CAMP LEJUENE, N.C. --
After an arduous six-month training cycle, the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit boards the ships of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group the last week of August for their scheduled deployment.
The 2,200-strong Marine Air-Ground Task Force gets under way to cross the Atlantic to conduct a traditional MEU deployment in support of the Global War on Terror. The Marines will board three ships of the Iwo Jima ESG, the USS Iwo Jima, the USS Carter Hall and one of the Navy's newest ships, the USS San Antonio.
Marines from the 26th MEU supported a successful operational evaluation of the San Antonio in March during which they conducted helicopter and amphibious operations and stressed the ship's operational and sustainment abilities to support embarked Marines. MEU leaders said they were impressed with San Antonio's capabilities.
"This is a new phase in the Navy/Marine Corps relationship, particularly with the amphibious Navy," said Lt. Col. John R. Giltz, commander of the 26th MEU's Logistics Combat Element, CLB-26. San Antonio's flight deck, well deck, stowage, passageways and berthing were designed to make the embarked 26th MEU a more versatile, swift and efficient expeditionary force for projecting American political will on foreign shores.
"It was designed from the keel up for Marines," Giltz said. "It was well thought out operationally and in its ability to transport Marines to places where we're going to find ourselves doing missions ... I think you'll find it can do a lot more even than they realize right now."
"This ship will enable a MEU to perform faster and with greater precision," said 26th MEU Executive Officer Lt. Col. John W. Capdepon. “It will give the MEU commander even more speed and flexibility to meet his objectives.”
A Long, Hard Road
During their six-month training cycle, Marines from the 26th MEU conducted more real-world operations than some MEUs face during their whole deployment, all while meeting training requirements under a compressed training schedule.
Training began shortly after the MEU formed Feb. 15. when 26th MEU Marines and infantrymen from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, boarded the San Antonio to support its OpEval.
The first major unit exercise took place at Ft. Pickett, Va., in March and April, during which the Marines completed individual and small-unit training such as firing individual and crew-served weapons. They also conducted a community relations project in nearby Blackstone, Va., making improvements to a pistol range used by local law enforcement.
May saw the Marines aboard the ships of the Iwo Jima ESG for an integration exercise, essential to establish the relationships and build teamwork with their Navy counterparts. It was the first taste of ship life for many young Marines, and the exercise provided an important frame of reference for their upcoming deployment.
At Muscatatuck Urban Training Center and Camp Atterbury near Indianapolis, Ind., the Marines rose to an unexpected challenge in June. Tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and heavy rain first tested the Marines and their plans to conduct realistic urban training. Undaunted, the Marines continued training but soon received calls for help from nearby civilian communities.
In all the 26th MEU received and supported three calls for assistance. Marine combat photographers provided aerial video and still images to local, state and federal authorities to document the rising natural disaster. Marines dispatched via CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters to help local authorities evacuate Columbus Regional Hospital when flooding threatened the facility. Later, nearly 140 Marines took a 2 a.m. flight via CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters to Elnora, Ind., in a race to shore up nearly a mile of levee before the White River crested at 9 a.m. In cooperation with Indiana National Guard, local townspeople, Amish and Mennonite farmers and even a contingent of prisoners from a nearby jail, the Marines succeeded in keeping the water at bay, saving the town.
With little rest, the Marines again boarded the ships of the Iwo Jima ESG in July to conduct a Composite Unit Training exercise, ready to test any of their potential missions. During the exercise, they conducted multiple amphibious and helicopter-borne raids, a simulated embassy reinforcement and Noncombatant Evacuation Operation, a Humanitarian Assistance Operation, several Mass Casualty scenarios, and a host of other skills unique to a MEU.
COMPTUEX also served as their evaluation exercise, allowing the Marines to compress their training schedule and meet their scheduled deployment time.
"Our approach to the certification piece of COMPTUEX was simple," said Commanding Officer Col. Mark J. Desens. "Our primary focus is on improving ourselves at every opportunity. If you do that right, an evaluation takes care of itself. We continuously seek opportunities to train aggressively, with leaders controlling the pace and complexity of how we train so that we don't get people hurt or equipment needlessly damaged along the way," Desens said.
Now, after a brief but much-deserved block leave period to spend time with friends and family, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU and Iwo Jima ESG cross the Atlantic Ocean to support America's global interests.
"We're now 'workups-complete,'" Desens said. "The MEU is ready to go."