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26th MEU maximizes flexibility during strike group exercise

Marine Corps News

Story Identification #: 200512514372
Story by Gunnery Sgt. Mark E. Bradley

ABOARD USS KEARSARGE (Jan. 26, 2005) -- Since the focus of the Expeditionary Strike Group Exercise transitioned from Naval missions at sea to Marine Corps missions ashore last week, the Marines and Sailors of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit have stepped to the forefront of operations here proving at every turn the effectiveness and flexibility of the Navy Marine Corps team.

In this training and evaluation scenario, carefully crafted by the Marines from II Marine Expeditionary Force’s Special Operations Training Group to stretch the 26th MEU to its operational limits, troops here have been conducting missions around the clock.

The missions have ranged from low-intensity humanitarian operations to full-scale combat raids in a foreign region wrought with internal fighting and terrorist activity. Mission planners have used the Marine expeditionary unit’s signature “rapid response planning process” to plan and launch these missions in less than six hours after notification.

Actions ashore began shortly after the Kearsarge Expeditionary Strike Group, including its compliment of Marines and Sailors from the MEU Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Bn. 8th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-162 and MEU Service Support Group-26 arrived off the coast of North Carolina from its previous exercise position near Florida.

The MEU had already dispatched a small team of Marines known as the forward command element (FCE) to the simulated U.S. embassy at Stone Bay, here. The FCE made liaison with the U.S. ambassador to determine what support the MEU could provide in the region.

This important aspect of the strike group exercise insures the MEU is trained to conduct operations abroad that coincide with the objectives and sensitivities of host-nation governments.
The MEU first inserted reconnaissance and surveillance teams from BLT 2/8 to monitor a suspected terrorist command and control node near Marine Corps Air Station New River. Scout Sniper teams were also sent to Bogue Field, N.C., to identify a possible weapons cache there.

As the Marines gathered intelligence, the BLT used Task Force Sledge Hammer, a lethal and mobile force comprised of elements from the Combined Anti-Armor Team, Light-Armored Reconnaissance team, and the 81mm mortar platoon, to establish a stronghold on Onslow Beach that would serve as the forward operating base for the rest of the exercise.

The MEU next capitalized on its integrated air and ground assets to launch a precision raid at the New River terrorist node with the Maritime Special Purpose Force. A motorized raid with BLT’s Echo Company that destroyed the weapons cache at Bogue Field followed.

As the exercise scenario played out, security at the embassy began to deteriorate and each mission began overlapping the next, making planning and execution more difficult. Elements of BLT 2/8 were dispatched to reinforce the embassy.

From USS Ponce, MSSG-26 pushed ashore to the forward operating base to start preparation for a humanitarian assistance camp it would later establish at Camp Davis. This mission was to provide food and shelter for civilians left homeless due to the ongoing violence in the area that began before the MEU’s arrival.

Things were just heating up. When more intelligence indicated another suspected terrorist site at Combat Town on Camp Lejeune, reconnaissance and surveillance Marines were again sent in to confirm the information and pave the way for another raid. This time, the raid came from Fox Company, the MEU’s mechanized vehicle company.

As the security situation continued to get worse, an improvised explosive device exploded near the gate of the humanitarian assistance camp resulting in several casualties. The MSSG medical staff conducted a massive casualty drill evacuating the casualties to USS Kearsarge for advanced medical treatment.

When one of the helicopters involved in the casualty evacuation went down with maintenance problems, the MEU dispatched a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) mission using HMM-162 air assets and technicians. The Marines repaired the helicopter on the ground then flew it back to USS Kearsarge. Ground troops from Echo Company provided security.

As the exercise continued, the embassy was attacked by mortar fire and the State Department gave the order for a non-combatant evacuation operation of American citizens and third-country nationals in the region, testing another of the Navy Marine Corps Teams capabilities. The civilians were evacuated from the HA site and the embassy. They were brought back to USS Kearsarge where transportation was arranged to their final destinations. Navy and Marine role players acted as the civilians.

In the final evaluated event in the exercise, the MEU launched a helicopter raid on a terrorist target in Fort Pickett, Va., after a “Recon” team there reported enemy activity. The MEU relied on the long-range transport capability of HMM-162 to get the Marines of 2/8’s Golf Company to the fight.

Although the execution of this final raid was dependent upon the reach of the MEU’s aviation combat element helicopters, success throughout each mission conducted during ESGEX was largely due to the support by air. The Marines of HMM-162 worked day and night to ensure aircraft were able to provide support in every mission. CH-46E Sea Knights, CH-53E Super Stallions, UH-1N Hueys, AH-1W Cobras and AV-8B Harriers were constantly overhead providing close-air support to the troops on the ground and getting Marines and equipment where they needed to be to carry out operations.

The 26th MEU commander, Col. Thomas F. Qualls said he was impressed beyond his expectations during the exercise by not only the “blue-green team” integration, but also by “the flexibility and inherent drive to succeed” that he saw demonstrated by the Marines and Sailors of the MEU.

Despite this success of the exercise however, Qualls recognizes there is always room to improve before a deployment.

“We are a great team, and we have our challenges. But the bottom line is, we are getting better and better and we are going to be damn ready to take this fight to the enemy,” he said.
The ESGEX is the final at-sea training period for the 26th MEU prior to the “Special Operations Capable” certification exercise (CERTEX) scheduled next month.

Though there is no clear picture of exactly what the 26th MEU will be called to do or where it will go during its scheduled deployment, every Marine and Sailor here continues to prepare for any mission that may be assigned.

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