CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit assumed operational control of its ground, air and logistics elements Feb. 20, inaugurating an intensive six-month training period designed to prepare the MEU for its scheduled deployment in August.
At an activation formation at W.P.T. Hill Field, all 2,200 of the unit's Marines and sailors came together for the first time as the MEU welcomed to its ranks Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 (Reinforced), and MEU Service Support Group 24.
The additions, detached from their parent commands within II Marine Expeditionary Force and attached, or "chopped," to the MEU, bring the MEU to its full strength under the command of Col. Ronald Johnson.
The commander of II MEF, Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, told the assembled Marines that the training ahead will be arduous but essential to the MEU's success. Citing the ongoing War on Terror and acknowledging the difficulty in predicting where American attention will be required next, he said the MEU's ability to rapidly respond to a crisis might be needed sooner than expected.
"Things are bubbling right now in a nation in our own hemisphere, and ... you're the Marines I'm going to be looking at to possibly answer that contingency," said Osman, alluding to growing civil unrest in Haiti that has already claimed dozens of lives and that threatens to topple the president of the impoverished island nation, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The revolt in Haiti and the potential requirement to protect American citizens there is just one example of the many missions for which a MEU must prepare itself.
The 24th MEU is among three that deploy on a rotating basis from the East Coast to serve as the landing force for the Navy's Sixth Fleet. One day after the 22nd MEU shipped out, the reconstituted 24th formally began preparing to relieve it.
In an interview, Johnson noted that an unusually long break between the last deployment and the beginning of the new training cycle allowed the MEU's command element more time to reflect on the recent experiences of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even so, he acknowledged, planners face a challenge in trying to incorporate an abundance of lessons learned into the training program.
"If anything, time is our enemy," said Johnson, who served as operations officer for Task Force Tarawa during the major-combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "There are so many things to train to now. There are so many things we want to put into the training schedule. We just need to be creative and use time to our benefit."
The commander of the MEU's ground forces, Lt. Col. Robert Durkin, said he reminds his Marines repeatedly that the nation is at war. As a result, he said, there is an "added urgency" to the training program.
"We don't know where we're going or what we [will be] doing," Durkin said. "The bottom line is that [the Marines] need to be ready ... and to keep their mind in the game. There's no time to waste."
Above all, Johnson intends to focus on the fundamentals, including reporting procedures and battle drills.
"I want to get back to the basics," he said. "I want to do the little things right."
Accordingly, he insisted, every Marine must know how to handle his weapon, particularly in today's combat zone, where the traditional boundaries between front lines and rear areas are increasingly blurred.
"I think all Marines today need to prepare for combat, and that goes back to [our creed] - all Marines are riflemen," Johnson said. "The reason is, as we see today in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of the [so-called] rear areas, which are perceived as softer targets, are being attacked."
The commander of the MEU's aviation combat element agreed.
"You can't let your guard down," said Lt. Col. Roy "Ozzie" Osborn, a CH-46E pilot who flew in Iraq last year and recalled standing watch at a casualty-evacuation site at 2 a.m. with a rifle in his hands.
As Marines prepare to return to Iraq to relieve exhausted Army units, Marine commanders have stressed that their effectiveness would be measured in large part by how skillfully they alternated between the velvet glove and the iron fist.
To help bridge cultural divides and to ensure that his Marines can communicate clearly to friend and foe alike, Johnson has implemented a novel language-training program. Every Marine in the MEU will be assigned one of 16 languages and asked to master 50 key words and phrases. The goal is not to make interpreters but rather to arm the MEU with a working knowledge in the languages they're most likely to encounter during their deployment.
For Johnson, the language training illustrates the ever-evolving nature of the Marine warrior. From the new digitally designed camouflage uniforms and enhanced body armor they wear to the weapons they wield, Marines are better equipped for duty today than they've ever been, he said.
Over the next six months, the MEU will train for a variety of missions it might be called upon to accomplish abroad, such as the evacuation of noncombatants, the seizure of a port or airfield, or the recovery of a downed pilot or aircraft.
While the MEU will conduct much of its training in and around Camp Lejeune, its home base, the schedule also includes exercises at Fort A.P. Hill near Richmond, Va., and in Morgantown, W.V., where the MEU will hone its skills at operating in an urban environment. Additionally, the MEU will execute several sea drills aboard the amphibious assault ships Saipan, Oak Hill and Trenton, the naval vessels that will transport the MEU during its deployment.
Besides the three ships of the traditional Amphibious Ready Group, the MEU will float alongside the imposing presence of a cruiser, destroyer, frigate and attack submarine, providing added firepower in what is called an Expeditionary Strike Group.
The ESG, the Marine Corps and Navy maintain, is a dramatic improvement in warfighting capability, enhancing each MEU's punch and distributing the Navy's firepower more widely across the globe.
The 24th MEU last departed Camp Lejeune in August 2002. During its nine-month deployment, which included two extensions, the MEU participated in operations in Kosovo and Iraq before returning home in May 2003.