they gained their most valuable experiences from the deployment.
That started with MEU Service Support Group 26. The MSSG was part of an amphibious exercise in Croatia; this evolution built the partnerships that paved the way for Slunj 2000. In Croatia, as in every training evolution conducted during this deployment, the MSSG trained by setting up each of their many capabilities. These range from working a few dozen feet below a hovering helicopter to affix cargo, to providing a combat service support area for the entire MEU.
"Our young Marines and Sailors were innovative, focused and determined to get the job done," said LtCol. Paul A. Brygider, MSSG-26 Commanding Officer and Brooklyn, N.Y. native. "They shined at every turn and with every challenge."
The work of Brygider's Marines and Sailors was noticed by the MEU's Battalion Landing Team 2/2. The BLT is the MSSG's biggest customer, as they are the largest supporting element and control most of the MEU's arsenal.
"Logistics were great. Not one time [during the exercises] did I have my company commanders tell me their ammunition was late, or their chow did not arrive," said LtCol. Larry D. Nicholson, Commanding Officer of BLT 2/2 from Toronto, Canada.
This support helped the BLT maintain a rapid pace during the deployment. Aboard ship or in the field, they used their time to train on various combat tactics and skills.
"Every company, detachment and platoon had a chance to train and shoot live rounds. That doesn't always happen on a deployment," said Sgt. Jose Perez, Mesquet, N.M. native and Section Chief with India Battery. The Battery's M-198 155mm Howitzer artillery cannons were able to fire various training missions during the deployment, to include a direct-fire shoot, something they normally do in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
The Battalion's hard work, according to Nicholson, will pay off in experience.
"In March, 280 brand new Marines will join us," he said. "That's great, because my lance corporals and young corporals who are on this deployment now will be my squad leaders. We'll be putting those skills learned here to work right away."
For the 26th MEU(SOC)'s Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 264 (Reinforced), the highlight of the deployment was a chance to work on their expeditionary skills.
"That was the big takeaway," said LtCol. Dan McCarron, HMM-264 Commanding Officer and Elizabeth, N.J.. "We got a chance to exercise our expeditionary nature and work on a short timeline. That's the way we'll operate in a real contingency."
During their exercise in Croatia, the squadron built an expeditionary airfield, to include their own air traffic control.
For pilots in the squadron, the chance to fly outside the United States was an important experience.
"Flying in places that are not like North Carolina is necessary," said Maj. Bud Sichler, Farmingdale, N.Y. native, CH-46E Sea Knight pilot and Operations Officer with the squadron. "This is giving our pilots, especially our junior pilots, exposure to various types of terrain. That is important because in our job you never know where you might fly your next mission."
In their training, the squadron emphasized safety. The pilots of HMM-264 logged more than 2,800 mishap-free hours.
Overseeing the training for each supporting element of the MEU is the Command Element. Though smaller than half the size of any of the other elements, they serve as the command and control for all exercises and operations. The Command Element developed the MEU's final exercise in under three weeks. Most multi-national exercises are developed in as many months by higher commands.
According to Col. Glueck, the smooth integration of the Command Element, the
MSSG, HMM-264 and BLT 2/2 was a significant part of the MEU's overall success.
"Every [major supporting element] was on the same sheet of music for this entire deployment. That team work is essential to do well as a MEU," said Glueck.
The MEU Commander added that a solid partnership with Amphibious Squadron Four, who maintained control over the three ships on which the MEU deployed, was also an important key to the unit's success.
"All these things just came together really well," he said. "You don't really see the full potential of what you're capable of until you see all the parts working together so well."
Though the deployment was demanding, there was still time to learn about the Mediterranean. In Italy alone, the Marine and Sailors of the 26th MEU(SOC) were able to tour Rome, Pisa, Venice and Florence.
"My two favorite places were Spain and Dubrovnik, Croatia," said LCpl. Joshua Kracht, Tacoma, Wash. native and Administrative Clerk with BLT 2/2. "I really enjoyed learning about the history of some of these places. I saw buildings that were older than my country."
"I'm glad to be home, but it was something I really enjoyed," added PFC Sedric Bafford, Lansing, Mich. native and Supply Clerk with BLT 2/2. "It teaches you a lot about being a Marine, because you spend so much time training and being in the field."
Bafford pointed out that not everything he learned had to do with military training.
"I learned how to sing Jingle Bells in the Croatian language," he laughed. "It's a good thing I'll be home before Christmas."