USS ESSEX, AT SEA (Feb. 5, 2009) -- --
Walking down the half-mile long pier carrying a strenuous combat load, a young Marine tries to contain his excitement of this new adventurous chapter in his life. As humvees, amphibious assault vehicles, government trucks, vans, and fellow Marines and sailors pass, he finds himself indulged in the morning sea breeze. After reaching the top of the stern-gate platform and requesting permission to come aboard, he lugs his exhausting pack through the narrow passage ways where he will soon find himself in an endless line waiting to eat, up the steep latter-wells to his quarters where he will squeeze into his foot and a half sleeping space where he will have to live for the next month.
“It’s better than everyone made it out to be,” said Pfc. Colton Ferrier, an administrative clerk with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. “The worst parts [about ship life] are just the sway of the ship, long chow lines and tight quarters, but you get used to it after awhile.”
The Michigan native also added, “When aboard ship we get our sea legs, which help us get in touch with our naval traditions and heritage.”
Another Marine is driven to the ship in a bus overcrowded with passengers. He is a young combat ridden Marine and is curious with what his life will be like for the next month. Dreading the thought of unloading the storage units filled with gear, he compares his past deployment in the Middle East to his current salty predicament. He knows the mission has been drastically changed from the previous. He knows the stress will not come from the enemy, but from his superiors who will make sure he is keeping his peers in line.
“We already have our combat time,” said Lance Cpl. Jorge Barba, an infantryman with Company K, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st MEU. “Now we have the opportunity to take advantage of the missions and challenges unique to being a Marine at sea.”
A third Marine, older than the previous two, approaches the ship. Gazing at the ship, he reminisces on past memories of sand and sea. He thinks of his most recent deployment to the Middle East and the drastic mission change that floats in front of him. The thought of his Marines in a different environment than the usual desert flows into his head, but he is still confident they will complete all tasks at hand.
“This is a great opportunity for my Marines to become a part of our humanitarian acts in other countries,” said Staff Sgt. Soulinha Chanthavong, an infantry platoon sergeant for 2nd platoon, Company K, BLT 3/5.
Cpl. Jonathon D. Decker, an infantryman with BLT 3/5, also with combat experience, echoes Chanthavong and said, “This is a chance for us to help our friends in other countries and participating in deployments like this allow us to fulfill the other part of the Marine Corps’ mission.”
According to the Marines aboard ship this experience is also a great way to improve as a person and as a Marine.
“This isn’t a combat zone, so being shot at by the enemy is not a main concern on ship,” said Cpl. Jesse T. Shutter, and infantryman with BLT 3/5. “We have the opportunity to focus on other things such as MCIs (Marine Corp Institutes), college courses, staying fit by taking advantage of the gym on ship and just squaring ourselves away in general.”
Although there may be times on ship that may seem like Groundhog Day, seeing and living in close proximity to your co-workers and superiors can help build strong bonds between units and Marines of different ranks. Just recently service members aboard the USS Essex (LHD 2) were able to come together to watch Super Bowl XLIII, sponsored by the ship’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation team.
“Events like this are great for morale,” said Sgt. Joe T. Hedge, a motor transport operator with BLT 3/5. It allows us to take the chevrons off, come together, dig into one another and cheer for our team.”
As the only permanent forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Marine Corps, the Marines and sailors with the 31st MEU are afforded the opportunity to exercise the Marine Corps’ full spectrum of amphibious strengths.
“We realize combat is only one of the many aspects that make the Corps what it is,” Decker said. “Being a part of a unit deployed on ship allows Marines to take advantage of the heritage and traditions of the Marine Corps.”