CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - Marines and Sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit bid each other farewell Feb. 4, 2012, as the unit deactivated after spending 17 months together through an extremely busy work-ups and deployment cycle as America’s expeditionary crisis response force.
The 24th MEU returned in December after spending nine months deployed alongside the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, which included the amphibious assault ships USS Iwo Jima, New York and Gunston Hall.
The 2,300 Marines and Sailors deployed as a Marine Air Ground Task Force with organic ground, aviation and logistics components under the control of a command element. But now the MEU components have separated, leaving the 24th MEU as a standing command element of approximately 90 Marines.
“It’s tough to see a team break apart, but the victory in my mind is that we were ready when our nation called,” said Col. Frank Donovan, 24th MEU’s commanding officer. “Across European Command, Central Command, and Africa Command, our Marines and Sailors responded incredibly.”
The Marines and Sailors spent their deployment focused on crisis response as they spread along the Arc of Instability, a chain of interconnected, politically unstable nation states beginning in Africa and extending into the Pacific region.
The unit was the first East Coast-based MEU to complete a grueling 6-month pre-deployment training program in the past three years as it trained to be an expeditionary crisis response force capable of responding to a variety of missions across the range of military operations. The intense training cycle prepared the unit for the ever-changing operational environment while deployed.
“Expeditionary crisis response has been the hallmark of our MEU. It represents our true value to our nation,” said Donovan.
The MEU – “Not a slice of OEF/OIF”
With the drawdown and eventual withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, the Marine Corps’ focus for mission planning and engagement will adjust to a post-OEF/OIF nation.
“We need to be able to have a dedicated crisis response force and the reality is there is no other force in all the Department of Defense that can do what the ARG/MEU team can do. We can sit off of any coast and launch from ship to objective. We don’t need an airport or a seaport, we can go right to the target with a light footprint, get the job done, and get back to the sea with no long-term commitment ashore,” said Donovan.
This light-footprint mentality enabled the 24th MEU to work in multiple locations while retaining the ability to adapt to sudden changes in daily operations. This allowed the unit to remain poised to go whenever and wherever needed.
This point is illustrated by the various missions the 24th MEU took on during the deployment. At one point, the MEU simultaneously conducted training ashore in Djibouti, Kuwait, Jordan and Uganda, all while maintaining its crisis response ability afloat with the Iwo Jima ARG.
Many of the missions allowed the Marines to partner with foreign military forces allowing the Marines to share knowledge with partnered forces as well as gain insight on countries Marines could be called on for potential follow-on missions.
“Any time our Marines can get ashore and learn about the environment it’s a great opportunity. We learn about the roads, the air space, the culture and local forces that we may have to operate with some day in the future,” said Donovan.
Being able to execute so many missions is a testament to the flexibility of the unit and the individual Marine’s and Sailor’s ability to adapt to a mission and get the job done, explained Donovan.
“That’s one unit doing all those things,” he said. “Whatever the missions are, it doesn’t matter. It’s that young Marine who can go ashore, dust the sand off, and say, ‘What’s the mission; I can get the job done.’ They prove their adaptability and flexibility every single day.”
No mission too far
The three ships in the 24th MEU/ARG team spent the latter portion of their deployment off the coasts of Sudan and Yemen preparing to aid U.S. citizens in those countries after a string of protests erupted at embassies throughout the region in the wake of the attack in Benghazi, Libya. While combatant commanders and the Pentagon debated the future of embassies and U.S. citizens abroad, the MEU was ready to go – despite a sudden extension only days from their anticipated homecoming.
The 24th MEU’s diverse capabilities give a combatant commander or U.S. ambassador a lot of options in a crisis. A MEU spends their workup and deployment preparing to respond to multiple crises through combined ground and air support. That is another reason a MEU is uniquely qualified to handle these complex missions.
In the past, physical distance sometimes restricted a MEU’s ability to respond, but the 24th MEU didn’t have that problem. With 22 of their 29 aircraft fitted with aerial refueling probes a MEU’s reach is greatly expanded when coupled with the aerial refueling capability of a KC-130J Hercules.
“The operating range is no longer restricted by how far the aircraft can fly, but the length of a crew day. We can put an MV-22B Osprey up and fly it all day if we had to. We can fly it thousands of miles and we were able to do that on this deployment,” he said.
With an extended maximum operating range, the 24th MEU was able to plan for missions further inland, such as Kartoum, Sudan, where the MEU was poised to rescue U.S. citizens more 400 miles inland.
“It increases our ability to respond to crises,” he continued. “There are not many places we can’t go. If American’s are in trouble or in a crisis, whatever it is, the answer is ‘yes we can.’”
With the deployment behind them the MEU’s command element will remain in a ready status to support various training exercises and will be prepared to serve as a staff if called to support some contingency.
The 24th MEU will grow to a full Marine Air Ground Task Force again early in 2014 as to begin training for its regularly scheduled deployment later that year.