ABOARD USS PONCE -- One of the primary functions of a deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) is providing a forward U.S. presence in theater. The 24th MEU (SOC), which recently arrived in the Mediterranean for a six-month tour as Landing Force Sixth Fleet, greatly increased the area it is able to cover in this role by splitting into two detachments.
This configuration is called Split Amphibious Ready Group or "split ARG" and for the 24th MEU (SOC) it began just after its three ships reached Spain after their trans-Atlantic voyage.
"It allows the theater commander-in-chief more flexibility while potentially improving response time in the case of real-world operations," said LtCol John P. Lopez, a native of Manhattan's Upper West Side and commander of Marine Service Support Group 24, which primarily provides logistics support to the MEU.
"A split ARG allows Marines and Sailors to gain a better appreciation for the MEU's overall capabilities. We'll get more out of this float because of it," he said.
Lopez is the senior Marine aboard USS Ponce, which has temporarily set out on its own course through the Mediterranean region. He is in charge of about 400 Marines, consisting of Golf Company 2/8, a detachment of transport and command and control helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266, Marines from each of MSSG-24's seven detachments, and a variety of Marines from the MEU's command element.
The bulk of the 24th MEU (SOC) is embarked upon USS Kearsarge and USS Carter Hall. They will participate in scheduled multinational military exercises in Sardinia and Greece and visit a variety of liberty ports. Meanwhile, USS Ponce has begun a challenging schedule of exercises and port visits, the first of which was Tangier, Morocco. The city had not hosted a U.S. naval vessel since 1978.
"This was my first time on the continent of Africa," said LCpl Daniel Tino, of Augusta, NJ, a fire team leader with Golf Co. "It was different from what I'm used to."
Known as the crossroads of Europe and Africa, Tangier is located at the northern tip of Morocco, almost ten miles across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. It is the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, a fact that has contributed to its historic and strategic importance. The city has been controlled by, among others, the Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Spaniards, and French.
The United States' relationship with Morocco spans the length of American history: the country was the first foreign power to recognize U.S. sovereignty after the Declaration of Independence.
"It was interesting to see their way of life," said SSgt Mark Cumiskey, motor transportation chief from Cape Carteret, N.C. "Most of our younger Marines hadn't been exposed to this kind of place before."
Known for its busy markets, active nightlife, and cosmopolitan airs, Tangier is unlike any city most Marines have ever visited. The city bustles with activity. Its aged Muslim architecture blends with modern buildings, car-filled streets, and scores of European-style cafes and restaurants.
The contrast between minarets and the robes and veils of the traditionally religious on the one hand, and contemporary Western dress, modern billboards, and sports cars on the other, is often stark.
"The people were pretty friendly to us," said LCpl Joshua Habermaas, an aviation ordnance specialist from St. Louis, Mo.
In addition to unique shopping and dining experiences, liberty in Tangier offered 24th MEU (SOC) Marines opportunities to tour the city and its outlying areas. Tours of Tangier's Kasbah (fort), Medina (old section), and markets were augmented by trips to the cities of Tetouan and Chefchaouen, which boast centuries-old histories of settlement and cultural exchange.
Departing Tangier, USS Ponce will participate in bilateral training with Moroccan military forces in Exercise Mediterranean Shark. Once completed, the ship and embarked Marines will head to new ports of call, leading up to Cooperative Partner, a major NATO-directed humanitarian assistance mission in the Republic of Georgia.
"This gives MSSG-24 a chance to demonstrate its flexibility, not only in combat service support, but also as an overall Marine Air Ground Task Force," said Maj David Flynn, Executive Officer, MSSG-24, from Jasper, Indiana. "The Navy personnel aboard ship have been very helpful to us."
USS Ponce (LPD-15) was commissioned in 1971. Nicknamed "The Proud Lion," Ponce was named for a city on Puerto Rico's West coast and has seen service during Vietnam and Desert Storm. More recently, the ship participated in the insertion of Marines in Kosovo in 1999.
Should the call to action come, USS Ponce and the 24th MEU (SOC) Marines aboard her will be ready to answer it. The "blue-green team" aboard the ship exemplifies the best facets of "going split ARG."
Follow the 24th MEU (SOC) deployment on their website at www.usmc.mil/24meu.