CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- After a history-making four years at the helm of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Col. Ron Johnson relinquished command to Col. Peter Petronzio in a ceremony here April 26.
Nearly three hundred family members, Marines and other well-wishers gathered along the New River on a beautiful spring afternoon to watch as Johnson handed the unit’s colors to Petronzio, a time-honored ritual symbolizing the passage of authority and responsibility.
In his farewell remarks, Johnson paid tribute to the Marines he was “privileged to lead,” honoring in particular the 16 Marines the MEU lost during the course of two overseas deployments.
“If you just look at their faces, those are probably the best-looking guys that America had to offer,” he said. “I knew each and every one of them personally.”
Johnson’s high-energy tenure at the 24th MEU included a seven-month tour in Iraq, recovery efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and the evacuation of Americans from war-torn Lebanon last summer.
He took over the 24th MEU in June 2003, immediately following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. During the drive to Baghdad, Johnson served as the operations officer for the Camp Lejeune-based 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which formed the bulk of Task Force Tarawa.
The task force briefly encompassed the 24th MEU, which had deployed separately in the fall of 2002 and was sent to Iraq in April 2003.
The 24th MEU returned to Iraq in June 2004. The unit’s seven-month tour spanned one of the more turbulent junctures in the long campaign to stabilize the country.
Through scores of direct-action raids, hundreds of cordon-and-knock searches, and thousands of patrols and vehicle checkpoints, the MEU gradually thinned insurgent ranks in northern Babil and southern Baghdad provinces and chipped away at their supply of weapons. Working alongside Iraqi security forces, the Marines rounded up nearly 900 criminals, thugs and terrorists and seized more than 75,000 munitions.
In the end, while area militants had not yet lost their will to fight, they had lost steam. After several months of steadily growing activity, insurgent attacks fell by 20 percent in December 2004 and nearly 50 percent in January 2005. The historic national election on Jan. 30, 2005, drew 72 percent of eligible voters, a stunning turnout in a region home to both Shia and Sunni Muslims.
On Aug. 29, 2005, as the 24th MEU prepared to begin its next round of pre-deployment workups, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, overwhelming the capacity of local and state resources to deal with the disaster.
As II MEF’s Alert Contingency Marine Air-Ground Task Force, the 24th MEU quickly deployed to support the fledgling recovery efforts. Within two weeks, the Marines had searched more than 5,000 homes; rescued 610 stranded residents; transported nearly 1,500 other displaced citizens; delivered two million pounds of supplies; and cleared debris from more than 1,000 homes, schools, and municipal buildings.
In the summer of 2006, the 24th MEU expected to return in full to Iraq, where most of its Marines had served at least one tour.
When fighting erupted in Lebanon on July 12 between Israel and the militant group Hezbollah, the MEU raced from a training exercise in the Jordanian desert to assist in the departure of some 15,000 Americans caught in the crossfire. It was the largest-ever evacuation of American civilians from a foreign country.
“The Marines and sailors have performed absolutely superbly in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan,” said Johnson. “It demonstrated the flexibility of the MEU. It’s held up to its reputation.”
Johnson will soon depart Camp Lejeune, where he has spent most of his 28-year career, for Washington. Recently selected for promotion to brigadier general, he will next become the Marine Corps’ director of operations.
Petronzio, formerly the operations officer for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, thanked the Marines and sailors of the MEU and declared it “an honor” to assume command.
“You will have everything I have to offer, and I will give it to you every day, at every opportunity. I look forward to serving with you.”