CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which includes about 2,200 Marines and sailors, returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., from the ships of the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group beginning March 23 after a seven-month deployment which began August 25, 2008.
While in the 5th and 6th Fleet Areas of Operation, the MEU supported regional security and stability sometimes as a show of force and other times as a helping hand. Besides supporting operations in Iraq and off the Horn of Africa, the MEU also conducted numerous Theater Security Cooperation exercises designed to bolster international relations and improve the military efficiency of regional allies.
Shortly after deploying, the MEU’s CH-53E Super Stallions were detached and sent to Iraq to support Marine Aircraft Group-16 operating out of Al Asad. The detachment included more than 50 Marines and sailors, and spent six months supporting operations there.
The MEU also conducted counter-piracy operations near the coast of Somalia in cooperation with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. Though the mission was not expected, the MEU was well-suited to help with the piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, explained the MEU’s commanding officer, Col. Mark J. Desens.
“Counter piracy was not on the list of things we were tasked to be prepared to do, but again, our job as Marines is to accomplish the mission. You find a way to contribute,” he said “… It was unanticipated, but we did the mission analysis and made a very strong contribution to the operation. “
The MEU operated in both the 5th and 6th Fleet Areas of Operations at various times during the deployment. They traversed the waters of the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Gulf, as well as countries such as France, Italy, Spain and the many nations surrounding the Arabian Peninsula.
During their time in 6th Fleet, the MEU’s Marines also had the opportunity to participate in some community relation projects during two ports of call. In Sicily, Marines and sailors gave freely of their liberty for the opportunity to improve the grounds of the Cassa Della Beneficenza Orphanage in Floridia, Sicily. In Rota, Spain, the MEU again sent teams forth to work landscaping at La Cartuja Monastery and to deliver sports equipment and school supplies to orphans at Hogar Nuestra Sra Del Rosario Orphanage.
With the USS Iwo Jima, the MEU also had a number of influential visitors during its seven-month deployment. Some of these visitors included the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, the Ambassador to Spain, Spanish Minister of Defense, former Marine and actor R. Lee Ermey, and a host of general officers from countries throughout 5th and 6th fleet.
These visits are an integral part of theater security, Desens explained. The most effective way to fight terrorism is to train friendly militaries to combat terror and violence within their own borders.
“What that means to me" he said, "is that you need friends. You need to reinforce your allies and you need to be good ambassadors. The Marines of the 26th MEU did that magnificently in every way.”
While deployed the MEU had multiple opportunities to showcase their expeditionary nature and use the skills they honed during the six-month pre-deployment training period. Desens explained his Marines conducted bilateral training for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, noncombatant evacuation operations and put into effect a full range of MEU capabilities. He said the 26th MEU was fully prepared to roll into Afghanistan or Iraq if called upon to do so.
“You set out to be prepared to do all that. You’ve got to be ready to go wherever you’re told to go. Our mission is to train this big force to be successful in a wide range of missions. It’s very challenging and, I think, a hell of a lot of fun.”
In the end, Desens said of the Marines, “They were magnificent in every way. They executed perfectly, took care of each other and are coming home safely.”