Poised to cruise into the Mediterranean Sea in early October is
the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable),
one of a handful of U.S. military organizations designed to permit
the United States to intervene in almost any international crisis
within as few as six hours after notification.
For the next six months, the 26th MEU—pronounced “me-you”—will
be the “911 force” on call in an 82-nation area surrounding
the Mediterranean, said the unit’s commander, Col. Andrew
The deployment is routine. A MEU is almost always on patrol in
While deployed, Frick said in an interview at Camp Lejeune, N.C.,
a MEU has to be ready to handle a wide variety missions in a huge,
volatile region stretching from the eastern Mediterranean, down
the west coast of Africa.
The 2,200 men and women of the 26th—fresh from a grueling
26-week training program—are “well prepared for a full
range of operations,” he said.
In all, Frick explained, the Marine Corps has seven MEUs, three
on each U.S. coast and one on the Japanese island of Okinawa. With
rotating deployments, the East Coast MEUs maintain an almost-constant
presence in the Mediterranean, he said, while the others do the
same in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans.
During its tour, the 26th will sail from port to port on a three-ship
U.S. Navy Amphibious Ready Group. This ARG, as it is called, includes
an amphibious assault ship, USS Bataan (LHD-5), and two transports,
USS Shreveport (LPD-12) and USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41). Such ships
are designed to lay off of a troubled area of the world and insert
combat forces ashore by helicopters, amphibious assault vehicles,
conventional landing vessels and hydrofoils known as landing craft
air cushion, or LCACs.
While deployed, the MEU will participate in half a dozen exercises
with forces from friendly nations, while remaining prepared for
real-life operations. These can run the gamut, including humanitarian
assistance in natural disasters, embassy evacuations, hostage rescues,
recovery of downed pilots from hostile territory, peacekeeping and
traditional combat, said Maj. Gen. John F. Goodman, commanding general
of the 26th’s parent organization, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary
Brigade, or MEB. During its current deployment, the 26th MEU is
likely to be asked to perform one or more of these missions, Goodman
“In every six-month deployment that I have had anything to
do with, it has happened, in one way or another,” he said.
During one deployment in 1999, for example, the 26th provided security
for Kosovar refugees in Albania, then bombed military targets in
Yugoslavia, and served as the first U.S. peacekeeping unit to enter
Kosovo. Just weeks later, it supplied humanitarian assistance to
earthquake victims in Turkey.
“We are the tip of the spear, the first to go in,”
Frick said. If the MEU needs reinforcements, he explained, the 2nd
MEB can provide them with relative speed.
“These units are able to provide ‘in extremis’
capability to U.S. military commanders and ambassadors around the
world,” said Maj. Gen. Martin R. Berndt, commanding general
of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, headquartered at Camp Lejeune.
A MEU consists of a reinforced battalion of fully equipped ground-combat
troops, a mixed squadron of helicopters and fighters, and a support
element with 15 days of supplies for operations ashore. (See related
story) During the current cruise, the 26th includes:
MEUs operate much like athletic teams, whose coaching staffs remain
permanently intact, while athletes change each season, Frick said.
The MEU’s command element serves as the coaching staff for
the combat and combat-support units under its supervision. The subordinate
elements serve with the MEU for one year, including six months of
training and six of deployment.
At year’s end, the combat and combat-support units will be
released, and the command element will receive new personnel and
begin training them to deploy.
The training is divided into “crawl, walk and run”
periods of increasing intensity for individuals, small units and
the entire MEU, Frick said.
Training began in March at the Little Creek Amphibious Naval Base,
Va., with a planning workshop for MEU and ARG staff members.
In April, the MEU’s BLT practiced live fire at Forts A.P.
Hill and Pickett, also in Virginia. Then, the MEU boarded ships
for a weeklong break-in cruise along the coast.
Marines and sailors practiced day and night ship-to-shore movements
by surface vessels and helicopter, and deck landings by fixed wing
and rotor-driven aircraft.
In May, Marines from the MEU spent several days at Marine Corps
Air Station New River—right next door to Camp Lejeune—practicing
helicopter raids. The emphasis was on speed, getting in and out
before the enemy has time to react, Frick explained.
Then, in June, it was down to Jacksonville, Fla., for an urban
combat exercise. In the heart of the city—while fascinated
civilians watched from the sidelines—Marines fast-roped from
helicopters, cleared a high-rise office building and launched patrols
through streets and alleys.
July found the MEU back at Camp Lejeune, staging an amphibious
assault. The mission was to secure “an embassy”—actually
a site at the base’s urban-combat training facility.
During that exercise, a CH-46 helicopter crashed in the New River,
which flows past the base, and three crew members died. The incident
served “as a stark reminder of the inherent risks, not only
of naval aviation, but of all that Marines and sailors are called
to do,” Frick said.
Although the entire MEU was shocked by the deaths, the training
schedule did not let up. In early August, it was off to the Puerto
Rican island of Vieques, where the BLT stormed ashore to seize an
airfield. The exercises were completed, but they were interrupted
by protesters seeking an immediate cessation of training on the
The Bush administration has pledged to stop training on Vieques
by 2003 and to move such activities elsewhere. Several possible
new sites have been mentioned, only to have local residents quickly
One of those sites is Camp Lejeune itself, a 246-square-mile facility
that sprawls along North Carolina’s Atlantic Seaboard between
two seaports, Wilmington and Morehead City.
In August, however, the Onslow County Board of Commissioners—whose
county surrounds the base—voted unanimously to have Lejeune
removed from consideration. The resolution cited complaints about
noise and damage from live-fire training.
The Marines countered that combined live-fire training is needed
to reach an acceptable level of combat readiness. “The issue,”
said Berndt, “is where do you provide a place for our people
to bring it all together? You can do a lot with simulation, but
eventually you’ve got to let them train with something that’s
The 26th completed its training regimen in mid-August with a graduation
exercise, designed to determine whether the MEU is ready to be designated
“special operations capable,” or SOC. The exercise—known
as SOCEX—sought to test the Marines’ ability as they
conducted a series of concurrent missions.
“SOCEX is like the Super Bowl of MEU exercises,” said
Frick. During SOCEX, he explained, the MEU’s performance is
evaluated “very seriously” by Berndt and Goodman.
“On the whole,” the 26th “did extremely well”
throughout its training period, Goodman told National Defense. “They
had a couple of challenges, and they overcame them well.”
Goodman noted, in particular, how the MEU dealt with the deaths
of the helicopter crew members. “To the credit of the MEU,
they took the loss well,” he said.
Berndt and Goodman recommended that the 26th receive the SOC designation.
This certification means that the unit is deemed able to conduct
unconventional military missions in hostile or politically sensitive
areas that would be beyond the capability of traditional organizations.
“We have some unique equipment and some special training,”
Goodman said. “We’re not surgeons, but we can stop the
bleeding and give first aid until better qualified help arrives.
“If there’s time and it’s important enough, bring
in Special Forces or SEALs,” Goodman said. “If not,
we can do the job, but it might get bloody.”