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Here’s what 2,400 Marines and sailors were doing during an eight-month deployment to the Middle East

U.S. Marines with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and Navy Sailors with the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) man the rails aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23) as the ship pulls into Pearl Harbor. The Essex ARG and 13th MEU is a strong and flexible force equipped and scalable to respond to any crisis ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to contingency operations. (Sgt. Austin Mealy/U.S. Marine Corps)

Two MV-22 Ospreys flew patrols over the ocean off this seaside base Thursday afternoon, Feb. 28, as the first wave of Marines and sailors disembarked off the USS Essex anchored at the horizon.

Soon after, the first transport boats landed at Del Mar Beach Basin. Marines and sailors — carrying seabags and packs — scrambled ashore as family members held “Welcome Home Marines” signs and shouted to get the attention of their loved ones.

The military were part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. About 2,400 Marines and sailors returned this week from a nearly eight-month deployment to the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, Mediterranean, and Horn of Africa regions. The unit was made up of three Navy ships that carried command, aviation combat, ground combat and Combat Logistics Battalion 13 personnel. The 13th MEU left San Diego on July 10.

Col. Chandler Nelms, the unit’s commanding officer, was among the first to come ashore Thursday.

“The most important part of the deployment is coming home,” Nelms said, after being greeted by Lt. Gen Joseph Osterman, commanding general of the Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. “We’ll reflect back from being all over the world. It’s been a dynamic deployment.”

Unique to this deployment was the introduction of the Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II fighter — a short takeoff and vertical landing craft that is one of two models of new-age fighters to be used by the Marines. The F-35B and two other models — the “A’ used by the Air Force and the “C” to be used on aircraft carriers by the Navy and Marines — are part of the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar F-35 Joint Strike Fighter weapons program.

The six planes, based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, were tested in logistics, readiness, and integration into a Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“It was impressive, the readiness was so high,” said Nelms, an MV-22 Osprey pilot. “This was big for us. It was the first — and more deployments will follow. This will be the fixed-wing aircraft for the MEU from now on. The Harriers will still take a few rotations but you’ll see them being phased out.”

The F-35B has the speed range and payload of an F-18, and has advanced sensors and stealth technology. “Meaning we can take a beach against a threat that we couldn’t do before,” Nelms said. “It was exciting to be involved with it. This was definitely part of the energy every day.”

Over the course of the deployment, the amphibious ready group and the 13th MEU team participated in exercises with other military groups. The exercises, Nelms said, strengthened partnerships, and increased combat readiness and crisis response capabilities between the U.S. and its partner nations.

Marines and sailors trained with Malaysian, Indonesian and Sri Lankan militaries. While the USS Essex and the USS Rushmore trained in operations in the Middle East, the 13th MEU on the USS Anchorage trained for two weeks with the Italian San Marco Brigade.

Troops also visited ports in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bahrain, Qatar, Italy, Spain, Thailand, India and the United Arab Emirates.

At sea — between training exercises — they kept fit and ready with a martial arts program and target practice on deck. They also maintained vehicles, aircraft and weapons and kept mentally engaged with military education.

“We’re the crisis response force standing watch 24/7,” said Capt. Diann Rosenfeld. “We’d be first called to respond.”

In October, an artillery unit from the MEU sent a platoon to Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Platoons from Bravo Battery fired Howitzers to suppress ISIS.

“Our Marines and sailors truly surpassed expectations and reinforced commitment throughout the diverse regions we operate,” Nelms said.

Once those on the boat were ashore, Thursday, Nelms headed up the unit’s formation and the group marched toward festivities at Del Mar Beach. Among those waiting for them were Nancy and Bob Garoutte, a couple from Anaheim, who are members of the city’s 13th MEU Adoption Committee.

“We’re here to help,” said Nancy Garoutte, who was frequently separated from her husband when he served in the Marine Corps from 1957 to 1977. It’s very emotional for me because I lived through it. Back then there was nothing available for the wives. It’s important to do something for them emotionally. Sometimes there are tragedies.”

That was the case during this deployment. Cpl. Jonathan Currier was not among those returning home.

Currier, a CH-53E Super Stallion crew chief, was reported overboard on the USS Essex on Aug. 9. A five-day search was conducted over 13,000 square miles spanning the Sulu Sea and nearby waters off the Philippines, by Currier’s body was not recovered.

An investigation established there was no foul play, Rosenfeld said Thursday.

“When we sailed back through the area, we held a solemn memorial,” she said. “Marines and sailors wrote messages on index cards that were put into an ammo can and put out to sea. It was difficult because we wanted to find him.”


© 2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.