By Cpl. Juan A. Soto-Delgado, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit
CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina -- style="color: #666666; margin-top: 15px; margin-bottom: 15px;">Marines and Sailors with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) returned to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., from Puerto Rico, after conducting a Relief in Place (RIP) with the 24th MEU to support hurricane relief efforts, the week of Oct. 9, 2017.
Approximately 300 Marines from the 24th MEU replaced the 26th MEU personnel in Puerto Rico, who were originally called upon in late August to potentially support Hurricane Harvey relief operations in Texas. The mission quickly shifted to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and later Puerto Rico, where Category 5 hurricanes, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, made landfall leaving a path of destruction in their wake just weeks apart from each other.
“We were the first ones in and quickly figured out what was going on,” said Col. Farrell J. Sullivan, the commanding officer of the 26th MEU. “We are used to having an environment that is austere, but we quickly figured out what we needed to do to help those who aren’t used to surviving in such an environment.”
The distinct ability of amphibious forces to gain access to critical areas anywhere in the world with ground, air and logistics forces enables the Navy-Marine Corps team to shape actions across the range of military operations, in this case, to conduct humanitarian assistance in environments that would otherwise be inaccessible.
“The Marine Corps provided a wide variety of capabilities from air assets, boots on the ground and helping out with route clearance,” said Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey A. Young, sergeant major of the 26th MEU. “They transported and delivered necessary and vital life-saving equipment and resources to help the people of Puerto Rico.”
The life-saving supplies and services included nearly 1.2 million pounds of aid, and approximately 400 pallets of food and water. The Marines also cleared more than 70 miles of road, and assessed 46 hospitals.
“As soon as we got on land we started identifying and connecting with the key leaders,” said Lt. Col. Marcus Mainz, the battalion commander of Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. “We would make the human connection with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], with the local municipalities on the ground, and together, we would all move out and figure out what the most critical infrastructure are. One of those structures is the Federal Aviation Agency’s radar towers and communication towers around the island there on the top of a national rain forest. Getting up there was hard work with mudslides and downed trees.”
Regardless of the challenging conditions, Marines and Sailors worked for several days to clear a path to the top of El Yunque National Forest for FAA towers to receive much needed fuel in order to sustain flight operations into the San Juan International Airport.
“This is what we, as a battalion landing team, do best,” said Mainz. “We operate from the land, we extend the ability of the MEU to project power in-land, which allowed us to quickly connect with the people, find their needs, find the resources that can help them and help get them the resources that they require.”
Hurricane Maria caused severe damage to infrastructure, created mudslides throughout the island, cutting off food and water to thousands, and decimated the electrical grid throughout the island.
“My experience with Hurricane Maria was devastating, and to be honest, frightening,” said Sgt. Pedro Emmanuellidejesus, a platoon sergeant with Combat Logistics Regiment 45, which is based in Puerto Rico. “Just the sound of wind, glass shattering and buildings breaking during the storm was something I never heard before. I was in my apartment and the building was shaking.”
This series of destructive events served as an opportunity for the 26th MEU to test their capabilities as an expeditionary force and learn to communicate, plan and operate with other agencies to accomplish large-scale missions.
“The [Defense Support of Civil Authorities] mission taught Marines of the 26th MEU that there are numerous ways to tackle big problem sets,” said Maj. Ronald E. Bess, fires support officer for the 26th MEU. “Local authorities, the National Guard and federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, all have different methods and techniques to respond to these sorts of emergencies, and the events of this year gave us a chance to integrate with these organizations and learn a great deal about how they do business.”
Upon returning, the Marines and Sailors with the 26th MEU shifted their focus to the final phase of the pre-deployment training program, Composite Training Unit Exercise, in preparation for their upcoming deployment at sea. MEUs operate continuously across the globe and provide the President of the United States and the unified combatant commanders with a forward-deployed, flexible and responsive sea-based Marine Air Ground Task Force. Always ready when the nation is least ready.