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Gearing up: 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit prepares to deploy.

An estimated 600 combat-armed Leathernecks and sailors from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are scheduled early this month to prowl through the streets and waterways of Savannah, Ga., as part of an intense training regimen that almost certainly will lead to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The unit is in Savannah to conduct two weeks of training in an urban environment, which is designed to prepare the unit to operate in cities, towns and villages when they deploy in the fall.

The 22nd, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will complete its training sometime in September or early October with a certification exercise, dubbed CERTEX, off the coast of North Carolina. That event will be designed to determine whether the MEU is "special-operations capable," or SOC, explained the unit's commander, Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.

"I personally spend a lot of time training to meet that standard," said McKenzie, who has commanded the 22nd since Oct. 2002. The unit recently returned from a 2004 deployment to Afghanistan.

The two exercises, like much of the unit's training, will be overseen and evaluated by the II Marine Expeditionary Force's Special Operations Training Group. This unit, also headquartered at Lejeune, doesn't try to turn Marines into special operators, like members of Army Special Forces or Navy Sea, Air and Land teams, said the group's operations chief, Gunnery Sgt. Terry Sahlbom.

Instead, he said, the group's job is to make sure that a MEU can conduct the full range of specialized missions that it may have to perform during its deployment. This can include anything from amphibious and airborne raids to urban combat, peacekeeping, non-lethal riot control, hostage rescue, embassy evacuations and disaster relief. "Basically, if it's going to be required of them in-country, we train it," Sahlbom said.

In June, for example, the 22nd's maritime special-purpose force was training for direct action and close-quarters battle. As its name suggests, the MSPF is designed to execute difficult seaborne missions, McKenzie explained. "It's built around our force and division reconnaissance and security platoons with an infantry element."

At the same time, leathernecks from Golf Artillery Battery, part of the MEU's ground-combat arm, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, were participating in helicopter rope suspension training, learning how to insert or extract Marines and sailors by helicopter into or out of tight locations, such as thick forests, mountainsides or congested urban neighborhoods.

A UH-1N Huey helicopter lifted several Marines at once, connected by harnesses to a sturdy rope, high into the sky and lowered them gently to the ground. CH-46E Sea Knights and CH-53E Super Stallions also can do the maneuver, said 1st Lt. Chad Grimmett. "A '53 can lift up to 14 Marines at a time," he explained. "You can insert a lot of guys in a hurry. It's just a lot of work."

Across the field, other members of the battery were learning non-lethal techniques for breaking up riots and other civil disorders. Individual Marines, dressed in full combat armor, Plexiglas face masks and shin guards, practiced taking down and handcuffing roleplayers--other leathernecks from outside the MEU, clad in civilian clothing. The role-players had returned recently from Iraq and were about to be released from service.

Later, members of the MEU gathered in a combat phalanx, in tight rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, armed with 12 gauge shotguns and 40 mm M203 grenade launchers. Advancing slowly toward a crowd of shouting, rock-throwing role-players, the unit stopped periodically to order the "rioters" to disperse, and when they did not, fired smoke grenades and blanks in their direction. In real life, the ammunition would include pepper spray and non-lethal rounds, explained the instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Posada. When the "rioters" assaulted a passing convoy, the Marines pulled out their batons and waded into the crowd to break it up.

"Non-lethal skills are part of the MEU's core capability," Posada said. "We teach these guys that we're not there to hurt civilians. They should do everything they can to avoid casualties."

Even in a non-lethal situation, however, the Marines are prepared to resort to lethal force if necessary. While handcuffing rioters, the leathernecks always had their M16 rifles and M4 carbines slung on their backs. "In a nutshell," Posada said, "you're teaching them to try to be nice, but be ready, if needed, to switch quickly to a combat mode."

When the 22nd completes its training in October, the instructors will evaluate its ability. If the MEU measures up, the trainers will recommend to the commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, Lt. Gen. James E Amos, that the MEU be rated "special-operations capable."

The 22nd took its first step toward deployment in May, when its command element received operational control of the MEU's subordinate units. These include:

* A battalion landing team centered on the 1st Bn., 2nd Marine Regiment, reinforced with M-1A1 main battle tanks, light armored vehicles, amphibious assault vehicles, artillery and combat engineers.

* An aviation element, consisting of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261, with Sea Knights, Super Stallions, Hueys and AH1W Super Cobra helicopters, plus AV-8B Harrier II fighters, which can take off and land vertically.

* A MEU service-support group, MSSG-22, which provides medical and dental assistance, motor transport, supplies and equipment maintenance.

In addition to headquarters staff, the MEU's command element has a force reconnaissance platoon, counter and signals-intelligence specialists and a public-affairs and combat-camera detachment.

