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31st MEU molds unit cohesion during island-wide exercise

18 Sep 2008 | Staff Sgt Marc Ayalin with contribution from Lance Cpl. Jason Spinella

As the Marine Corps’ only forward deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the Marines and sailors of the 31st MEU concluded MEU Exercise (MEUEX) 08-2 with plenty of success and lessons learned, Sept. 11.

The semi-annual exercise took place Sept. 2-11 and involved more than 1,100 personnel from the 31st MEU’s command element and its major subordinate elements. This year’s training placed an emphasis on mission-oriented training focusing on the planning, execution and evaluation of the MEU’s ability to accomplish its core tasks.

According to the 31st MEU Commanding Officer, Col. Paul L. Damren, this is the first opportunity for the MEU to assess strengths and weaknesses in accomplishing core mission essential tasks while integrating all elements of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force.

“The reason that we conduct exercises of this type is to identify important lessons learned that we can apply to improve our tactics, techniques, procedures, and perhaps most importantly, our unit cohesion,” Damren said.

This year’s exercise involved several situational training exercises (STX) that enabled the MEU to execute mission essential tasks in a time-constrained environment.  Each mission was planned by members of the MEU’s Battle Staff, in accordance with the MEU’s Rapid Response Planning Process (R2P2) guide. The quality and time invested in the planning process was a key integration goal for the 31st MEU.

“Our Command Element (CE), Battalion Landing Team (BLT), Aviation Combat Element (ACE), and Combat Logistics Element (CLE) are new and have never worked together before,” said Lt. Col. Rodney Legowski, the 31st MEU Operations Officer. “This was our first opportunity to formulate the relations we need to build our team.”

That opportunity began with an airfield seizure at Ie Shima Island, a small island just a few miles off the northwest coast of Okinawa. Utilizing aviation assets from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced) and more than 120 infantrymen from Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force worked intensely to seize the small airfield from a group of approximately 30 notional insurgents.  The airfield seizure incorporated close-air support and swift ground movement to overcome the enemy positioned in bunkers and in an airfield control tower. With many ground assault exercises scheduled for the MEU, this scenario provided a brief welcoming to MEU operations.

“This was a really good preparation exercise for the entire squad as we get ready to go out on this fall deployment,” said Lance Cpl. Jake Reed, a machine gunner with Weapons Platoon, Company K, BLT 3/1. “It’s the first time we’ve done this kind of operation with the 31st MEU and I look forward to the next few months.”

Another highlight of the exercise was honing and preparing MEU personnel to execute a noncombatant evacuation operation.  With the 24th MEU’s role in evacuating American citizens in Beirut in July of 2006, the realism of conducting a NEO is altogether prevalent in today’s uncertain security environment.  During MEUEX 08-2, members of Combat Logistics Battalion 31 set up an Evacuation Control Center (ECC) to process and evacuate noncombatants.  Though the NEO scenario provided theoretical situations, the MEU’s rotary-wing assets were integrated in transporting the evacuees to safe havens.  The NEO also implemented non-lethal weapons capabilities as BLT 3/1 Marines provided security at the ECC sites.  There, role-playing protestors antagonized the security elements prompting them to conduct crowd control measures.

For the ECC team members, the NEO exercise provided an opportunity to gain more ground towards conducting an actual evacuation.

“It was a good experience builder,” said 1st Lt. Jamin Bailey, ECC Team Leader, CLB 31. “While there were elements during the training that got our feet wet, the mission was accomplished and executed within our standard operating procedures.”

While the airfield seizure and the NEO were highlights of MEUEX 08-2, the MEU also planned and executed a boat raid, mechanized raid, a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) and humanitarian assistance / disaster relief (HA/DR) mission.  While each mission, as a whole, provided a good introduction to MEU integration, there were some planning guidelines that needed fine tuning.

According to Legowski, one of the biggest challenges for the MEU planning staff, as a new team, was refining the standard operating procedures (SOP) while ensuring everyone understood and complied with them.  According to Damren, conducting exercises like MEUEX are essential in developing cohesive relationships.

"If we were already perfect, there would be no need to conduct an exercise of this type,” Damren added.  “The unique predeployment training cycle that we execute at the 31st MEU requires us to have a very steep learning curve and we do not have the luxury of a six month workup cycle like other Marine Expeditionary Units. Therefore, we must take maximum advantage of every training evolution with particular emphasis on debriefs. If we conduct thorough and very candid debriefs, chances are good that we are not going to make the same mistakes the next time around.”

This week, the 31st MEU is gearing up to execute their fall deployment throughout the Asia-Pacific region with the USS Essex (LHD 2) Amphibious Ready Group.  During the deployment, the Navy and Marine Corps team is scheduled to conduct additional exercises to integrate and hone surface and naval operations.  Damren remains optimistic that his Marines and sailors will overcome any challenges during the next deployment cycle.

"The big difference of course with blue/green training is that we will be doing all this aboard ship and I expect our learning curve to remain very steep - adding another degree of challenges to everything that we do,” Damren said. “However, given what I have seen from the Marines and Sailors of the MEU thus far, I would expect us to really excel during blue/green training and into our evaluation exercise.”


31st Marine Expeditionary Unit