ABOARD THE USS IWO JIMA -- Three days after its helicopters began ferrying U.S. citizens out of war-torn Lebanon, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has finished moving its equipment and personnel back to its ships in the Red Sea and has begun steaming toward the Lebanese coast.
Three vessels of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group, carrying the MEU’s 2,200 Marines and sailors, are now on their way to Lebanon to assist in the departure of Americans wishing to leave the country.
“We’re pulling out all the stops,” said Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th MEU. “We know that many Americans in Lebanon are anxious to leave, and we’re moving into position as quickly as we possibly can to escort them out safely.”
The MEU’s shift to the Mediterranean Sea continues efforts that have been underway since Saturday, when the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon requested military assistance.
That evening, more than 100 Marines and three CH-53E Super Stallion transport helicopters flew to the island of Cyprus to begin laying the groundwork for a safe and orderly departure.
On Sunday, two CH-53s inserted a small military assessment team into the U.S. embassy near Beirut, then transported the first 21 Americans to safety in Cyprus. The Marines returned to the embassy Monday to pull out another 43 Americans.
The effort gathered momentum on Tuesday as Marines facilitated the departure of 121 more Americans, bringing the three-day helicopter-borne total to 185.
Even before launching its initial elements to Cyprus, the rest of the 24th MEU cut short a desert training exercise near the Red Sea and began returning to its three amphibious-assault ships.
The USS Nashville loaded first and set sail for the Mediterranean on Sunday. The USS Whidbey Island and the Iwo Jima followed two days later. They’ll be joined in the Mediterranean by three other vessels: the destroyer USS Gonzales, the amphibious assault ship USS Trenton, and the High-Speeed Vessel Swift, a catarmaran well-suited to transporting large numbers of passengers rapidly across the water.
The abrupt change in plans is a familiar drill for the MEU, a sea-based quick-reaction force that’s organized and equipped to respond rapidly to crises near the world’s littorals, or coastal areas.
Armed with an array of weaponry and equipment designed for a wide variety of operations, the MEU can handle missions across the spectrum of conflict, from humanitarian assistance to full-scale combat.
Evacuating non-combatants from unstable countries is among the missions the MEU trains for during its six-month pre-deployment work-ups.
Upon its arrival, the MEU will fall under the operational control of Commander Task Force 59, U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Carl Jensen, who is leading joint U.S. military coordination efforts from Cyprus.
The 24th MEU consists of its headquarters element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced); and MEU Service Support Group 24.