The commanding officers of a team of 2,000 sailors and 2,300 Marines sat down yesterday with reporters from the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service to discuss the challenges and successes of their extended nine-month deployment.
Navy Capt. Arturo Garcia is commodore of the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, and Marine Corps Col. Frank Donovan commands the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The 24th MEU is one of seven Marine units that deploy around the world with Navy amphibious ready groups. Operations for the unit include everything from embassy evacuations, humanitarian relief and disaster response to maritime security missions and amphibious raids.
The Navy-Marine team deployed in March for eight months, but the deployment was extended into late December after an outbreak of violence in November between Israel and Palestinian militants.
The team is distributed across three ships of the amphibious ready group that together occupy what some like to call “7 square acres of U.S. soil anywhere in the world.” The latest deployment took them to Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf and Southwest Asia.
“When we’re off the coast, you’re not just looking at three ships,” Garcia said. The team’s capabilities are equal to a garrison with Marines, an airfield with tactical aircraft, a hospital and an ammunition depot, he added.
“We bring everything we need to support the mission ashore, and we don’t have to rely on permissions from anybody, because we’re operating in international waters,” the commodore said.
The Iwo Jima amphibious ready group includes the amphibious dock-landing ship USS Gunston Hall, the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, the amphibious transport dock ship USS New York, Amphibious Squadron 8, Tactical Air Control Squadron 21, Fleet Surgical Team 4, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22, and Naval Beach Group, which includes Assault Craft Units 2 and 4 and Beachmaster Unit 2.
The 24th MEU includes a battalion landing team, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment; the aviation combat element Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261; and the logistics combat element Combat Logistics Battalion 24.
Highlights of the deployment included participation in exercises with service members from international military services, Garcia noted.
“We got to participate in some interesting exercises with [service members] in Morocco and Jordan,” he said, and had some interaction with “our naval partners in Spain.”
Bilateral exercises and operations in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility included African Lion 2012 with the Moroccan military, Eager Lion 2012 with the Jordanian navy, and the International Mine Countermeasures Exercise 2012 with more than 30 international partners.
Another highlight “was to see all these sailors and Marines come together after an entire [six-month] training cycle and perform so well during a deployment,” Garcia added.
“When we got extended, we were concerned that morale was going to go down, and we were really surprised to see how upbeat they all were, because they wanted to do the mission and help Americans,” he said. “And I think that’s key.”
The team demonstrated the American commitment to the region simply by being there, Garcia said.
“Presence is an important mission that the Navy and the Marine Corps do,” he added, “and by having three ships with the combat power that we have, with the flexibility of missions that we can perform, I think it was one of the more important things that we were able to accomplish during those nine months.”
Donovan said the deployment was exciting, especially during September and October -- after the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya -- when U.S. embassies throughout U.S. Africa Command, Central Command and European Command areas experienced challenges and threats.
“We were lined up and prepared for a number of those contingencies, all with a little different flavor,” the colonel added.
The task force’s capabilities are unique, Donovan pointed out, because “if an embassy is threatened we can go right from our ships to the embassy. Other forces have to go in and secure an airfield or a port and put other things in place -- a heavy logistics footprint.”
But Donovan’s team had to consider assisting Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, 425 nautical miles inland.
“The way we can do that is the ARG-MEU team operating the V-22B [Ospreys] with aerial refueling with our own KC-130J tankers, escorted by our own AVB Harriers [vertical/short takeoff and landing ground-attack aircraft],” Donovan said.
“And waiting for us back on the ship is our Level 2 trauma [center] provided by the commodore and his team, and command and control by his team. No one else can do that,” he said.
For Donovan, one of the team’s success stories occurred in Jordan, a country with severe water scarcity.
“We brought our own water-making capability [and] didn’t buy a single bottle of water on this deployment,” the colonel said. “In Jordan, we made 65,000 gallons of fresh water out of the Gulf of Aqaba -- salt water to fresh water -- for our Marines, without a tie to the host nation.
The capabilities that the ARG-MEU team brings to the fight are in high demand around the world, Donovan added, from U.S. ambassadors, combatant commanders and joint task force commanders.
“They’re looking for a footprint that’s light, that’s flexible, that can go and get the job done and return to the sea and then maneuver to the next spot,” he said. “And I think in the Pacific [region], we are tailor-made for that environment.”