ABOARD USS KEARSARGE -- The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) moved one step closer to home Aug. 30, as the ships of the Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike group transited the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean Sea.
As the MEU departed U.S. Central Command's area of operations, it also relinquished its responsibility as Central Command's strategic reserve, a role it assumed in late April. The unit maintained its assignment as strategic reserve for the full period in support of Central Command, marking a return to the more traditional MEU deployment as a ready response force capable of conducting a wide array of contingency missions.
The fact that the 26th MEU (SOC) stood watch as the reserve does not mean that the unit stood by idly. The accomplishments of the MEU while in Central Command's area of responsibility were varied and many, spanning 9 countries including Djibouti, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan.
Shortly after its initial transit of the Suez Canal in April, the MEU took advantage of the extensive ranges and training areas available in Djibouti and conducted advanced, combined-arms fire support training along with aircraft and personnel recovery operations.
The training, coordinated with Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, demonstrated the far-reaching combat capability of 5th Fleet within the Central Command area of operations.
The opportunity to employ MEU forces in Djibouti showed "the prowess of CJTF- HOA and its ability to reach out and grab assets to prosecute the Global War on Terror against the trans-national terrorists that are in the region," said Col. Thomas F. Qualls, MEU commander.
The MEU entered the Arabian Gulf in early May, preparing to conduct missions in support of Exercise Eagle Resolve, 2005. The exercise, conducted in Doha, Qatar, was based on a scenario designed to validate the nation's incidence response and management in preparation for the Asian Games in 2006.
The MEU forward command element (FCE) was inserted at the U.S. Embassy, Doha, and a planning team consisting of six members of the MEU staff served in the Qatari crisis management cell during the exercise. Additionally, the MEU's mass casualty response team, comprised of Marines and sailors from MEU Service Support Group-26, flew to Doha from amphibious transport dock USS Ponce to assist during the exercise scenario.
"The significant aspects of the exercise were building relationships and validating procedures to augment and support the Qataris," said Lt. Col. James R. Brown, III, 26th MEU executive officer.
The next operations the MEU conducted would involve an offload of most of the unit's personnel and equipment from ESG shipping into Kuwait. In May, the Marines and sailors landed on Kuwaiti shores, moved to their temporary home at Camp Buehring, and began extensive training at Udairi Range.
In nearly a month on the ground in the Kuwait desert, the MEU was able to exercise the full spectrum of its air and ground capabilities.
Among the most beneficial ranges at Udairi were convoy live-fire and military operations in urban terrain ranges where Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Bn., 8th Marines, the ground combat element for the MEU, focused much of their effort.
"The convoy live-fire range was probably the most applicable range, if you will, because it allowed the complete integration of the Marine air ground task force, to include air, tanks and fire support along with a myriad of realistic target opportunities such as pop-up targets, tank targets and the whole nine yards," said Qualls.
The MEU had three over-arching goals for the training in Kuwait. "We came here to refresh ourselves, harden ourselves and to be ready," said Qualls.
The Marines and Sailors rejoined the ships of the strike group in mid-June having accomplished those goals and prepared for upcoming operations.
June marked a significant increase in operational tempo as forces began to deploy to various locations in different countries and with different missions. This upswing in tempo also found the MEU engaged in distributed operations - a concept that is shaping the way Marine Corps and joint U.S. forces are employed on the battlefield of the 21st century.
From June through July, several hundred MEU Marines and sailors were deployed to southeastern Iraq to conduct a variety of operations supporting ongoing stability and security efforts.
During Operation Sea Horse, MEU forces comprised primarily of BLT 2/8 conducted missions to detect and deter illicit cross-border activities in southern Iraq.
Marines were also sent to provide security and engineering support at a detainment facility in southeastern Iraq.
At the same time operations in Iraq were underway, approximately 200 Marines and sailors conducted a training evolution in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia designed to enhance the cooperative abilities of U.S. and Saudi forces in combating terrorism and setting conditions for security and stability in the region.
Training events with Saudi forces included staff planning, close-quarters battle, heavy machine gun live fire, mortar live fire, helicopter operations, convoy operations and sniper live fire.
"I think the key benefits that both sides took away from the bi-lateral training was a much better understanding of each other as individuals as well as a significant overall increase in exposure to the respective cultures," said Lt. Col. Dean E. Craft, the MEU's detachment commander in Saudi Arabia.
Throughout the course of the distributed ground operations, the MEU's aviation combat element flew dozens of fixed-wing and rotary-wing sorties that moved critical personnel, parts and supplies to and from every location where MEU units were conducting missions. Additionally, the pilots and crews from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-162 (Reinforced) flew numerous sorties in support of Combined Task Force-58, who was responsible for maritime security and interdiction operations in the northern Arabian Gulf.
