USS NASSAU (LHA-4), Underway -- As the USS Nassau (LHA-4) Amphibious Ready Group steamed out of the Arabian Gulf, members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) looked forward to returning home after eight months away. Throughout the deployment, the MEU experienced a variety of foreign terrain and diverse cultures, challenging training exercises and real world missions - all of which helped prepare them for their ultimate test - Operation Iraqi Freedom.
OIF proved the MEU's effectiveness on many levels. As a relatively small, amphibious unit, the MEU first demonstrated, and then broke the boundaries of its doctrinal capabilities by conducting combat operations over 250 miles inside the Iraqi border. Ultimately, the MEU operated as far north as Al Kut - a city 60 miles south of Baghdad.
Experience played a large part in the 24th MEU (SOC)'s effectiveness in the war. Working with the USS Nassau ARG for a year and a half perfected their ability to ensure safe and efficient offload procedures - a skill that defines an effective ARG and keeps a MEU in business. In addition, the MEU had experience in anti-terrorism, peace support operations, and months of desert warfare training in the Middle East. With a resume like that, it was no surprise that they would successfully participate in the war in Iraq.
While on ship, the 24th MEU received the order to go into Iraq well after preparations had been made to return home. However, within 96 hours of receiving the order to go in, MEU Service Support Group 24 worked with the USS Nassau ARG to facilitate a successful offload of all MEU personnel, cargo, vehicles, and supplies.
Operationally, the MEU assumed their role in Operation Iraqi Freedom would be to support Task Force Tarawa and fill in the gaps left by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division during their push for Baghdad. Yet, operations officers remained flexible, planning for a number of different contingencies.
"I MEF and the 3rd ID pushed so far, so fast, that it left communication and supply lines vulnerable to remaining pockets of resistance," said Capt. Mark Paolicelli, 24th MEU (SOC) Assistant Operations and Fire Support Officer. "We knew we would be used to help secure those vulnerabilities, but we also knew we had to be adaptable from there on out."
A successful offload and convoy brought the MEU to Logistics Support Area Viper in Iraq. After a brief consolidation at Camp Viper, the MEU's Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, pushed forward to Qalat Sukar Airfield, while I MEF continued their advance north. The threat of convoy ambushes along the way was constant and the Marines expected to be engaged by Iraqi paramilitaries, who had already inflicted numerous casualties to I MEF Marines in the town of An Nasiriyah.
"By securing the rear supply lines and lingering pockets of resistance, it allowed I MEF to focus on the more conventional fighting with the Iraqi Army," said Maj. Darrel Benfield, Operations officer, BLT 2/2. "This also meant that we would have to face the unpredictable fighting style that unconventional forces use."
Upon arriving at Camp Viper, the MSSG led a 93-vehicle convoy with the remaining MSSG and Command Element personnel to Qalat Sukar Airfield to establish a command post. The Qalat Sukar Airfield soon became Camp Fenway - the command post of the24th MEU (SOC). From there, the MEU conducted a series of missions that ensured safe supply routes, destroyed Iraqi paramilitaries, and ensured successful peace support operations.
WITHOUT AN ACE
One of the most challenging aspects of the MEU's participation in OIF is the fact that they operated without the support of their Aviation Combat Element. Once the MEU received word to go into Iraq, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 was split up and chopped out to different Marine Aircraft Groups operating inside Iraq to conduct challenging missions of their own.
The AV-8 Harriers were sent to the all-Harrier MAG-13, flying Offensive Air Support (both Close Air Support and Ariel Interdiction) mostly between Baghdad and Tikrit.
Parts of the ACE's Marine Air Control Group Detachment were chopped to MACG-38, where they provided Air Support services to Task Force Tarawa and 1st Marine Division from Al Kut to the Yankee Forward Arming and Refueling Point outside of Baghdad.
Rotary-wing aircraft joined MAG-29, operating from Riverfront Forward Operating Base and the USS Nassau providing Assault Support, Offensive Air Support, and Visual Reconnaissance to both 1st Marine Division and TFT units as well as the UK Division in Basrah. CH-46 Helicopters flew mostly Casualty Evacuations and Assault Support, as well as transporting Enemy Prisoners of War. CH-53 helicopters also conducted Assault Support by carrying water, chow, and ammunition to various units. They were also used to insert an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team to assist in the recovery of the body of an F/A-18 pilot who had been shot down. The UH-1N helicopter performed the utility role, conducting everything from command visits to Cas-Evacs, to route and visual reconnaissance.