Both the battalion and squadron came back from Iraq in February, McKenzie said. Perhaps half of those personnel will deploy again this fall with the 22nd. For some, this will be their third combat deployment.

"Those Marines are eager to go again," McKenzie said. "I think they believe they did some pretty dang good stuff in Iraq."

The battalion deployed to Iraq as part of the 24th MEU, serving as part of the 1st Marine Division. The 24th was responsible for stability and security in northern Babil and southern Baghdad provinces.

When the squadron--known as the "Raging Bulls"--arrived in Iraq in February 2004, it was the first unit of its type in the I Marine Expeditionary Force's area of operations. During six months of flying in the combat environment of Al Anbar Province, it racked up 50,000 mishap-free flight hours.

The 22nd returned from its deployment to Afghanistan in September 2004. During that tour, the MEU pushed more than 500 miles inland, one of the farthest terrestrial drives by such a unit in Marine Corps history, according to a spokesman, Capt. Eric R. Dent.

The deployment was extended for a month beyond the usual six months so that the 22nd could continue an offensive against Taliban and other anti-coalition factions.

The 22nd was tasked with securing major population centers in central Afghanistan to allow UN election-registration efforts to begin. Conducting combat and civil-military operations, the MEU killed more than 100 Taliban and anti-coalition militia fighters, started more than 100 civil affairs projects and helped nearly 60,000 Afghan men and women to register to vote.

This time, the 22nd could be sent back to Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or any other hot spot that erupts during the deployment, but it is most likely headed to Iraq, Marines said. "With Iraqi elections scheduled for December, I'd bet on it," said Capt. Skip Barnes, commander of the BLT's Golf Artillery Battery.

That isn't certain, McKenzie cautioned. "The last time, we didn't know where we were going until about six weeks before we left, and it's going to be the same this time."

Altogether, the 22nd, like all other MEUs, includes 2,200 Marines and sailors. The Marine Corps maintains seven such units, three on each U.S. coast--at Lejeune and Camp Pendleton, Calif.--and one on the Japanese island of Okinawa, he noted.

With rotating, six-month deployments, MEUs currently are almost constantly on duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the war on terrorism, McKenzie said.

While MEUs keep the same identification numbers, they receive new component elements every year. The incoming Marines and sailors receive 26 weeks of intensive training, then deploy overseas typically for six months. At the deployment's end, the MEU's combat and combat-support units are released to return to their permanent commands within the 2nd Marine Division at Lejeune. Soon afterwards, the command element receives replacements and begins training them to deploy.

The 22nd will sail with the Nassau Expeditionary Strike Group, which includes the USS Nassau (LHA 4), USS Carter Hall (PSD 50) and USS Austin (LPD 4). The strike group also will have a small flotilla of Navy combatants, featuring a cruiser, two destroyers and an attack submarine. At press time, the names of those ships had yet to be released.

The Nassau, Carter Hall and Austin are amphibious assault ships, designed specifically to transport and launch Marines, their ground vehicles and aircraft into combat operations.

The Nassau resembles an aircraft carrier. With a length of 820 feet, it can accommodate six Harriers, four Cobras, 12 Sea Knights, nine Sea Stallions and four Hueys. Unlike a carrier, the Nassau also can carry more than 1,900 combat-equipped Marines, receiving and discharging them in landing craft inside its well deck. It has a 300-bed hospital, four medical operating rooms and three dental facilities.

The Carter Hall is a landing ship dock, designed to transport and launch as many as 500 Marines into combat, with their equipment and vehicles, aboard amphibious craft. Its well deck can hold a variety of landing craft, including two air cushioned versions, and tracked amphibious assault vehicles. It has a small flight deck that can land and service any helicopter in the Navy and Marine Corps inventory.

The Austin is a transport dock ship, which can deploy up to 800 Marines, 80 vehicles, six aircraft and enough ammunition for 15 days of combat.

When the 22nd does deploy, the troops will board the ships in stages. Some will come aboard at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, Va., the amphibs' homeport. A lot of the rolling stock--such as Humvees and trucks--will rumble on at Morehead City, a small port not far from Lejeune. Tanks, light armor and amphibious assault vehicles will board from Onslow Beach at Lejeune. Helicopters and Harriers will fly out to the ships from their base at nearby Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C.

Then the expeditionary strike group will set out to perform its assigned six-month mission, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean and very likely through the Mediterranean Sea, Suez Canal and Red Sea into the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Once there, the 22nd could deploy into Iraq, Afghanistan or Djibouti.
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Author:Kennedy, Harold
Publication:National Defense
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Words:1762
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