Four hundred Marines and sailors crammed onto the USS Harpers Ferry about a month ago on an annual deployment that’s anything but routine.

Landing Force Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (LF CARAT), launched from Okinawa late last month, already has made an appearance in Thailand.

Throughout the summer, while others take in the sun at local beaches, these Marines will slog through steaming jungles and sail the shores of regions known to harbor al-Qaida.

For some, it promises to be the deployment of a lifetime.

Landing Force CARAT is in Southeast Asia, visiting countries allied with the United States, including Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

“This organization brings with it a whole host of capabilities,” said Marine Lt. Col. Timothy T. Armstrong, LF CARAT’s commanding officer. “The Landing Force will support stability, good will and regional dialogue by interacting with host nation military, government and populace on personal and professional levels, and by using medical, dental, civic action and community-relation projects as appropriate.”

The 400 Marines are toting a boatload of gear.

Stacked in the holds of the Harpers Ferry are light-armored and amphibious-assault vehicles, trucks and Humvees, refuelers and water purifiers.

The unit is built around an infantry rifle company — Company I of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, which left for a six-month stint.

The company is joined by platoons of engineers, reconnaissance Marines, maintenance Marines and logisticians, as well as a “beefed-up Health Services Team,” according to Armstrong, for a slew of planned medical and dental outreach programs.

In a region that’s suffered direct strikes by al-Qaida operatives, the presence of Marines and sailors, more than the hardware they bring, is seen by some as likely to have more impact in stemming terrorism.

“I personally think it is even more important than ever before that we continue to conduct bilateral training with countries in Southeast Asia,” Armstrong said.

“Exercises like CARAT allow us to go out to these countries and put out the message that ‘we are the good guys.’

“In my opinion, the more we can put this message out, the better off we will be in shaping the asymmetric battlefield in support of the global war on terrorism.”

But the deployment won’t be all handshakes and filling cavities.

Marines are scheduled to train in premier jungle and urban complexes along the way, environments not available on Okinawa.

The deployment also gives small-unit leaders an opportunity to trade ideas with other nations’ militaries, according to Sgt. Maj. Walter L. Howell, LF CARAT’s senior enlisted Marine.

“For example, the Royal Brunei Land Force has asked us to present an NCO symposium,” Howell said. “This symposium will allow us to present and discuss the leadership issues surrounding the role of the NCO.”

Marine Pfc. Joshua Miller, 19, making his first deployment with LF CARAT, sees the various stops as a chance to hone his own skills while learning those of allies.

“I haven’t done too much in terms of combined-arms training, so this will be a good experience for me,” the infantry rifleman said. “I also look forward to seeing how we will work with other militaries and learn more about their tactics and procedures.”

Lance Cpl. Blake Lopez, a 23-year-old reservist on active duty and an LF CARAT scout in the Light Armored Reconnaissance Platoon, had no chance to visit exotic ports-of-call until now.

“Many of us never dreamed that we would be visiting Singapore or Brunei, so I can’t wait to get there and learn about these countries,” Lopez said.

“CARAT is a unique experience for me because I will be training with active-duty Marines and I will have a chance to pick their brains for tips and tidbits about how they operate, so that will help me build my skills as an LAR scout.”

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