By Cpl. Alvin Pujols, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit
JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- The Fighting 13th has been forward deployed for almost seven months and in that time has faced many adversities such as the bone-chilling cold in South Korea and the sweltering heat in Djibouti, but the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit has met each challenge head on.
The 13th MEU, embarked at the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group, is currently transiting the Pacific Ocean during the final phases of Western Pacific Deployment 16-1.
After six months of pre-deployment training off the coast of southern California, the Fighting 13th departed for WESTPAC 16-1 from Naval Base San Diego, February 12, 2016 rolling into sustainment training in Hawaii just a few days later.
The MEU was able to conduct training to sharpen the skills of each of its major subordinate commands, said Sgt. Vanessa Polanco, a Marine Air-Ground Task Force planner with the MEU. The ground combat element conducted various raids and live-fire ranges. The air combat element conducted close-air support drills and helicopter support team drills. The logistic combat element provided support in the forms of ammunition, medical care and transportation. The training helped ensure the MEU functioned well as a MAGTF.
“During our time in Hawaii, we conducted military operations in urban terrain training, multiservice patrolling classes and jungle warfare training,” said Sgt. William A. Randle, an infantry squad leader with the 13th MEU.
The sustainment training in Hawaii was the last time the MEU would see American soil. The next stop was Exercise Ssang Yong 16 in Pohang, South Korea, one of the world’s largest multinational gatherings of naval vessels.
“After an amphibious landing ashore, the MEU conducted explosive ordnance disposal range sweeps in partnership with the 31st MEU, medical evacuation team drills and live-fire ranges,” said Polanco.
Once ashore, the Marines faced below freezing temperatures. That adversity didn’t hinder the explosive ordnance disposal team from completing their mission.
“During Ssang Yong 16 we conducted a range sweep of the Su Song Ri range,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Timothy Harrison, the officer in charge of the explosive ordnance disposal team with the 13th MEU. “Our purpose was to locate and dispose of unexploded ordnance within the maneuver area so [a MEU infantry company] could safely conduct their live-fire training. During the sweep we worked with the [31st MEU’s EOD team] and located more than 300 pieces of unexploded ordnance totaling more than 200 pounds net explosive weight.”
While the Fighting 13th’s EOD detachment swept a range for unexploded ordnance with the 31st MEU’s EOD detachment, the 13th MEU’s Light Armored Reconnaissance Company had the opportunity to work with the Republic of Korea Marines.
“We communicated with the ROK Marines over radio and cell phone and once we arrived it was a simple meet and greet,” said 1st Sgt. Tommy H. Choe, the LAR company 1st sergeant with the MEU. “We gave classes on our light armored vehicles, its capabilities and limitations, and what each of our Marine’s function was within the unit.”
The ROK Marines showed a genuine interest in regards to the LAR Marines’ gear, diversity and job details, Choe said. “Our Marines reciprocated the curiosity with their own. The whole experience was a good one with both sides getting to learn a bit about each other and having a lasting memory of the experience.”
Once Exercise Ssang Yong 16 was completed, the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group steamed away from South Korea toward more tropic climes. Some Marines quickly regretted wishing for warmer weather, as they soon found themselves operating in places with temperatures over 100 degrees in Africa and the Middle East.
“The weather provided a different training environment than we were used to,” said Sgt. Gregory Campbell, a light armored vehicle commander with the 13th MEU. “It was a mountainous terrain that was hot and humid. One of the saving graces was the ability to [work out] on the beach and when possible in the water because it gave us the chance to cool down after a hot day.”
The terrain and weather provided various challenges to many aspects of the training and operations the MEU conducted.
“While in Djibouti, Marines with the Light Armored Reconnaissance Company conducted light armored vehicle gunnery, day and night patrols, and squad and fire-team sized live-fire ranges,” said Capt. Nathaniel R. Jones, LAR company commander with the 13th MEU. The ranges and operations in the extreme heat proved to be challenging but the Marines were resilient and patient when it came to maintaining their equipment.
“The extreme heat limited the amount of time we could spend on vehicle maintenance,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zachary McManigal, the maintenance officer with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s logistic combat element. “If a Humvee was extremely hot, we would have to wait for the sun to go down in order to trouble shoot what was wrong with the vehicle in the first place. The Marines worked anywhere from five to ten hour days to ensure proper maintenance was taking place.”
The MEU went from the hot mountains of Africa to the desert heat of the Middle East, where the Marines lost the mountainous terrain but gained desert sands. Again they adapted.
“The 13th MEU conducted collective skills training for the air combat element, ground combat element and logistical combat element, as well as focusing on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear decontamination and culminating in a combined arms live-fire exercise,” said Capt. Matthew P. Brousseau, an operations officer with the 13th MEU.
While the majority of the MEU participated in large scale exercises in Africa and the Middle East, others provided support for Operation Inherent Resolve.
“The MEU’s Harrier detachment spent from June 20, 2016 until July 10, 2016 supporting Operation Inherent Resolve,” said Maj. Andrew D’Ambrogi, the Harrier detachment officer in charge with the 13th MEU.
“We provided close-air support during operations in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. We had five Harriers while in Qatar and were flying eight hours a day while we were a part of the operation.”
As the air combat element provided support during OIR other Marines were able to exchange knowledge with foreign militaries.
“While in [the Middle East] we worked with the [foreign militaries] and exchanged basic instruction with long-range weapon systems and new combat optics,” said Sgt. Timothy Stewart, a scout sniper with the 13th MEU.
Marines were operating in many countries and eventually had the opportunity to not only exchange knowledge but demonstrate the MEU’s capabilities to partner nations.
“While in Malaysia we displayed the MEU’s capabilities to the Malaysian armed services by conducting call for fire drills with actual aircraft,” said Sgt. David Suyatokamoto, a joint fires observer with the 13th MEU.
Throughout the duration of Western Pacific Deployment 16-1 the MEU has operated in 20 different countries, participating in various large scale exercises including Ssang Yong 16 in Pohang, South Korea and Eager Lion 16 in Jordan. It has expended over 65 tons of aviation ordnance and 400,000 rounds of ammunition. The aircraft have flown more than 6,500 hours transporting more than 11,000 passengers and more than 1,000,000 pounds of cargo.
The MEU assisted in the protection of the President and sacrificed its own free time during ports of call to volunteer at special needs schools and soup kitchens. The Fighting 13th has added to its legacy over the last 6 months and as it prepares to transit through the U.S. 3rd Fleet area of operations back home it will continue to sharpen its skills and remain ever vigilant should it be called upon to take action.