View Full Version : Back to Iraq – with a Florida Detour

12-22-03, 08:14 AM

From the Editor:

Back to Iraq – with a Florida Detour

By Ed Offley

ABOARD THE USS WASP – Lance Corp. Jeff Lopez carefully smeared camouflage paint on his face as he and about 90 other Marines prepared to launch a raid ashore.

The dim hangar deck of the Wasp, an 844-foot-long amphibious assault ship, was packed with Marines from the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, all preparing for war.

Lopez, a satellite radio operator with Charlie Co., carried his heavy rucksack, a PCS-5 satellite radio and an M-16A2 rifle as he lined up for the march up to the ship’s flight deck for the 20-minute flight into enemy territory.

This was, of course, a practice battle, staged deep inside the 740 square miles of pine forest of Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle. Bearing nearly 2,200 sailors and Marines on seven naval warships, the Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group is preparing for deployment overseas early next year.

“I like to travel,” Lopez said, discussing the 10-day training exercise that began on Dec. 2. “I wouldn’t mind going to Iraq.”

Lopez will likely get his wish.

From Camp Lejeune, N.C., to Camp Pendleton, Calif., thousands of Marines who made history nine months ago when they stormed up the Euphrates River Valley are preparing to return to Iraq. While Marine officials have yet to confirm the details, sources say the Marine Corps is planning to send up to nine infantry battalions back to Iraq to relieve the 82nd Airborne Division and other Army units in peacekeeping duties.

Senior Navy and Marine Corps officers commanding the Wasp ESG and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit spent most of the day preparing for a rigorous schedule of live-fire exercises on the Eglin range complex. Since the closure of Vieques Island in Puerto Rico to such training, the Pentagon has been forced to disperse units nearing their deployment readiness certification to smaller ranges all up and down the east coast.

The Navy and Marine Corps dispatched the Wasp ESG and its 2,200 personnel to train at Eglin Air Force Base after the Air Force expressed willingness to share the base for live-fire drills. In addition to the Wasp, the strike group includes the amphibious transport ship USS Shreveport (LPD-12) and dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41). For naval firepower, the formation has the Aegis guided missile cruisers USS Yorktown (CG-48) and USS Leyte Gulf (CG-55), guided missile destroyer USS McFaul (DDG-74), and the Seawolf-class attack submarine USS Connecticut (SSN-22).

Officials predict that if the Eglin experiment works, at least two Navy carrier battle groups and two Expeditionary Strike Groups will train at the base annually.

“We see this [exercise] as an evaluation,” said Col. Robert C. Nolan, commander of the 46th Test Wing at Eglin. “This base is a national resource and if the Marine Corps wants to come train here, we want to help them.”

For Marines like Lopez and his friend, Corp. Daniel Hernandez, the issue was not Eglin’s suitability as a replacement for Vieques, but the fact that they were about to be able to insert, maneuver and attack their designated targets in a realistic manner using live ammunition.

“We’re going in by helo,” Hernandez noted. “Our task will be to neutralize all enemy vehicles.”

The seven-ship strike group also planned to continue its own pre-deployment training with live naval gunfire, mine-clearing missions and a host of taskings to support the 22nd MEU, said Capt. Steven C. Joachim, commander of the Wasp ESG. As a result of the exercise, he said, “We’ll be prepared to go to Iraq or any other place we’re needed.”

Out in California last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited with Marines from the I Marine Expeditionary Force and reportedly told them that the upcoming deployments would last seven months. Marines interviewed afterwards by The San Diego Union-Tribune said Wolfowitz told them by the time they arrived in Iraq, U.S. units plan to hand over stabilization operations to Iraqi police and military units, with American troops serving as advisers.

Sgt. Robert Foreman, one of the Camp Pendleton Marines who heard the deputy secretary, told the newspaper: “Mr. Wolfowitz said that we should be over there for about seven months and that during that time we’ll do what we can do for them and that, eventually, instead of our troops fighting and dying for Iraq, that Iraqis will – if need be – do the fighting and dying.”

With so much volatility and uncertainty still clouding the picture in Iraq – even after the capture of Saddam Hussein – the training philosophy witnessed at Eglin Air Force Base remains sound and prudent for the young Marines of the 22nd MEU: They will be ready for the worst.

“We’re next in line” for deployment, Hernandez said quietly as he shouldered his gear.

Ed Offley is Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at dweditor@yahoo.com.