ABOARD USS IWO JIMA -- As their latest deployment draws to a close, Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit celebrated the Marine Corps’ 231st birthday aboard the ship named for one of the Corps’ costliest battles, which also gave way to one of the most enduring symbols of American courage and determination.
Embarked aboard the USS Iwo Jima in the Mediterranean Sea, more than 1,200 of the MEU’s Marines and sailors formed up and paid homage to their heritage by reading Gen. John A. Lejeune’s birthday message as well as one from the current commandant, Gen. Michael Hagee; conducting the ceremonial cutting of the cake; and listening to remarks from 24th MEU commander, Col. Ron Johnson.
In his speech, Johnson discussed his pride in his Marines, their exceptional performance during the deployment, the rich history of the Corps, and the special nature of its birthday.
"I can’t think of a more fitting location to have the Marine Corps birthday than on the deck named after our most famous battle, that of Iwo Jima," said Col. Ron Johnson, 24th MEU commander. "So today, in the Mediterranean Sea … we’re going to celebrate our birthday, as we’ve done for 231 years time and time again in the same manner and tradition."
"The Marine Corps birthday is extremely important," said Master Sgt. Huchi T. Huchi, the 24th MEU headquarters commandant. "One of the reasons it is so important, especially to us Marines, is because it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our history. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing in the present, and it also gives us an opportunity to look (to) the future."
"No matter where we are or what we are doing, we will always find time ... to celebrate," added Huchi.
During the last six months, the 24th MEU has traveled the globe and set Marines on the ground for training or liberty in 13 different countries. The MEU completed training exercises in Jordan, Djibouti, Pakistan, and Kuwait. During their time in Jordan and Pakistan, the Marines were able to lend their battle-tested expertise to the Jordanian army and the Pakistani Marines.
The 24th MEU wasn’t only in the business of teaching warfare. AV-8B Harriers from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced) – the MEU’s aviation combat element -- flew combat sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq and successfully dropped thousands of pounds of ordnance in precision strikes against enemy fighters. Additionally, elements of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, recently supported Marine forces battling insurgents in western Iraq.
The MEU might have spent more time in either country had a crisis not erupted in Lebanon in July, when fighting broke out between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah. While training in Jordan, having already entered the Central Command theater, the MEU was forced to abruptly turn around and head back to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the course of two weeks, the MEU assisted in the evacuation of nearly 15,000 American citizens caught in the crossfire.
"There were days we worked at least 12 hours straight, yet no one complained because we were all there for one reason, one real mission, and that was to get those families out of harm’s way and into safety," recalls Petty Officer 2nd Class Marlena Cox, a corpsman assigned to the 24th MEU command element, who provided medical care and assistance to the evacuees during her time in Beirut.
The Marines who went ashore and assisted their fellow citizens recognize the impact of their efforts.
"This is my first deployment, and I’m extremely glad and proud that I was able to go to Beirut, because this is going to be something that’s going to be talked about in history for years to come," said Sergeant Jose Boyed, a cryptographic communications security technician.
"Being a part of Beirut, being on the USS Iwo Jima and taking the time to remember all of the other service members that are serving as well, will definitely make this my most memorable Marine Corps birthday," added Boyed.
"I enjoy being deployed for the Marine Corps birthday," said Sgt. Kevin Cash, an AV-8B Harrier power line mechanic. "I think it has more meaning to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday while you’re deployed because we’re really out here doing our jobs and that kinda lifts my spirits. This is my second Marine Corps birthday deployed, and I take the time to think back at how the Marines in the past might have celebrated."
With humanitarian-assistance and combat operations behind them, the Marines take the time to ensure that the traditions of the Marine Corps live on.
"That is one of the greatest things about the Marine Corps. … No matter where we are -- deployed, in garrison, on a ship, or in a combat zone -- we are going to celebrate the Marine Corps’ birthday," said Gunnery Sgt. Doug Mrusek, 29, an assistant operations chief who hails from Cincinnati.
"No matter where we are, we are going to find a cake, the oldest and youngest Marine, and we are going to do the traditional ceremony. We’re going to read Gen. John A. Lejeune’s birthday message and our current commandant’s message and keep the traditions of the Marine Corps alive."