There were two very important aspects to the multiple successful missions conducted during this period. First, the MEU command continued to oversee and manage all operations from aboard USS Kearsarge. Second, despite the dispersion of forces, the MEU maintained the capability to rapidly reconstitute all of its assets in order to respond to contingencies elsewhere in its capacity as strategic reserve.
Late July saw the reunification of the majority of the MEU's forces as it prepared for its movement out of the Arabian Gulf and past the Horn of Africa once again. However, at the same time Marines and sailors supporting operations in Iraq and Saudi Arabia were returning to the ships, a group of approximately 200 were headed back to Djibouti to support CJTF-HOA in its mission to enhance security in the region.
While operating from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, Marines from BLT 2/8 conducted training with an Army National Guard unit from Guam. The joint training, designed to enhance the Army unit's capabilities to respond to any contingency in the Horn of Africa, included non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO), fast-roping, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP), as well as live-fire range exercises incorporating both small arms and heavy machine guns.
In addition to the joint training, engineers from MSSG-26 worked alongside Navy SeaBees to construct three pre-fabricated buildings for a school in northern Djibouti.
Before concluding operations in support of CJTF-HOA, the MEU took a final opportunity to utilize the ranges in Djibouti, conducting an air support coordination exercise as USS Kearsarge rounded the Horn of Africa.
A week into August, the ships of the Kearsarge ESG headed for the Gulf of Aqaba and Exercise Infinite Moonlight in Jordan. The 10-day bi-lateral exercise, which paired MEU forces with those of the Jordanian air force and army, was designed to reinforce security in the region while strengthening the military relationships between the United States and Jordan.
Marines from the MEU's ground combat element, BLT 2/8, joined with the Jordanian 40th Infantry Brigade to conduct a series of training evolutions including several live-fire events. Meanwhile, many of the jets, helicopters and personnel from HMM-162 supported operations and shared aviation experiences with the Jordanian air forces at an air base in central Jordan.
A rocket attack Aug. 19 did nothing to hamper the exercise. The ships of the Kearsarge Strike Group that appeared to be the targets of the attack simply took up less vulnerable positions a few miles from shore in the Gulf of Aqaba and continued to support the exercise.
The exercise concluded with a coordinated bi-lateral field training exercise (FTX) that included close-air support from HMM-162 and a Jordanian and Marine, combined motorized and mechanized armor attack on two separate objectives.
Other highlights of Infinite Moonlight included combined parachute operations, explosive ordnance disposal operations, and AV-8B Harrier / F-5 Freedom Fighter air combat maneuvering qualifications.
Infinite Moonlight would be the final operation for the MEU while supporting Central Command.
Back in April the 26th MEU entered what Qualls described as a particularly challenging area of operations, but the hard work of the Marines and sailors ensured that no challenge would hinder the unit's success while in Central Command's area of responsibility.
"I'm proud of how this MEU interfaced and operated in a highly dynamic environment, with multiple staffs - both joint and coalition - to accomplish a diverse set of objectives, many simultaneously," said Qualls.
After nearly five months, the accomplishments of the unit throughout the region are substantial, but Qualls said there was one operation that particularly typified the 26th MEU.
"If I had to single out our most significant operation in Central Command, it would be Operation Sea Horse in southeastern Iraq. Deploying forces from the sea hundreds of miles into austere regions, logistically sustaining those forces, providing intelligence fusion and rapidly integrating into a coalition environment wrought with complexity and tactical uncertainty represented a formidable achievement and was most representative of the mettle of this team. The planning agility and overall fusion of the entire (Marine air ground task force) was at its pinnacle during these operations."
"I'm most proud of the degree of flexibility and professionalism that each Marine and sailor has displayed during the conduct of dispersed and distributed operations. An organization cannot have a span of influence this wide without a high degree of small unit leadership, individual accountability, and overall professionalism," Qualls added.
Although forces deployed to the many operating locations ashore were key in carrying out each successful mission, Qualls said it was the entire MEU and ESG team that ensured the current record of accomplishments.
"While many of our objectives were conducted away from the ships, the preponderance of our accomplishments could not have been achieved without the logistical, intelligence, and aviation teamwork of our afloat home plate--the Kearsarge ESG," he said.
As the MEU re-enters the Mediterranean Sea, it shifts focus to operations with Sixth Fleet and preparations for the voyage home.
For more information on the 26th MEU (SOC), log on to www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.