MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- After nearly half a year away from home, the Marines and Sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) will cross Onslow Beach and Morehead City and return to Camp Lejeune on Sunday.
Since their deployment with the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group on February 18, the 24th MEU(SOC)'s Marines and Sailors have set foot in nine countries around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and participated in five major exercises with more than a dozen NATO allies and Partnership for Peace nations.
Beginning with their assumption of responsibility Landing Force Sixth Fleet on March 2 at the gateway to the Mediterranean, Rota, Spain, the first task for the 24th MEU was to make its way to Lisbon, Portugal, to participate in a State Department reception for Secretary of State Madelein Albright and Portuguese dignitaries aboard the USS Wasp.
After spending three days filled with reception activities and shipboard tours for locals, the MEU moved on to its first scheduled military event - Spanish PHIBLEX - a combined amphibious exercise in Sierra del Retin, Spain. The five-day exercise gave the American and Spanish Marines a chance to work alongside each other learning and exchanging tactics and technical skills in the coastal area's rugged terrain and windy, wet weather.
After PHIBLEX, the MEU quickly transited the Mediterranean to begin their next exercise - Dynamic Response 2000. This exercise was the first deployment of the Strategic Reserve Force into Kosovo, spearheaded by the 24th MEU(SOC). After conducting an amphibious landing in the vicinity of Thessaloniki, Greece, the Marines and Sailors traveled across Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to establish themselves at Camp Casablanca in Suva Reka, Kosovo.
Dynamic Response was a NATO exercise involving soldiers and Marines from the U.S., the Netherlands, Romania, Poland and Argentina. The exercise demonstrated NATO's resolve to maintain a secure environment in Kosovo for all ethnic groups while exercising the Strategic Reserve Forces' ability to rapidly reinforce the multi-national forces established throughout the country.
After Kosovo, the Marines took a break from field and ship life to see the sites in Trieste, Italy, and Marmaris, Turkey. While Trieste offered old-world architecture and outdoor cafes, Marmaris, a popular European vacation spot, offered the chance to visit ancient ruins, shop for gifts for family and friends back home and experience traditional Turkish culture and food.
From Turkey, the USS Wasp and USS Oak Hill made the trek back to Rota, Spain, while the USS Trenton stopped in La Maddelena, Italy, for a mid-deployment maintenance stand down to prepare MEU vehicles and equipment for the next big tactical exercise - the two-part NATO Exercise Dynamic Mix in Capo Teulada, Sardinia, and Kyparissia, Greece. Before heading to the island of Sardinia, however, the MEU stopped in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, for four days to rest and relax before climbing back into the saddle for the first phase of Dynamic Mix on May 20.
The first week of Dynamic Mix consisted of cross training and familiarization between the Marines, French Foreign Legionnaires, Turkish, Spanish and Greek soldiers. Sardinia offered live-fire ground and aerial gunnery ranges for all types of weaponry - from small arms to tanks - while also offering areas for the troops to maneuver and communicate.
After the familiarization phase, the American and Greek ships moved south and east around the boot of Italy to conduct a combined amphibious assault in Greece. This was the first time Turkish troops, task organized with Battalion Landing Team 2/6, had set foot in Greece in more than 40 years. As NATO allies today, Turkey's participation in this exercise on Greek soil was a first step toward greater international cooperation.
Throughout the entire exercise, 24th MEU(SOC) Commanding Officer Col. Rick Tryon was charged with leading the 3,300-member multi-national force as the Commander Combined Landing Force.
From Greece, the MEU/ARG conducted split operations sending the USS Trenton into the Black Sea for the NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace Exercise Cooperative Partner in Odessa, Ukraine, from June 19 to July 1. Along the way, the USS Trenton visited Mykonos, Greece, and enjoyed the uniqueness of liberty in the Black Sea.
While the Marines aboard the Trenton were participating in Cooperative Partner, the main body of the MEU and ARG made a stop in Toulon, France, and from there headed to the eastern end of the Mediterranean to Israel for their final exercise - Noble Shirley.
The training in the southern Negev Desert region of Israel, near the Egyptian border, challenged the Marines with daily 100+ degree temperatures and hostile terrain. In spite of the inhospitable environment, the Marines performed their maneuvers without incident and for some with a feeling of déjà vu since most Marines felt the training and conditions reminded them of Combined Arms Exercises at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, 29 Palms, Calif.
From the port of Haifa, Israel, the USS Wasp, USS Oak Hill and USS Trenton spent six days steaming back to Rota for the MEU's final vehicle and equipment wash down, inspections by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and the turnover with their relief - the Saipan ARG and 26th MEU(SOC).
Today the 24th MEU(SOC) is approaching the Carolina Coast and the families of these Marines and Sailors are waiting anxiously for Sunday to come. Next week, those Marines and Sailors will rejoin their II MEF brothers in arms with a renewed sense of gratification and pride - grateful to be home and proud of a mission well done.