Marines stretch sea legs as Afghanistan winds down
By HENDRICK SIMOES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 12, 2014
As the U.S. military concludes its mission in Afghanistan and the Marine Corps is in the midst of reducing its current active-duty strength, many Marines are wondering what their postwar role will be.
Some Marines believe the Corps is heading back to its traditional sea roots — Marine Expeditionary Units deploying with Navy Amphibious Ready Groups.
The 22nd MEU, with about 2,400 Marines, is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. It’s a sea-based crisis-response force capable of performing a variety of missions.
An ARG, as it’s commonly called, is always on watch in the Middle East. Much of its time is usually spent on partnering with other nations and conducting exercises, as it did recently in Djibouti.
The Marine Corps has seven MEUs for crisis response.
Officials say the Marines never left the sea, and that it’s simply a mathematical deception that leads some to think the Corps is shifting focus from land missions to sea missions.
There are always Marines at sea, said Brig. Gen. Gregg Olson, commander of Task Force 51/59 and in charge of the amphibious forces deployed to U.S. 5th Fleet, but “a greater percentage of the Marine Corps... was deployed ashore. We had 30,000 Marines in Afghanistan. Day to day at sea we have about 2,500 Marines on one of the expeditionary units.”
Olson pointed out that since 2001 the ARG and MEU have responded to crises and natural disasters worldwide — for example, by providing typhoon relief in the Philippines and flood relief in Pakistan.
“We have always been oriented on crisis response, and always have been fundamentally naval,” said Olson.
Nonetheless, in the past decade of war, a generation of Marines has come of age with vastly different experiences than the generations before. Lt. Heath Taylor, a chaplain aboard the USS Gunston Hall, was a Marine from 1994 to 1998. He’s noticed that today’s gunnery sergeants are telling different stories than those told by their pre-9/11 predecessors, who enthralled junior Marines with tales of sea deployments. Now, “gunnys” are telling combat stories, said Taylor. “We’ve got these people who have been in 15-plus years that have the traditional seafairing roots, but then you’ve got this 10-year window where people really didn’t go to sea very much.”
On the beach in Djibouti more Marines from the 22nd MEU come ashore via a landing craft from the Gunston Hall. Sgt. Matthew Willingham, a water-support technician, works feverishly to set up a water purification system on the beach. The system will turn sea water into drinking water for the thirsty Marines establishing the base camp, where they will spend about two weeks participating in the exercise.
Willingham has purified water many times before — in Afghanistan. As part of an MEU, it’s still a new experience for him. In Afghanistan it was a constant routine, he said. “It feels like, with the MEU, it’s more unexpected, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen at any time.”
Willingham believes there is a perception within the ranks that the Marines are returning to their sea roots. At his prior unit, in Okinawa, going to an MEU was the buzz among Marines, he said. “Everybody wants to be on the MEU; they hear all the stories that you get to travel, you get to meet new people, just the constant changes and challenges.”
Olson said: “Most of our young enlisted folks joined since 9/11; they joined a Marine Corps at war. They wanted to go and contribute to that effort.”
As the war effort winds down, he said, that sentiment is changing.
“The place where the excitement is, is deployed,” Olson said. “And one of the ways to get forward deployed is to do so on an amphibious ship.”
But it’s not the only way. The Marines are forming special-purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Forces to provide a broad crisis-response capability to places like Africa.
“There will be continued opportunities for young men and women who want to join the Marine Corps to be part of something exciting and see the world,” said Olson.
Fresh off a landing craft from the USS Gunston Hall, U.S. Marines await orders on where to set up on the beach in Djibouti. The Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are participating in an exercise, April 15,2014.
HENDRICK SIMOES/STARS AND STRIPES