Pendleton, Miramar Marines and sailors returning

By: MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON ---- Units from the Camp Pendleton-based I Marine Expeditionary Force are starting to come home from the insurgent-laden cities and rural areas of Iraq's dangerous Anbar province, where they have been stationed for the last several months.

"It's great to be back," 22-year-old Cpl. Daniel Rodriguez said Wednesday.

After returning to his Murrieta home last week from Fallujah, where he had been on duty since February, Rodriguez said he was thankful for the routine of life in the U.S.

"It's the little things, like just being able to just go to the store and buy a six-pack of beer, visit with friends and be with my wife."

Assigned to the armory at Camp Fallujah, Rodriguez said living conditions during his second tour of duty in Iraq were much more comfortable ---- U.S. bases had more amenities for the troops.

The Pentagon announced last month that the II Marine Expeditionary Force soon would be dispatched to Iraq from its home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

While specific assignments have not been detailed, it is assumed that the Camp Lejeune troops will replace the I Marine Expeditionary Force, which includes about 25,000 Marines and sailors and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.

"All the scheduled rotations are happening," said Navy Lt. Cliff Carnes, expeditionary force spokesman. "It's an ongoing rotation and some units won't be back until late October or early November."

Some of the larger Marine regimental groups are expected back in Oceanside in the next few weeks.

Many of the Marines and sailors returning home will have completed their third or fourth assignments in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

The command staff of the I Marine Expeditionary Force will remain in Iraq for several more months, Carnes said.

Many of the returning Marines will find a new boss and a tense climate at Camp Pendleton. A new commanding general is set to take the helm and eight members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment have been charged with premeditated murder in the death of an Iraqi civilian.

The seven Marines and one Navy medical corpsman accused in that case are awaiting hearings to determine if the charges against them stand. If they do, the troops will face courts-martial, trials that are expected to receive heavy media coverage.

Another group of Pendleton Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment remain under investigation in the deaths of 24 Iraqis in the city of Haditha last November. Military officials said that investigation is weeks away from completion.

About to assume command of the I Marine Expeditionary Force is Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis. He will replace Lt. Gen. John Sattler, who has been named deputy commandant in the office of Plans, Policy and Operations at the Marine Corps' headquarters in Washington.

In 2001, Mattis was a brigadier general commanding the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

He went on to head up the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division and led troops in the invasion of Iraq. He was known for often reminding his troops to "first, do no harm" and that there is "no better friend, no worse enemy" than a Marine.

Nearly 300 Marines from Camp Pendleton and Miramar have been killed in Iraq since the invasion. In the seven months since the I Marine Expeditionary Force was sent back to Iraq for its third deployment there, nearly three dozen Marines were killed, according to Defense Department figures.

-- Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or