MARSEILLE, France -- The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit arrived in Europe this week, completing the first leg of a deployment that will ultimately take the unit’s 2,200 Marines and sailors to the front lines of the Global War on Terror.
The MEU set sail from its home base at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., on June 8, and began making its way across the Atlantic Ocean. After slipping through the Strait of Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea that divides Europe and Africa, the seven ships of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group immediately diverged en route to separate ports stretching from Spain to Italy.
Of the three amphibious-assault ships carrying Marines, the USS Whidbey Island landed first, pulling into Rota, Spain, on June 18. The USS Iwo Jima arrived in the French coastal city of Marseille on June 20, while the USS Nashville was due to make its first stop in Naples, Italy, a day later.
Since the MEU has not yet been assigned a mission, the Marines are scheduled to enjoy several days of liberty before resuming their journey east toward the Central Command theater of operations.
The visits this week are a new experience for many of the MEU’s Marines, roughly half of whom are on their second or third deployment since the invasion of Iraq three years ago.
While port calls were once a common feature of MEU deployments, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the resulting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have reduced their frequency.
In July 2004, when the 24th MEU last deployed, the unit was ordered straight to Iraq. Most of the Marines flew to the Middle East and spent the duration of their seven-month tour south of Baghdad.
“We have an opportunity here that most of our Marines and sailors will never get again, to see a part of the world they’ve only read and heard about,” said Col. Ron Johnson, commander of the 24th MEU. “We’ll stretch our legs, relax and make the most of our brief break, and then we’ll load back up and get ready to do what we all came out here to do.”
While no decision has been made yet on where to commit the MEU, the Marines expect to see action somewhere.
“I’m happy to be in France,” said Lance Cpl. Matthew Lutz, 21, a radio operator assigned to the MEU’s command element. “But I’m anxious to get to the job at hand.”
The Marines have remained busy during the trip across the Atlantic, firing their weapons, practicing their hand-to-hand combat skills, learning the Arabic language, receiving hours of classroom lectures, and conducting daily physical training.
Additionally, the pilots with the MEU’s aviation combat element have flown extensively to maintain their skills at peak proficiency.
The 24th MEU is composed of its command element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced); and MEU Service Support Group 24.