OKINAWA, Japan -- “A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons.”
The Marines and Navy come a long way since Navy Adm. David D. Porter penned those words to Col. John Harris, the commandant of the Marine Corps, in 1863. Naval ships are no longer made of iron armor backed by wood, and Marines no longer fire muzzle-loaded weapons, but the relationship between the two services is still an integral part of who and what they are.
Nowhere is that relationship exhibited stronger than when Marine Expeditionary Units climb aboard Navy ships for a deployment at sea.
Since they deployed from Okinawa at the beginning of February, the Marines and sailors of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit have been honing their skills and learning to work closely with their Navy counterparts of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group.
The first step in their deployment, and the foundation of the blue-green relationship, is amphibious integration training.
“(AIT) quite simply is the single most important training evolution that the 31st MEU does,” said Col. Romin Dasmalchi, the commanding officer of the 31st MEU. “AIT is where this (Marine Air-Ground Task Force) first interacts with our counterparts in the Navy, the amphibious squadron. These two elements must train and live together and hone amphibious mission skills up front, before the ARG and the MEU sail for their deployment.”
The biggest hurdle for most Marines getting acclimated to living and working aboard the ship is the ship itself. Space, time and weather have a greater impact on conducting missions on a ship at sea than they do in a garrison training environment.
“We have come to realize that we give up our garrison facilities when we embark, but we embark on some very capable ships,” said Lt. Col. Eric Malinowski, commanding officer for Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU. “You can’t overlook the resources at hand just because they’re Navy blue or Marine Corps green. MEU and ARG mission readiness has to be colorblind.”
The missions Marines and sailors plan and conduct during AIT are the same they may be called upon to carry out as a contingency force in the Pacific: amphibious raids, vertical assaults, noncombatant evacuations and embassy reinforcements.
“At the conclusion of AIT, we see a cohesive team that can tackle any of the missions they could be assigned by higher headquarters,” said Dasmalchi. “This is no small task, the mission could be an intense combat operation, or it could be a humanitarian assistance scenario. The team must be prepared for any mission across the range of military operations.”
The success of the MEU and the blue-green team starts long before Marines ever set foot on a ship; long before the different elements of the MAGTF even come together to form the MEU.
The subordinate elements of the 31st MEU are sourced from as far away as California and Arizona, with the majority of the Marines rotating in as part of the unit deployment program. Prior to their UDP deployments, the Marines invest months in pre-deployment training to prepare themselves for conducting the integrated mission the MEUs are often tasked with.
When the separate elements eventually come together to form the 31st MEU, they work on an accelerated timeline in preparation for their deployment when compared to other MEUs across the Marine Corps.
“Unlike (Continental United States)-based MEUs, which execute a six month workup followed by a six month deployment, the 31st MEU generally gets a two-month workup followed by a two or three month underway period, with the same performance standards and execution requirements,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Murray, the commanding officer of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st MEU. “Our MEU requires a measured approach, with safe and professional execution by all Marines at all times. There is no room for error when you skip the crawl, briefly walk, and then run.”
While serving with the MEU can be intense and demanding at times, working within the strictures necessitated by the shipboard environment creates better trained, more efficient Marines.
“A MEU deployment offers Marines and sailors the opportunity to operate independently, in a very complex environment, with responsibilities that well exceed those given to them in a garrison environment,” said Malinowski. “These Marines and sailors also get a graduate-level exposure to the capabilities of a MAGTF and the Navy-Marine Corps team. As a result, they are head and shoulders above their peers in experience, understanding and maturity.”
For the Marines and sailors with the MEU’s battalion landing team, working with the MEU also affords the companies and platoons the opportunity to specialize in insertion methods and mission sets not usually attributed or regularly available to a standard infantry battalion, according to Lt. Col. Mark Carlton, the commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st MEU.
“They get enormous value out of being able to focus on one thing at a time, while still maintaining those core (Mission Essential Tasks) that we expect out of infantry battalions,” said Carlton.
The challenges of AIT now behind them, the Marines and sailors of the 31st MEU and the ships of the ARG look forward to their time at sea in the Asia-Pacific, ready to respond when the call arises.
“The role of the MEU has changed in that now, more than ever, this MAGTF must be ready at a moment’s notice,” explained Dasmalchi. “In the past 30 days alone, we have seen examples from across the spectrum. Whether it is provocation from a potential adversary, or a partner or ally in need of humanitarian assistance, we must be ready to move out either as the initial strike or the helping hand.”