CAMP PENDLETON, CALIF. — With a short, “you’re dismissed,” Col. Anthony “Tony” Henderson gave the Marines and Navy personnel staring at him the next order: “Go make babies.”
The lighthearted comment dissipated quickly as scores of Marines and sailors with 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s command element melted Saturday into the excited crowd of families and friends on the beach at Camp Pendleton, Calif., for the unit’s late afternoon homecoming.
They were among nearly 2,500 Marines and sailors with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit who returned home over the weekend after a seven-month shipboard deployment with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group that stretched from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Their ships — amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD-4), dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49) and amphibious transport dock USS New Orleans (LPD-18) — as well as Amphibious Squadron 1 are returning to Naval Station San Diego with nearly 3,000 sailors on Monday.
“My message to them was, they were the sentinels forward,” said Henderson, speaking to journalists Saturday. “They were responsible for defending the nation and representing the nation, and they did that exceptionally.”
The 13th MEU and Boxer ARG left San Diego on Feb. 12 for the seven-month deployment that was busy, with air strike missions supporting coalition forces fighting Islamic State in northern Iraq, amphibious war games in and around the Korean peninsula and training with partner militaries in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
In March, they participated in Exercise Ssang Yong in South Korea, a biannual amphibious exercise with the Republic of Korea Marines and Navy that prompted renewed threats from North Korea’s leader, as other joint battle drills in the region have done.
The US-RoK exercise “demonstrated our resolve to support the stability in the region,” Henderson said. “The Marines and sailors understood that. We talked them through how important that was.”
The naval force traveled to the Persian Gulf region, where part of the 13th MEU supported maritime security operations off Yemen, operated from Djibouti and joined in exercise Eager Lion in Jordan in May, U.S. Central Command’s biggest exercise. The ARG/MEU also joined in Operation Inherent Resolve, the military campaign to battle Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.
“We did all of those things near simultaneously,” Henderson said, noting “at any point in time, we (the ARG/MEU) were in eight to 10 countries supporting our partners, and covering anywhere from 1,500 to 1,600 nautical miles of space with our ships and with our aircraft.”
In mid-June, the 13th MEU’s Harrier jets flew off Boxer and joined with naval aircraft operating off the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), which was in the Mediterranean, in close-air support and strike missions for Operation Inherent Resolve. Those OIR missions stretched into July and the heat of the Middle East summer.
The sorties provided critical support to Iraqi security forces on the ground in northern Iraq battling Islamic State fighters.
“It demonstrated the naval forces’ abilities to come from any direction and provide support for coalition partners,” Henderson said. “That support was primarily to Iraqi forces fighting near Mosul, where you’re now seeing that they have been able to move forward and gain a lot of control of that area.”
“We ran over 34 missions over 27 days,” he said. “Those were long missions — over 1,600 nautical miles and for over seven hours. Two refuelings to go in, two or three refuelings to get back home. That’s courageous pilots who would after 7 1/2 hours of working to support strike missions would fly back to an amphibious assault ship and land on the deck and prepare for the next mission.”
It also marked the first time during Operation Inherent Resolve that strikes were conducted by aircraft launched from ships in two different operational theaters, according to the Navy. While in 5th Fleet, the Boxer ARG/MEU at one point was split off in three areas, with one ship in the Persian Gulf, one in the Red Sea and another in the Gulf of Yemen, Henderson said.
Throughout the deployment, the naval force had to remain ready — if called on — for contingency operations, such a TRAP mission to rescue a downed aircrew (tactical recovery of aircraft/personnel), noncombatant evacuation (NEO) or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). That’s the role of the expeditionary force, a “theater reserve” available to the regional combatant commanders. The Boxer ARG and 13th MEU were tasked to support President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia in April with security, aviation support and personnel transporting.
But the role of today’s ARG/MEU, Henderson said, is more than just in wait. “We’re the theater mobile force,” he said, emphasizing the mobility and quick response that’s available to a combatant commander. “That means we have the ability to move and engage decisively, at any place and time of his choosing.”
The force is anything but in reserve. “Your ARG/MEUs are fully engaged when they are in the theater, with the capacity then to fully aggregate, quickly, and go to a decisive situation at any moment, right now,” he said. “That was something that was done well in CENTCOM (area of responsibility)… to understand and to apply us in that manner.”
It’s a constant reminder that Marine Corps and Navy commanders make as the ARG/MEU travels to different regions, explaining “here’s who we are, here’s what we do, here’s what we are capable of,” Henderson acknowledged. “Our team came in articulating to NAVCENT, 5th Fleet and to CENTCOM, and as well as the 7th Fleet, this is what the Boxer ARG/13th MEU is… and how it may contrast with other ARG/MEUs perhaps configured differently.”
During the deployment, Henderson permanently embarked four MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft along with personnel on USS New Orleans — a first for the MEU. “That worked well for us,” he said. The detachment “provided us long range, fast, vertical assault capability.” The Osprey’s long legs — it can refuel in flight — helped extend the MEU’s reach, which proved important as the ARG/MEU stretched the seas supporting simultaneous missions. “It consistently paid dividends for us,” he added.
The 13th MEU’s Maritime Raid Force company, with Force Reconnaissance platoon and battalion Marines, joined in maritime security missions off Yemen with their 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boats and combat rubber raiding craft. They put snipers on destroyers, “to help to do observation and provide precision fires, if necessary. That type of missions was not planned or templated, but they came up,” he said. “We had trained to it, so we were ready for it.”
The MRF “was an exceptional capability that made us able, I believe, to fully operate with special operations forces,” he added. “The raid force was focused on “very discreet maritime activities and balance it with amphibious reconnaissance.” The 13th MEU had no organic Marine Corps Special Operations Command unit.
After leaving 5th Fleet and the U.S. Central Command region, the ARG/MEU returned to the 7th Fleet region and joined in exercises in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
That last 24-hour homebound stretch seemed like “a dog year,” but Henderson said he wanted the Marines and sailors to stay focused and safe for the busy logistical disembarkment off the three ships, even as they were within cellphone range of their loved ones ashore. “To keep that focus is very challenging,” he said. Most of the crews with the AV-8B Harrier jet squadron and maintenance support personnel returned home to Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, Calif., a day ahead of the bulk of the MEU, which offloaded via landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles and aircraft to Camp Pendleton.