MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The Marines and Sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit have been there, done that, and secured the T-Shirt. They arrived home after a six-month deployment sporting a list of accomplishments that reads like pre-fight introductions for a heavyweight champion -- 14 countries in 6 months; Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; First–of-it’s-kind training exercise with Pakistani Marines; Four trips through the Suez Canal; Largest ever evacuation of American civilians from foreign shores. They’ve been around the world, fought the good fight, only to discover that there’s no place like home.
Throughout the weekend, helicopters and landing craft delivered the majority of the 2,200 smiling MEU Marines from the USS Iwo Jima – the largest of the seven naval vessels of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group – to their eager friends, families and loved ones waiting aboard MCB Camp Lejeune, N.C. On Monday, nearly 700 Marines aboard the amphibious ships USS Whidbey Island and USS Nashville arrived in Morehead City, N.C., before reuniting with their families at Camp Lejeune later that day.
“We’re thrilled to be coming home,” said the MEU commander, Col. Ron Johnson of Duxbury, Mass. “It’s been another historic deployment for the 24th MEU. We were able to do a little bit of everything, from humanitarian assistance to bilateral training exercises to combat operations. We come away with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.”
The MEU left Camp Lejeune, N.C., on June 8, after a hectic and challenging six-month pre-deployment work-up schedule that had Marines preparing for some two dozen possible missions -- with Marines expecting to return to Iraqi battlefields where most of them had already served at least one tour.
After a series of visits to Mediterranean ports throughout Europe, the ships of the ESG moved through the Suez Canal on July 4, officially entering the Central Command area of operations. During the MEU’s first stop in Jordan, their bilateral training exercise alongside Jordanian forces was cut short by the summer’s crisis in nearby Lebanon.
When fighting broke out on July 12 between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah, the MEU raced to Lebanon to assist in the departure of some 15,000 Americans caught in the crossfire – a mission registered as the largest-ever evacuation of American civilians from a foreign country. The two week operation showcased the MEU’s rapid response to unexpected hostilities and illustrated the competing requirements and risks that must be weighed when deciding where to commit a MEU, explained Johnson.
“Had we gone straight to Iraq, the nation’s most versatile rapid-response force – the very unit created to deal immediately with unforeseen crises – would have been unavailable,” he said. “And, had the MEU not been so quick to respond, an otherwise manageable problem could have turned into a debacle.”
After four days of training in the East African nation of Djibouti in late August, the MEU made its way across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan, where it spent 10 days in September supporting a bilateral exercise with Pakistani naval forces. Though the U.S. Navy has been training with its Pakistani counterparts for three years, this was the first exercise involving both U.S. and Pakistani Marines.
According to Johnson, such regional engagement exercises are vital in demonstrating U.S. commitment to key partners in the War on Terror.
“Victory in the long struggle against Islamic extremism will require allies in the Arab world, and the investment we made in Jordan and Pakistan will pay dividends later on.”
As the MEU trained in Pakistan, it sent its AV-8B Harriers north into Afghanistan to support NATO forces battling a resurgent Taliban near Kandahar. The jump jets flew 136 combat sorties in 13 days, dropping 17 precision-guided bombs and firing nearly 500 rounds from their 25 mm cannons.
By early October, the MEU had moved into the Arabian Gulf. The Marines would spend most of the month in Kuwait, conducting training and serving as a reserve force for coalition commanders in Iraq. During their stay, the Harriers were again summoned, this time to support British forces operating near Basra in southern Iraq. Marines would also participate in the training of newly minted Iraqi Marines in high-profile port security operations near Umm Qasr, Iraq.
In mid-October, a detachment of Marines from Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment – the MEU’s ground combat element – flew to western Iraq to support Marine forces in the deadly Anbar province.
It was there that the MEU suffered its only casualties of the deployment. Corporal Gary A. Koehler, a 21-year-old assaultman from Ypsilanti, Mich., was killed by a roadside bomb on Nov. 1. A Navy corpsman was injured in the blast.
“The hardest part is knowing that he’s not coming back with you,” said Cpl. Lee Wadsworth, a Wayland, N.Y., native and sniper with BLT 1/8 who served with Koehler in Iraq. “You’re so used to having him there that when he’s not you really feel the loss.”
On Nov. 8, the Iwo Jima ESG slipped through the Suez Canal for the fourth and final time during the deployment. After brief port calls in Italy and France, the ships headed west for home, arriving just in time for the holiday season.
“I’ve been counting the days since we started on this deployment,” said Cpl. Christopher C. Cunningham, a motor transport section chief from Chariton, Iowa, who reunited with his wife, Abby, on Sunday. “Being away from the person you love, it’s always hard and I don’t know if it’ll get any easier. But this one’s finally over and it’s another one down.”
“I had all these butterflies, I was so excited,” explained Abby. “I finally get to touch him and not just hear a voice on the phone.”
They’ve been there and done that and came home heavyweight champs. For many, this Christmas will be there first at home in years and is an irreplaceable gift made priceless because it was earned through the hard work of Marines and the support of their families at home – support essential to the continued success of the 24th MEU and its role in helping win the Global War on Terrorism.
The 24th MEU consists of its command element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced); and MEU Service Support Group 24.