Throughout their missions, each type of aircraft received fire - mostly from small arms. None were lost.
"Our only known battle damage was one AH-1 that was hit in the fuselage and in the tail rotor drive shaft," said Maj. Jim Jenkins, Operations Officer, HMM-263. "Marines from a west coast unit took the same part off another aircraft that was more shot up and our aircraft flew again the same day it was hit. It was a great example of the teamwork and mission focus that all the Marines had out there."
"The Harriers received radar indications of threat systems on nearly every sortie, but never had visual indications of a launch," Jenkins added.
One of the first missions that the MEU conducted was the recovery of the body of a Marine from Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 in the town of As Ashatrah. BLT's Fox Company led a successful recovery mission that brought the body of the Marine back home. There were also several raids conducted in the towns of Qalat Sukar, where a former Ba'ath Party headquarters building stood, Al Hay, and Al Rifa.
The biggest conventional threat to the MEU was the position of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division, located 50 miles to the east of Camp Fenway at an airfield in Al Amarah. An attack was soon planned to invade and secure the airfield held by the Iraqis. Riding in the back of Assault Amphibian Vehicles, Echo Co. and other members of the BLT pushed east into the airfield in Al Amarah, only to find the enemy had abandoned it, leaving their tanks and ammunition behind.
Several blocking positions were also set up by the BLT, which helped in detaining over 60 deserters of the Iraqi Army, hundreds of small arms weapons, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The last offensive mission that the 24th MEU (SOC) participated in was the raid on the city of Al Kut. While I MEF headed the push through the city, the MEU set up blocking positions in the most probable routes of retreat. Several detainees and weapons were found this way.
Peace support operations then became the main focus for the MEU. Members of Golf Co. soon began conducting foot and vehicle patrols through the city of Qalat Sukar. This helped in getting additional information about Ba'ath party officials and opened the lines of communication with the citizens. The MEU was able to recover valuable information about the needs of the city. Electricity, food, water, and trash were the main concerns, as well as establishing a local police force.
Throughout the patrols, the Marines still took every precaution to protect themselves from sniper fire and suicide bombers. It took a delicate balance of being cautious and abiding by the Rules of Engagement.
"We never saw a uniformed Iraqi soldier," said Benfield. "Many of the soldiers we came across were deserters in civilian clothing. Our Marines exercised a lot of restraint while operating in a lot of uncertainty. They did a great job of interpreting the ROE."
None of these missions would have been possible without the continued support of the MSSG. Throughout OIF, the MSSG would end up totaling more than 30,000 miles on the road during convoy security missions and supply runs. The MSSG also produced 142, 935 gallons of potable water for the MEU and surrounding units with their two Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units or (ROWPU).
Approximately 10,000 Marines and Sailors stayed hydrated through their efforts.
"There were four hygiene specialists to operate two different ROWPU sites. They did everything I expected them to do because of their prior training," said Capt. Erik Post, Engineer Officer, MSSG 24. "They operated these ROWPUs for 26 days and produced more water than they ever did before. They did an outstanding job."
Additionally, the MSSG performed Humanitarian Assistance missions - cleaning up a school, building a soccer field, leveling birms, fixing ambulances, and training local police forces - all in the vicinity of Qalat Sukar and Al Rifa.
"I think the overall sentiment of the Marines was that they were not ready to go home until they contributed to the war effort," said Capt. Denise Garcia, Operations Officer, MSSG 24. "They just wanted a mission and wanted to know where they could help, above and beyond what is normally asked of them."
Ultimately, the MEU was one of the first units to leave Iraq. After turning over their Area of Operation to the 15th MEU and elements of Task Force Tarawa, the MEU began the retrograde back to Kuwait and then onto the ships. At last, they began the journey home.
"We engaged the enemy on several occasions and, thankfully, we've had no casualties," said Col. Richard Mills, Commanding Officer, 24th MEU (SOC). "Our Aviation Combat Element flew numerous combat missions in support of the I Marine Expeditionary Force and did a superb job. I'm proud of what all my Marines have accomplished here."