The first of 2,300 Marines and sailors will be streaming home starting Sunday as the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit closes out an overseas shipboard deployment that’s stretched eight-and-a-half months.
On Sunday, crews aboard dock landing ship Gunston Hall and transport dock New York, which is wrapping up its maiden deployment, will offload Marines and their vehicles and equipment at the port in Morehead City, not far from the 24th MEU’s home in Jacksonville at Camp Lejeune, N.C., officials announced today. The Marines will load buses and head over to the base later in the afternoon to reunite with their family and friends.
On Monday, the MEU’s rotary-wing aviation units with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced) will return to nearby New River Marine Corps Air Station and meet up with their loved ones in what’s bound to be a particularly loud but happy homecoming as a dozen MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, four CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift transport helicopters, four AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters and three UH-1N Huey helicopters leave the ships and return to the flight line.
On Monday and Tuesday, amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima, the big-deck that’s served as the MEU/ARG’s flag ship, will offload Marines and more vehicles and equipment with Battalion Landing Team 1/2 and Combat Logistics Battalion 24 as Navy air-cushioned landing craft, or LCACs, will hit the sands at Onslow Beach.
The ships will head for their home berths in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, with Gunston Hall due to pull into Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story on Tuesday, Dec. 18, U.S. Fleet Forces Command announced. The Iwo Jima and the New York will return to Norfolk Naval Station on Thursday, Dec. 20.
The homecoming for the 24th MEU, along with nearly 2,000 sailors with the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, is coming a few weeks later than originally scheduled, thanks to last-minute orders on the final leg home to turn around after leaving the Mediterranean Sea. “The hard work and dedication demonstrated by the Iwo ARG’s sailors and Marines exceeded expectations,” Navy Capt. Arturo Garcia, the ARG commander and commodore of Amphibious Squadron 8, said in a news release. “The flexibility of the crews’ response to national tasking in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts is a testament to the capability and flexibility of amphibious forces.” Garcia also gave a thankful shoutout to the families “for their dedication and sacrifice on the home front. It is their support that sustains us during deployments and allows us to respond to our nation’s tasking.”
It’s been a busy deployment for the 24th MEU, which spent about two months ashore training and operating with allies’ forces, and top commanders kept a constant focus on the news and readied to respond, if needed, as crises flared up around the Middle East and northern Africa. It’s exactly what the Marine Corps’ MEUs train to do when they deploy overseas as a crisis-response force, so they have to plan and prepare for possible short-notice contingencies on a wide range of missions. In fact, the MEU was on some form of alert 150 days throughout the deployment, its commander, Col. Frank Donovan, told Marine Corps Times. That included possible security missions or embassy evacuations of Americans in places like Khartoum, Sudan’s capital where violent protestors attacked the U.S. embassy in mid-September.
That didn’t materialize, but the 24th MEU was ready to fly into the country if needed, Donovan said. “If we’ve got a mission, Marines take a step forward and they get excited and pumped up about the mission,” he said, speaking Dec. 11 by phone from the Iwo Jima. “You go on alert statuses and everybody is on hold, and you get a little antsy.”
After enduring some nice swells crossing the Atlantic on a beeline home — there’s a moving video from the USS New York, here on the unit’s official Facebook page — their focus now is on returning home. They have some cushion for holiday travel for those who opt to hit the road during their post-deployment leave. “I’m so proud of these Marines and sailors,” Donovan said, adding that his goal is to give them 14 days of uncharged leave. But once home, the 24th MEU will remain on a different kind of alert as the “go to” force for the next 30 days, with the ability to regroup within 96 hours, if needed. That is standard for returning MEU/ARGs. “We will remain in the global response force through the end of the year,” he said. “This is our job as Marines, to be ready when the nation is lead ready.”