MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, stepped off USS Iwo Jima and on to Onslow Beach, Camp Lejeune, N.C., today as Special Purpose Marine Air/Ground Task Force St. Bernard’s Parish concluded operations in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The desire for a federal response to the catastrophe became apparent when estimates of the damage caused by Katrina began to trickle in. Much of New Orleans, which lies several feet below sea level, was flooded when a storm-related surge of water caused Lake Pontchartrain to overwhelm the levee system designed to shield the city and its surrounding towns from the large body of water. The resulting deluge of water submerged much of the area. Cities north of the lake also felt the hurricane’s wrath when the storm surge swamped them in nearly five feet of water.
The destruction was widespread and varied. Electricity, water service and other utilities were crippled. Homes were blown apart and water-logged by the gusting winds and flood tide. The financial toll on the region, as well as the nation as a whole, was severe. Most importantly, the cost in lives is still being tallied.
Less than 12 hours after receiving the order, the infantry battalion recalled its leathernecks, who had been given a four-day weekend in observance of Labor Day. Beirut Battalion then shifted gears from pre-deployment training to a humanitarian-assistance mission very broad in scope, said Lt. Col. Scott Alley, commanding officer, 1/8.
The battalion began major relief and recovery operations September 6 in Slidell, La. The unit projected its forces from there, using a furniture warehouse, donated by a local merchant, as a base of operations.
Companies within the battalion, as well as E Battery, 2nd Battalion, 10th Marines, and a detachment of combat engineers from 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, were deployed to areas within Slidell as well as to Picayune, Miss., and Michoud, La.
The battalion, known as “Beirut Battalion,” distributed hundreds of Meals, Ready-to-Eat and assisted in the cleanup of thousands of homes and municipal buildings, said Master Sgt. Donald L. Funkhouser, battalion operations chief.
The battalion coordinated its efforts with state and local authorities throughout the mission, said Capt. Chris R. Kotlinski, battalion air officer.
“We assured the priorities established by the mayor of Slidell were identified and tasked by the battalion,” said Kotlinski.
These priorities were handled with the decidedly civic nature of the mission in mind.
“We had to ensure that the infrastructure of the city was up and running prior to citizens of Slidell returning to their homes,” he said.
The task of clearing out homes and providing other humanitarian assistance within the United States presented a unique set of laws to the Marines. Federal troops are bound by strict regulations in relation to deploying within the nation’s borders. Title 10 and Title 32 of the United States Code outline the specific procedures state National Guard and federal forces must follow when operating in such a capacity, said Capt. Steve B. Kahn, battalion operations officer.
“I think the education of Marines on Title 10 and Title 32 has been a huge lesson in civics and history,” said Kahn.
The Marines had a notable visit during their time here. “Full Metal Jacket” drill instructor and retired gunnery sergeant R. Lee Ermy visited the Marines for a segment on his cable television show.
Once Hurricane Rita, a category 5 storm, was identified and plotted as heading towards the city of Michoud, in which the battalion had set up a base of operations, the Marines embarked on USS Iwo Jima and rode out the storm there. After the damage had been assessed and no request for assistance from the Marines of 1/8 was made, the Iwo Jima set sail for its home port of Norfolk, Va., with a stop here to disembark the leathernecks.
Upon returning to Camp Lejeune, 1/8 will resume training in preparation for their 2006 deployment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit.