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Essex ARG Picks Up 31st MEU for Journey Home

Navy NewsStand

Story Number: NNS050303-03
Release Date: 3/3/2005 1:26:00 PM

By Chief Journalist (SW/AW) Christina Johnson, USS Essex Public Affairs

USS ESSEX (NNS) -- Ships from USS Essex (LHD 2) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), Essex, USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) and USS Juneau (LPD 10), began the backload of 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) personnel following their five months of combat operations in Iraq, Feb. 27.

The Essex ARG, with the embarked 31st MEU, arrived in the Persian Gulf Sept. 9 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The members of 31st MEU originally thought they were going into Kuwait for training and ended up staying for several months.

"Five months ago, we put 31st MEU ashore for what was supposed to be 30 days of training and operations," said Commander, Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11, Capt. Mark Donahue. "Now five months later, we are welcoming them back from extended combat operations."

Feb. 28, the initial group of 31st MEU personnel arrived on Essex via Landing Craft, Utility (LCU) 1627. Once they left the well deck, the Marines and attached Navy hospital corpsmen were greeted in the ship's hangar bay with huge 'Welcome back 31st MEU' signs, a hot lunch and smiling Sailors. More than 900 Marines came home to Essex the first day of the backload.

"Pride was the feeling of the day," said Essex' Commanding Officer, Capt. Martin J. Keaney. "All over the ship, it was plain to see Iron Gators were excited and ready to welcome back their shipmates from the 31st MEU," said Keaney.

"In my nearly 25 years of active duty, this is one of the most memorable days I have ever experienced," Keaney added.

Unfortunately, all members of 31st MEU did not return to the ARG. Forty-eight Marines and two Navy hospital corpsmen lost their lives during combat operations.

During the last two months, Essex redeployed from the Persian Gulf to join the fourth ship of Amphibious Squadron 11, USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43), in moving nearly 6 million pounds of relief supplies within Sumatra in support of Operation Unified Assistance.

The ability of all four ships of the squadron to be ready and respond quickly to a short notice deployment to the Gulf or for humanitarian relief efforts showcases the surge capabilities of Forward Deployed Naval Forces (FDNF).

"In August, Essex ARG and 31st MEU deployed to the 5th Fleet area of responsibility on five days' notice," explained Donahue.

"In the succeeding six and a half months, the MEU conducted extended combat operations ashore while the Essex, Harpers Ferry and Juneau provided crucial contributions to maritime efforts in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Essex and Fort McHenry provided support for Operation Unified Assistance the past two months," Donahue said. "The timely response and constant readiness of the FDNF made all this possible."

Once the backload is complete, Essex, Harpers Ferry and Juneau will transit back to 7th Fleet and ultimately back home to Sasebo, Japan, completing a successful eight-month deployment.

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