Local Marines to fight first mock battle since war


CAMP PENDLETON ---- More than 2,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station are gearing up for the first major war games in the region since the invasion of Iraq.

Other units also are getting back to their normal routines.

In two weeks, the Marines will converge on Twentynine Palms for a "combined arms exercise" at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center ---- the service's premier training ground where troops will engage in the "Super Bowl" of maneuvers on 17 live-fire ranges spread out over 596,000 acres of desert.

The Marines will run through simulated battles and conduct coordinated live-fire operations combining jets, helicopters, artillery, tanks and infantry.

Marine Corps spokeswoman Lt. Leticia Reyes said the massive war games, which kick off Oct. 2 and last for 22 days, will start with small unit training and culminate in the "full fledged" combined exercise.

"It's like a crawl, walk, run thing," she said. "But on the last three or four days, it's like nothing you've ever seen."

The bulk of the troops are infantrymen from the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment who recently returned from fighting in Iraq.

Reyes said the script of the desert exercise was modified to emphasize combat support. In the early days of the invasion of Iraq, Marine infantry units such as the 3/1 moved toward Baghdad so quickly that they outran their supply chain. The desert center is where disparate units learn to work together to avoid such mishaps in the future.

Deployments returning to normal

The upcoming war games are the first combined exercises the Marine Corps has conducted at the center this year, and are a clear signal that the locally based Marine expeditionary forces are back to their normal routine after the bulk of the force has returned from Iraq.

Upon his return to the U.S. mainland Sept. 8, Lt. Gen. James Conway, who commanded the Marine forces in Iraq, said his new orders were to "re-cock" ---- to get the Marines back into what had been the normal deployment schedule.

That routine includes having one Marine Expeditionary Unit, known as an MEU, at sea for six months as a quick reaction force, while the other two Camp Pendleton-based MEUs are in various stages of recovery and training for their next turn. One of three infantry battalions of the 1st Regiment is always deployed with one of the expeditionary units.

In order for the West Coast Marine force to get into a normal rhythm, however, the first unit that deployed since the war will have to spend almost nine months at sea, instead of six.

Local Marines on maiden voyage

That MEU, the 13th, left San Diego on Aug. 22 as part of a new beefed-up flotilla configuration the Navy has dubbed an "expeditionary strike group."

The group, the first of its kind, consists of six warships and one submarine, and 5,000 sailors and Marines ---- about 2,000 of whom are local Marines of the 13th MEU. The ships include the flagship, the USS Peleliu, as well as the USS Germantown, USS Ogden, USS Jarrett and USS Decatur.

The five San Diego-based vessels were recently joined by the submarine USS Greeneville and the cruiser USS Port Royal in Hawaii, and is now en route to a training exercise in Singapore before heading to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

Pentagon officials have said there are no plans to have the Marines relieve beleaguered Army units in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 local Marines in the 13th MEU are a battalion of about 800 infantrymen from the 1st Regiment, as well as more Marines from the force reconnaissance company, one light armored vehicle platoon and one amphibious assault vehicle platoon, a company of tanks, a platoon of engineers, and an artillery battery. The MEU also includes helicopter units from Miramar and Camp Pendleton, as well as Harrier jets and air support units from Yuma, Ariz.

These units trained while the war was on.

Training never ceases

While the 13th MEU sails, the units that will be assembled into 11th MEU are training for their next deployment in April. Units that will eventually sail with the 15th MEU are bouncing back into training after participating in the war in Iraq, where they battled Iraqi forces at the port at Umm Qasr and helped secure other towns in southern Iraq.

Some of their ongoing training at Camp Pendleton includes the firing of 155 mm howitzers, 81 mm mortars, 1,750-pound line charges and 500-pound bombs, some of which have been rocking the ground around North County for the past week.

Camp Pendleton officials said the artillery exercises should continue through midnight today, and more are planned for next week.

Contact staff writer Darrin Mortenson at (760) 740-5442 or dmortenson@nctimes.com.