CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit recently received orders to the Middle East, where it will support Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to a Marine news release.

An MEU comprises four elements — command, aviation, ground combat and combat service support — according to 2nd Lt. Antony Andrious, Marine spokesman on Okinawa. He said there are more than 2,000 Marines and sailors in the MEU.

Earlier reports stated that nearly 1,000 Marines from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment — the MEU’s ground combat element — were deploying to the Middle East. Those Marines are based in Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay, but they have been on Okinawa since July under a six-month Unit Deployment Program.

The air combat element of the MEU is Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265, which lost a CH-53D helicopter when it crashed Aug. 13 at Okinawa International University.

Ginowan City officials stated Friday that 17 helicopters — 12 CH-46s, 2 UH-1s and 3 AH-1 Cobras — left Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. They also reported that 16 of the helicopters landed on the USS Essex at White Beach Naval Facility. Marine Corps officials refused to confirm that the helicopters were from HMM-265 or if they were deploying with the MEU.

According to Andrious, the USS Essex out of Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, is transporting the MEU.

The Marines are “still preparing and still loading up” and should be leaving Okinawa sometime over the next week or so, said a Marine Corps official at the Pentagon.

The official said the length of the deployment — usually seven months for Marines — “remains to be seen.”

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