ABOARD USS BONHOMME RICHARD -- The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) returned to Expeditionary Strike Group 5 ships after conducting a month of aggressive security and stabilization operations in southern Baghdad, Iraq, to disrupt insurgent operations.
The journey to Baghdad began after the MEU completed a month of sustainment training at Kuwait’s Udairi Range.
“Udairi allowed us to bring our air, artillery, mortars, direct fire weapons all together to get that synergy of combined arms,” according to Maj. Robert Salasko, 37, assistant operations officer and native of Princeton, N.J.
Salasko said that while in Kuwait, the MEU reinforced specific training needed to conduct combat operations in Iraq. “(The training at Udairi Range) afforded us a good opportunity to focus on the small unit level. The ACE was able to get a lot of guys up on their qualifications. The BLT was able to get their squad leaders and team leaders up to a level of expertise, proficiency and confidence before going north.”
Once the training was complete, the MEU spent about a week planning the movement to Forward Operating Base Falcon. It took only six days to move more than 2,000 Marines using a combination of tractor trailers, convoys and strategic airlift.
“Usually units have months to plan this (type of movement) because it’s a big deal. We’re talking receiving, staging, onward movement and integration of a whole force. We had seven days and by MEU (SOC) standards that’s a lot but most of these units that come up here are planning a year out,” Salasko said.
The MEU’s Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165 (REIN), conducted missions from Al Taqaddum Airbase and Al Asad Airfield, both located west of Baghdad. Being just a short flight from the FOB allowed the squadron to support many of the MEU’s Close Air Support or CAS missions.
The task given to 15th MEU was to “reinforce or enhance the security and stability operations that are being conducted by Multi-National Division Baghdad,” Salasko said. They conducted these operations in an area that had been left unmonitored for approximately six weeks, so there was an increase in insurgent activity prior to the MEU’s arrival.
The MEU’s area of operations, 350 square kilometers of mostly rural farmland, was just a few kilometers from FOB Falcon which allowed for quick resupply missions and a variety fire support from both helicopter assets and artillery capable of engaging enemy forces within minutes of a request.
While conducting their mission, the MEU fell under the Army’s 256th Brigade Combat Team which is part of 3rd Infantry Division. 256th BCT provided guidance and direction for the MEU while they occupied their assigned AO.
Before jumping into the fight, key leaders were shown the AO in armored humvees by Army soldiers from 256th BCT to learn the terrain and identify locations with the majority of insurgent activity.
One of the insurgent’s most popular weapons remains improvised explosive devices, which continue to threaten the safety of service members conducting SASO missions. Marines and soldiers were also continually threatened by small-arms, rocket and mortar fire.
“We analyzed the enemy and what we saw was that their center of gravity was their IED capability. That’s where they were honing all their success,” Salasko said. However, their vulnerability was that they needed to be present to detonate the device.
To combat the IED threats, Marines from Battalion Landing Team 1/1’s A, B and C companies went to the field for approximately ten days each to conduct foot patrols through rural farming areas and specifically near major roads. On patrols, they conducted vehicle check points and house searches to look for explosives, unexploded military munitions and anything that can be used to make an IED.
Each of the three companies found different amounts of explosives and reported their finds to explosive ordnance disposal technicians who destroyed the items. The companies also detained numerous suspected insurgents for follow on questioning.
In addition to the line companies, BLT 1/1’s weapons company formed a Mobile Assault Platoon that teamed up with the Force Reconnaissance Platoon to conduct multiple direct-action raids on specific targets to disrupt insurgent activities and detain individuals for questioning.
The 15th MEU’s actions in the AO “totally reduced their effectiveness and greatly diminished their efforts to emplace them and totally disrupt their operations,” he added.
Salasko said that while the MEU wasn’t in Baghdad as long as other units, they definitely made an impact. Insurgents who had migrated to the area that wasn’t being patrolled were quickly removed by the aggressive actions of the 15th MEU.
“The area was definitely presenting itself as a ‘hardened place’ for the enemy,” said Salasko. “With us coming in and having this dynamic concept of ops … we presented this area that was dominated by Marines.”
In mid-April, the MEU withdrew their forces from Baghdad and turned the area over to the Army’s 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment that will assume all of the MEUs battle space.
This was the second combat tour in Iraq for the 15th MEU, which came just two years after their first visit to the country. In March 2003, the 15th MEU participated in the initial assault into Iraq securing the port facility at Umm Qasr and later pushing into the city of An Nasiriyah to secure it for follow-on forces.