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02-22-06, 04:55 AM
13th MEU returns
Leathernecks saw range of combat, humanitarian missions

Times staff writer

SAN DIEGO — While throngs of families and friends crowded the piers Feb. 20 to welcome home the crew of two amphibious ships, Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Patrick O’Brien savored a moment of peace.

O’Brien wasn’t below deck, in the hot engine spaces of the transport dock ship Cleveland where he had spent the better part of the past six months with more than 400 crew members and 600 Marines.

Instead, O’Brien, clad in his winter blue uniform, sat on the edge of Pier 7 and took in the scene. “It was a lot of hard work and long hours,” he said of the deployment on the transport dock Cleveland, which entered the Navy fleet in 1967, is older than most of its crew.

The days, weeks and months of occasional e-mails and spotty delivery of letters and packages ended when Cleveland pulled into the 32nd Street Naval Station with the amphibious ships of Expeditionary Strike Group One. “I missed all three birthdays, our anniversary, Christmas, Thanksgiving, everything,” he said. His wife Tamra and their 3-year-old daughter Sandra sat next to him. “She’s a little older, a lot taller,” he noted.

The ESG — which includes the 2,100-member 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) from Camp Pendleton, Calif. — deployed in July and returned home nearly a month later than expected after the strike group was sent to aid earthquake recovery efforts in Pakistan.

Cleveland and dock landing ship Pearl Harbor delivered hundreds of tons of food, supplies and equipment into the port city of Karachi. “It was so cool to be part of it,” said the 27-year-old O’Brien, who enlisted in the Navy eight years ago.

As the “theater reserve,” Marine expeditionary units train for an array of missions, ranging from combat operations to humanitarian aid. “They’re always prepared for humanitarian assistance operations. We know that is important, and we train for that,” said ESG-1’s deputy commander, Col. Mark Losack, on temporary duty from the Camp Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force.

In October, Losack went ashore to Pakistan with ESG-1’s staff when the order came to set up the U.S. Disaster Assistance Center there. His boss and ESG-1 commander, Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, will remain in Islamabad, Pakistan, until March to oversee military humanitarian assistance operations.

The day before, Marines and sailors with the 13th MEU(SOC) returned to their families and friends waiting for them at Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego.

ESG-1, which included Pearl Harbor, Hawaii-based guided missile cruiser Chosin and guided missile destroyer Gonzalez, covered 36,000 miles as it operated in some of the Navy’s busiest waters: Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea.

The ships and Marines split to conduct multiple humanitarian and combat missions simultaneously hundreds of miles apart. “We didn’t just talk about split operations. We did it,” said Navy Capt. Jonathan Picker, Amphibious Squadron One commander. “We displayed the flexibility of the command underway to do multiple missions.”

ESG-1 participated in anti-submarine exercises with Japanese naval forces in late July. Tarawa’s medical department aided more than 3,000 residents of the Philippine island of Tawi-Tawi while the 13th MEU(SOC) supported the region’s Joint Special Operations Task Force command to weed out terrorist networks. After crossing through Egypt and the Suez Canal, ESG-1 and 13th MEU joined a 12-nation military force for “Bright Star” war games and amphibious exercises in September.

In Kuwait City, the Marines left the ships, and were ordered to Iraq to support military operations ahead of the December Iraqi national elections. Meanwhile, the ships conducted maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf, northern Arabian Sea and off the coast of Somalia, an area crisscrossed by suspected terrorists and pirates that threaten commercial shipping and tourism.