ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD -- The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, USS Rushmore, and the USS Duluth, recently put their amphibious skills to the test during their first at-sea period, Expeditionary Strike Group Exercise.
Deep into their workup cycle, this exercise is the first time this year the entire 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked ships and headed out to sea in preparation for their upcoming six-month deployment.
“This is the first time that the 15th MEU came together as a whole with the Navy, and operated the same way they will be doing in a real-world deployment,” said Staff Sgt. Sidney R. Young, operations chief for the 15th MEU. “During this exercise everyone is learning exactly how to operate as an Expeditionary Strike Group.”
During this operation, the Navy and Marines combined forces to complete a number of training exercises they will possibly face during deployment. Some missions conducted were; Humanitarian Assistance Operations, Non-combatant Evacuation Operations, Visit Board Search and Seizure, mechanized raids, boat raids, helicopter raids, and direct-action raids.
“Our planning is much more [intense] since we don’t have as many of our assets available to us on ship,” according to Capt. John South, 31, the assistant operations officer for the 15th MEU’s Battalion Landing Team 1/1. “Although being on the ship restricts us due to lack of space, it is also our biggest benefit in that we have the Navy and all the other MEU elements working so close to us.”
Materials that are commonly found in a field environment were often lacking on ship, forcing Marines to improvise. “When Marines make terrain models, they usually use sand, but since there is no sand on ship, the Marines build the models out of cardboard or any materials they can find,” said South.
The Aviation Combat Element also had to make adjustments to move their operations from an air station to a ship. “It’s a lot more difficult working on ship because we are no longer operating by ourselves; we have to coordinate with the Navy now to complete all of our missions,” according to Sgt. Anthony M. Bacon, maintenance controller for Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165, the 15th MEU’s ACE.
Instead of working as an independent unit, the squadron had to work with the Navy to coordinate their flight operations with ships work like underway refueling and securing aircraft to the flight deck. “We need the Navy for a lot of stuff and we’ve jumped through a lot of hoops to make sure that we aren’t stepping on anyone’s toes,” said Bacon.
The ACE wasn’t the only element that had to make adjustments when moving their operations aboard ship. “Things are more difficult for the MEU Service Support Group because we don’t have everything at our fingertips like we do when working on Camp Pendleton,” said 1st Lt. Justin Jordan, 26, an operations officer for MSSG-15. “Overall, our most difficult challenge is having all of our assets split between three different ships.”
There was a constant array of events aboard the ship during the 10-day training period. MEU Marines and Sailors aboard the Bonhomme Richard conducted a variety of live-fire exercises with weapons ranging from 9mm pistols to 25mm machine guns mounted on ship. Then each afternoon, the flight deck roared to life with the sound of helicopters and Harrier engines while pilots geared up for qualification flights and missions.
For many Marines, it was their first time aboard a ship and living and working conditions were very different from what they were used to on Camp Pendleton. Marines now had to sleep in ship-style racks which are narrow beds stacked four high. Marines and Sailors also had to find the chow line at the right time when there were more than 2,000 service members aboard the ship all heading for the mess deck at the same time.
Other adjustments to the ship included restrictions on personal communication, which was limited to email because no personal cell phones were allowed. “The hardest part for most of the Marines is adjusting and getting used to exactly what they will be doing on ship during the actual deployment,” said Young.
“I’m very pleased with our ability to work together with our Navy companions,” said South. “When we are working for the Navy, and the Navy is working for us, that’s where we make our money.”
Preparation for this exercise began weeks before the Marines actually set foot on the ship with the marking and loading of storage containers that would not just be used for this exercise, but remain on the ship for the entire deployment.
“There have been a couple of snags here and there but we adapted and overcame the problems and I think we’ve done really well so far,” said Jordan.
The 15th MEU will complete two more at-sea periods are scheduled for the 15th MEU before their deployment. “The follow-up exercises will give us a chance to validate the work we did during the 1st at-sea period,” according to Young. The 15th MEU is scheduled for a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific region later this year.