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As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit wraps up its four-month offensive in Afghanistan, Army Maj. Gen. Eric Olsen praised the Marines as "the best this place has ever seen."

As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit wraps up its four-month offensive in Afghanistan, Army Maj. Gen. Eric Olsen praised the Marines as "the best this place has ever seen." (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit wraps up its four-month offensive in Afghanistan, Army Maj. Gen. Eric Olsen praised the Marines as "the best this place has ever seen."

As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit wraps up its four-month offensive in Afghanistan, Army Maj. Gen. Eric Olsen praised the Marines as "the best this place has ever seen." (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

Although the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit will soon begin its return to the United States from Afghanistan, many of the Marines will turn around within months for duty in Iraq.

Although the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit will soon begin its return to the United States from Afghanistan, many of the Marines will turn around within months for duty in Iraq. (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

Capt. Paul Merida of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Battalion Landing Team 1/6 prepares his Marines for upcoming duty in Iraq even as the unit is wrapping up combat operations in Afghanistan.

Capt. Paul Merida of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Battalion Landing Team 1/6 prepares his Marines for upcoming duty in Iraq even as the unit is wrapping up combat operations in Afghanistan. (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Many Marines of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit will barely get a chance to clean off the dust from Afghanistan before they find themselves chewing on Iraqi sand.

Even with their six-month Afghanistan deployment extended by a month so they could continue their push through southern Afghanistan, many Marines said they have to prepare now for their next tour.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Col. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., commander of the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 22nd MEU. “This has all happened since Iraq’s last flare-up,” McKenzie said. “Everything is in a state of flux.”

Each of the Marine Corps’ seven MEUs are task forces that bring together infantry, artillery, aviation, logistics and other units into one 2,300-strong package.

Even McKenzie’s own headquarters will likely be thrown back into the mix sooner rather than later.

“I think we’ll be out sometime next year,” McKenzie said. Of the three MEUs based at Camp Lejeune, the 24th MEU is already in Iraq and the 26th MEU will hand off with the 24th as it returns to port.

“Unless they accept a gap, which is possible, we’ll go early,” McKenzie said.

But there’s no doubt for many within the MEU.

The MEU’s 800-strong light infantry contingent — 1st Battalion, 6th Marines — has already been told to expect to ship out to Iraq within five months after it returns home in September.

Usually, Marines returning from overseas deployments get 12 to 18 months before pushing back out again. But not these days.

“That’s all out the window now,” said Capt. Paul Merida, commander of 1st Battalion’s Company C. “We’re spread pretty thin. If something were to happen somewhere else, I don’t know who we’d send.”

Complicating matters is the fact that 1st Battalion will lose about half of its Marines once it returns from Afghanistan.

Of the 800 Marines in the unit, said Command Sgt. Maj. Tom Hall, “only 412 will deploy to Iraq with us.” The rest will move to new duty assignments or get out of the Marine Corps.

“We’re going to lose a lot of our small unit leaders,” said Merida, adding that many will not be replaced by Marines of equal rank and experience.

Instead, officials anticipate receiving only an influx of fresh recruits straight from boot camp. And most of those will probably come after the new year.

“That’s only going to give us about two months to get them trained and ready for combat before we leave for Iraq,” said Merida. “It’s going to be tough.”

Meanwhile, he added, junior Marines in the unit will have to step up and fill those key leadership roles.

“It’s entirely possible that we’ll see squads being led by lance corporals,” a position usually reserved for sergeants, two ranks higher.

Combat experience from Afghanistan will help mitigate that, said Merida, but will only go so far.

That’s why, even as the MEU is beginning its withdrawal, leaders like Merida have begun training for Iraq.

Pep talk

“Look around,” Merida told a group of his Marines in the middle of training this weekend in a corner of Kandahar’s heat-baked airfield. “The guys that are going to lead this platoon in Iraq are sitting right here, right now. You’re it.

“Whether this unit is successful in Iraq or not depends on what you do between now and the next few months,” Merida said. “Because once those recruits get off the busses from the School of Infantry, it’s going to be too late.”

The Marines — some less than two years out of high school — nodded their heads solemnly.

“It’s not just about taking care of yourself any more. You’ve got to start thinking about how you’re going to lead four, maybe 12 other Marines,” said Merida. “You’ve got to get your [expletive] together now, because that’s what it’s going to take to bring you and them home alive.”

Lance Cpl. William Yarborough cradled his assault rifle, listening intently, a gold cross poking awkwardly out of the collar of desert fatigues, the words “Death Dealer” tattooed onto his right arm in rolling black script.

“It’s going to be hard getting everyone prepared,” he said later. He thinks he’ll be ready, though, to take over a squad when his time comes.

“I’m just going to give my Marines the hardest time they’ve ever had in their lives and do whatever I can to take care of them,” he said. “We’ll be ready.”

Preparations

To help Marines like Yarborough get ready, leaders are preparing a slew of classes as the MEU makes its way back to a three-ship armada off Kuwait in the coming days for the long trip through the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic.

“When we get to Kuwait, we’re going to really turn the heat up with a very intensive training schedule,” said battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Hall.

And the Marines shouldn’t expect to see Camp Lejeune much once they return.

Exercises are already slated at Fort Bragg, N.C., in November, followed by maneuvers in California.

“Out of the five months between our deployments, we’ll be gone about two and half months,” said Hall. “We don’t have time to mess around.”


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