ATLANTIC OCEAN --
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit will return home next week, nine months after departing the Carolina Coast near Camp Lejeune, N.C., last March. Surely, smiles and long-anticipated embraces from friends and family members await them, but the MEU’s Marines and Sailors remain focused — they understand the mission isn’t over.
“The goal is to enjoy the reunion as it is one of the great benefits of our expeditionary lifestyle — renewing those things we love and enjoy best about family, friends and life in the United States,” said Col. Frank Donovan, the commanding officer of the 24th MEU. “It’s vitally important we take the time to sit down and discuss the positives and potentially negative aspects of our return to the United States and reunion with our friends and families.”
In short, the 24th MEU will soon be back on American soil for the first time in a long time, and while everyone is looking forward to it, the MEU is making sure they’re well-prepared.
Lt. Col. David Sosa, the commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, the infantry-based ground combat element of the 24th MEU, has structured schedules not only to offload and account for the massive amount of equipment on his unit’s return home, but has also coordinated training for his Marines to include a variety of lectures, instruction, discussion and even practical application in the days before sending them off to loved ones on leave and liberty.
“Our return home will mark a significant change of environment for our Marines and we want to make sure they are prepared for that,” said Sosa, a veteran of 22 years of active duty and just one of 2,300 Marines and Sailors who left homes and families in the United States last March for what was a scheduled eight-month deployment.
The 24th MEU spent most of 2012 sailing in the U.S. Navy’s 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility as an expeditionary crisis response force, maintaining presence aboard the ships of the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group within the U.S. Central, European and Africa Commands. They conducted significant training operations in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and Djibouti, Africa, but also maintained a robust alert status much of the time, prepared to launch America’s 9-1-1 force at a moment’s notice.
A successful deployment under their belt, the Marines are excited to return home.
“I’m looking forward to just getting home and relaxing, to be able to be alone without seeing 30 other guys every time I turn around,” said Cpl. Christopher Moritz, a machine gunner with Weapons Company, BLT 1/2, and native of Springfield, Minn.
This is Moritz’s second deployment; his first was also with 1/2 when they went to Afghanistan.
“I think we’ve prepared well (for post-deployment). It was different last time because we flew home from Afghanistan and were back in the states in one day. With the MEU, we’ve had all this time on ship to prepare for our reunions back home and our heads are in the right place.”
Staff Sgt. Chris Harrison, the air-frames staff noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of the detachment of Marines from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced) aboard the USS New York, shared similar thoughts.
“We’re all looking forward to being back and I’ve been telling the Marines to do everything they can to get their families to the homecoming because it’s a great experience,” the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native said, adding that post-deployment stresses are a concern but have been addressed. “The ACE (Aviation Combat Element) is a tight group and we have a good sense of who’s doing what for the holidays, which is important.”
Leadership at levels has taken time to talk to Marines and Sailors to ensure a comfortable transition from deployment to post-deployment routines.
“We’ve been gone 38 weeks, we’ve trained in four countries, and we’ve been separate from our families the entire time,” said 1st Lt. A.J. Kowaleuski. “The person our loved ones remember is certainly not the person they are now. The Marines have had life-altering experiences, new routines have been established, and lifestyles have changed.”
Kowaleuski, a Naval Academy graduate and platoon commander with India Battery, the artillery attachment for the 24th MEU, is finishing up his first deployment. This will be he and his wife’s first homecoming and the first time he will see his now 10-month-old son since he left last spring—when he was just six-weeks old.
“Simple things like the freedom to go and drive somewhere and get a sandwich by yourself, going to your room and reading a book without 25 other people standing next to you like it is on ship—these are the things we have to get used to again,” he said.
The 24th MEU is scheduled to be ashore and released for leave and liberty before the holidays, but their deployment doesn’t end there. Kowaleuski’s commanding officer, Maj. Gregory Goober, explained it best as he addressed his sergeants and staff-noncommissioned officers.
“What this boils down to is doing right by the Marines,” said Goober. “We need to get them back to their families and reunited, but our leadership responsibilities do not end when post-deployment leave starts.”
Of course, the support of family and friends throughout the deployment hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially by those at the very top.
“Our focus is on the most important thing,” said Donovan. “Conducting our final amphibious operation of the deployment in a safe and efficient manner so we can get our Marines and Sailors home to their family and friends that have provided unyielding love and support over the past nine months.”