By Donna Miles
MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Aug. 25, 2006 – Just three weeks before they deploy for six months as U.S. Central Command's theater reserve force, Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit here say they're ready to get on with the mission despite pulls at their heartstrings over leaving home. The heavy lifting is over. Six months of intensive training recently wrapped up with an 11-day joint task force exercise aboard USS Boxter that earned the unit the critical "special operations capable" designation.
"The operating tempo has been unbelievable," said Staff Sgt. Tracie Kessler, the MEU's public affairs chief. "But no MEU wants to go out not being special operations capable." Col. Brian Beaudreault, the MEU commander, said the unit's operations tempo has been "as high as it's ever been," but has paid off in a big way. "We're prepared to execute any mission we're assigned as the theater reserve," he said. "We're ready for everything from sustained combat operations ashore to humanitarian relief operations and everything in between."
Unlike the MEU's last deployment, when its members knew they were headed to Iraq, this time that's not a given unless CENTCOM requests the support. "As far as I know, that's not going to happen this time," said Staff Sergeant Dwayne Benjamin. "But then, that could all change any time." With its pre-deployment training wrapped up, the pace at the MEU's command headquarters has come to a near halt -- the proverbial calm before the storm.
A sign at the top of a stairwell marks the days until the deployment -- E-21 yesterday for "Embarkation minus 21." When the sign reads "E-0," 2,300 Marines will leave here aboard three ships: USS Comstock, USS Dubuque and USS Boxter. The contingency will include the battalion's combat landing team, its logistics battalion and air combat element.
But for now, there's a sense of quiet here, with most of the Marines on block leave and a skeletal staff wrapping up last-minute details. "We're now in a decentralized mode of operation. Each section knows what has to be done. It's a matter of setting those Marines loose to get it done," Beaudreault said. Right now, the emphasis is on maintenance of equipment and quality time for families."
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Dwayne Benjamin, the unit's purchasing chief, is processing last-minute orders to ensure the Marines have all the gear they need while they're away. Cpl. Juan Juarez, an administrative clerk, is double-checking travel vouchers to make sure they've all been settled and unit members paid. Chief Warrant Officer Mike Chaney, working as a action officer in the MEU's operations section, is planning the training the unit will conduct during its deployment, as it awaits a call for a real-world mission.
Maintainers were turning wrenches, checking times and ensuring the MEU's aircraft and vehicles are ready to go. Sgt. Bobby Savicke, a motor transportation mechanic, was checking transmission fluids and "making sure nothing goes out the door broken." The unit supply administration chief, Cpl. David Choe, was rechecking boxes of desert camouflage uniforms and other supplies to make sure nothing was inadvertently left behind. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class John Jucutan, a corpsman preparing for his eighth deployment with the Marines, was packing medical equipment in new medical bags the MEU recently received.
Meanwhile, other United States Marines from the MEU were on Camp Pendleton's Red Beach testing a new tactical water purification system to make sure it will operate properly during the deployment.
Most of the Marines are veterans of multiple deployments and said the operational preparations tend to go smoother each time. "For me, it gets easier," said Benjamin, about to leave for his fourth "float" and his third with the 15th MEU. "It doesn't seem as stressful as the first time around. Everything starts to become second nature, especially if you work with the same people." "This deployment is a lot easier than the last one," Chaney agreed. "We knew what to expect in the work-up cycle. It's still painful, but it's not new."
Juarez said he's applying lessons learned from his last deployment this go-around. "Last time, I learned so many things that I'm using to mold this deployment to help myself, my shop and my fellow Marines," he said. Those lessons range from better ways to pack a backpack to knowing what equipment and supplies need to go and what ones will simply take up space on the ship.
As important as these last-minute details will be to success during the deployment, Beaudreault said, an equally important priority right now is ensuring the Marines get their personal affairs in order and, most importantly, spend time with their families. Cpl. James Johnson, the MEU's postal clerk, is giving up his apartment while he's gone and moving everything he's not taking with him into storage. He's already assigned power of attorney to a buddy who will watch over his car.
Staff Sgt. Danny Sava, the unit data chief, is drawing up a list of details and contact information for his wife, Julia. The family bill payer, Sava set up a lot of automatic online payments and is making sure Julia knows where to find his will, power of attorney, Social Security card and other important documents. "We're trying our best to get everything together and get squared away," Julia said.
After four deployments with the MEU, Sava has control of the tangible preparations but admits the emotional ones are a bit tougher. He missed the birth of his daughter, Alyssa, now 18 months old, during his last deployment, and this time he'll miss her second birthday as well as his son Anthony's 11th birthday and Christmas. "We'll celebrate it late," Julia said, quickly filling the silence left after her husband acknowledged the lost landmarks.
Chaney is busy preparing for them as well, writing letters and wrapping birthday and Christmas gifts that he'll leave behind for his 3- and 6-year-old children for his wife to present on the appropriate days. "I'm trying to do that now, so everything is pre-staged and I know it will be there, instead of worrying about getting them here in the mail," he said.
In addition to making sure household expenses are in order, Juarez said he's devoting every spare moment possible to his wife of two years. "We're spending a lot of time just talking to each other," he said. After his last deployment, Juarez said, the two already know what's ahead, but he's not sure that's going to make it any easier. "We already know what to expect of each other, but I think this one is going to be a little more difficult," he said. "I think we're going to feel the sense of separation more this time."
Benjamin is busy getting his personal affairs in order and making sure his wife and three children, ages 13, 12 and 6, are ready for his departure. He plans to take a week of leave at home, relaxing with the family and enjoying his favorite foods, "especially a good steak."
Deployments are never easy on families, Benjamin said, but experience has shown him that his family can make it on their own while he's away. "We've done this before," he said with a shrug. "When you do this over and over, things tend to get -- not easier, but simpler."
When embarkation day comes, Benjamin said he knows he'll be ready to go. "You have a job to do," he said. "My head is always in the game." Juarez, too, said that although he hates to leave his wife behind, he's ready for the deployment. "I don't stress out about it. I know I have to deploy, so I don't worry. I just stay focused on my job," he said. "It's going to be a good deployment. I'm looking forward to it."
Johnson, a single Marine, doesn't share his comrade's conflicts about the upcoming deployment and said he's more than ready to go. "I love it. I'm excited," he said. "It's where I want to be." "At this point, it's almost, 'Let's go,'" Chaney agreed. "You do all this training, so you just want to get out there and get the deployment going. We're Marines, and we're just ready to go."