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Reserves Return from Historic South American Deployment

Marine Corps News


Story by Staff Sgt. Sam Kille, MARFOR Unitas PAO

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.(December 4, 2002) -- There were those who doubted whether or not it could be done. After all, reserves are merely weekend warriors. Right?

Wrong. With stops in 11 Latin American countries and six, intense, bilateral exercises under their belts, the nearly 300 reserve Marines who took part in the amphibious phase of Unitas 43-02 shattered myths and proved their value as an integral part of the Corps' total force principle, before returning here Dec. 3.

"Unitas was a highly successful deployment in which our Marines and Sailors performed magnificently," said Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Hattey, the commanding officer of Marine Forces Unitas. "These Marines are coming back from this deployment with some special skills that drilling reserves don't normally acquire."

Latin for unity, Unitas is an annual, multinational series of training exercises with the maritime forces of several Latin American nations. Since 1981, U.S. Marines have participated in Unitas, helping to improve international relations in the southern hemisphere while promoting democracy and hemispheric defense. This year marked the first use of reserves, who are providing operational tempo relief to II Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Camp Lejeune.

According to Hattey, who left behind his position as a police officer in San Jose, Calif., to command the unit, the use of reserves in this capacity has bolstered the Corps' capabilities for future missions.

"We have developed a unique manner by which the Marine Reserve can contribute to the ongoing missions of the active duty component, and we have done it well," Hattey said. "Our Marines will return to their units with years' worth of experience--as well as sea stories--that will assist in retention and 'volunteerism' for future operational relief exercises."

The active duty Marines of II MEF agree.

"They stepped up to the plate and hit a home run for us," said Col. David Mauldin, Chief of Staff, II MEF. "With little time to prepare, they stood up and took a real world mission off our hands--providing valuable operational relief for our active duty Marines."

The four-month long deployment began July 23 when Marine Forces Unitas loaded busses here, bound for Morehead City, N.C., to embark aboard the USS Portland (LSD-37), a dock landing ship based at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va.

Once onboard, the Marines conducted pre-deployment training in Onslow Bay, N.C., prior to steaming to Little Creek to load supplies for the cruise. They departed Little Creek, Aug. 5--willing, ready and able to forge new ground.

"Every new country brought us a new opportunity," said Reserve Sgt. Russ Gordon, a reconnaissance team leader, who left behind a job as the manager of a fishery in Yakutat, Alaska, for the float. "Being reserves, we usually train at the same places, doing the same old things. Down there, every beach meant a different reef, a different obstacle. Plus, there is only so much training you can do during a weekend drill. There, we were able to work every asset and learned something new everyday--whether we realized it or not."

Through the course of their travels, MARFOR Unitas trained in every environment imaginable--from white, sandy beaches in the Caribbean, to steamy jungles in the Amazonian Basin; from barren deserts along the Pacific Coast, to the snow-capped mountains of the Andes. Their experiences were highly educational.

"The deployment provided us excellent training and a wealth of knowledge," said Reserve Lance Cpl. Scott Kasules, a machine gunner, and a special education teacher assistant from Elgin, Ill. "The more we did, the better we got. The training was the closest one could get to combat without actually being in combat--in today's world, that is more important than ever."

A highlight for many of the Marines was the exchange of ideas and tactics with the host nation military forces, which included the Marines of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

"Exercises like this (with foreign nations) not only give us a better understanding of how others operate in combat, but helps to destroy stereotypes that both nations have," said Reserve Lance Cpl. Jason Juarez, infantryman, and a sophomore at the University of Texas in San Antonio. "Through this, we can relate to each other much better."

Many of the host nation Marines agreed. One such Marine was Cadet Jorge Raos, from Medellin, Colombia. During the Colombian Bilateral, Raos, and fellow future Marine officers from the Colombian Naval Academy, received training on the employment of the M-240G machinegun. Raos was genuinely enthused about the training he received.

"This was very good training for the Colombian Marines; we really needed to learn these techniques," Raos said. "I hope we get to participate in Unitas every year with the U.S. Marines--they are the best in the world."

Training aside, the deployment also exposed the Marines and Sailors to a world few Americans get to see. In the Dominican Republic, they stood on the site where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World. In Colombia, many helped renovate a school in an impoverished village. In Ecuador, they bought Incan influenced souvenirs. In Peru, they broke bread with locals, and were entertained by traditional dancers. In Chile, a number took advantage of various tours. The Marines even had the opportunity to mix culture and tradition when they celebrated the Corps' 227th birthday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"This deployment has been a real eye-opener," said Reserve Lance Cpl. Rory Thornton, a machine gunner from Nahant, Mass. "I was able to see some of the most beautiful places in the world. I thought it might be a little strange being an American there, but the people are very genuine, absolutely friendly."

The Marines and Sailors also gained a greater appreciation for life in the United States.

"When you see how little these people have, you realize how lucky we are to live in a wealthy nation," said Reserve Maj. Rod Long, commanding officer of the unit's Ground Combat Element, and a corporate recruiter in Houston, Texas. "Even an MRE (meal ready to eat) looks different after seeing how little they have. It's a lot harder to complain about the little things now."

With the deployment now behind them, the reserve Marines will return home to the daily grind of their civilian lives--just in time for the holidays. And though they will resume the lives they put on hold to deploy with Marine Forces Unitas, they will be even more prepared to answer the call the next time they are needed.

Weekend warriors they are not.

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