ABOARD THE USS IWO JIMA -- As the home front celebrated Independence Day, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit drew a transcontinental step closer to possible combat operations, officially entering the Central Command theater and assuming duties as the force of choice in a regional crisis.
One by one during the early morning hours of July 4, the seven vessels of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group -- including three amphibious-assault ships bearing the MEU’s roughly 2,200 Marines and sailors -- slipped from the Mediterranean Sea and into the Suez Canal.
Shortly after sunrise, wearing their desert-colored camouflage utility uniforms for the first time since leaving North Carolina June 8, Marines began emerging onto the ships’ catwalks and other platforms to glimpse Egypt from either side.
“Going through the Suez Canal makes me a little bit jumpy. This is what we see on the news every night and I can’t wait for it to unfold. I want to see it first hand and get into the fight” said Cpl. John P. Martinez, a rifleman with Alpha Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 24th MEU.
The 101-mile-long, man-made waterway links the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez, the northern branch of the Red Sea. Built in the mid-1800s, the modern canal realized a centuries-old dream of opening up, to any ship in the world, two-way water transportation between Europe and Asia without the need to circumnavigate Africa.
Known to Marines and sailors as “the ditch,” the Suez Canal is, at its narrowest point, just three football fields wide.
It is here that European Command gives way most conspicuously to Central Command.
CENTCOM covers a broad swath of the most volatile region of the world, spanning nearly 30 countries from the Middle East to the Horn of Africa to southern and central Asia. Among the nations within its operational purview: Afghanistan and Iraq.
Passage through the Suez marks the beginning of the MEU’s fourth tour of duty in the CENTCOM theater since 9/11.
Until it is assigned a specific mission, the MEU remains on call, providing the combatant commander, Gen. John Abizaid, a highly mobile and potent force for use in any conceivable contingency.
As the MEU waits, it trains.
“Being Marines, this is not really us, to be cooped up on the ship all day. You can’t really move around. I’ll say this – I’m just ready to go,” said Staff Sgt. Barry Charles, motor transportation chief, MEU Service Support Group 24, 24th MEU.
“I’m personally looking forward to getting ashore. I’m ready to get back into the kind of training we’re used to doing. I can’t wait to get some hands-on experience in the open air,” added Cpl. Matthew Dedual, a radio operator with Weapons Company, BLT 1st Bn., 8th Mar., 24th MEU.