USS IWO JIMA, At Sea (NNS) -- The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)in conjunction with the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group (ARG completed joint and bilateral exercise CJCS Exercise African Lion 2012, April 17.
The exercise between the Kingdom of Morocco and the U.S. military services served as integrated field training for the ARG/MEU team, prior to arriving at their operational station for deployment 2012.
"This exercise gave us a chance to do a couple of things," said Col. Frank Donovan, 24th MEU commanding officer. "We set sail on deployment across the Atlantic, straight into a large scale exercise where we were able to hone our abilities of ship-to-shore, ship-to-objective maneuvering, air and surface operations with the blue-green team, doing bi-lateral operations with the Moroccans, in turn, developing partners and allied relationships. It was a great way to start a deployment."
The Joint Task Force (JTF), led by Marine Forces Africa (MARFORAF), were designated as JTF-MOROCCO and a Task Force (TF) led by 14th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division were designated as TF-African Lion, giving the exercise great historical and operational importance, being one of the first times an ARG/MEU team has been carried out as an all land based operation.
"This year's exercise was unique in two ways," said Lt. Cmdr. Mike Fabrizio, PHIBRON 8's operations officer. "First, Morocco was one of the first countries to acknowledge American independence when initially becoming a country, so we have had long historical ties with them. The importance of the IWO ARG /24 MEU team's participation in African Lion is that, in previous years, the exercise participants were all land based. This was the first year when a sea based MEU, operating from an ARG at sea, participated in the exercise."
The preparation for the large scale bi-national exercise was concurrent with the ARG/MEU team's work up cycle for deployment. It took various levels of planning and acute attention to detail. Some planners from PHIBRON 8 and 24th MEU met with planning teams in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility as early as Aug. 2011.
"It took a lot of rapid planning and planning adjustments to be able to take advantage of opportunities to operate in a very foreign environment," said Donovan. "To prove that the skill-set we have does work and at the end we were able to meet, train with and establish a relationship with our partners, the armed forces of Morocco was an amazing opportunity."
In order to accomplish missions of the 24th MEU, USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7), USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) and USS New York (LPD 21)executed a combined total of 38 ship-to-shore movements. This included 24 landing craft air cushion (LCAC's) movements and 14 amphibious assault vehicle (AAV's) landings in order to transport the Marines and their equipment. Also, 51 vehicles were moved ashore aboard the LCACs for the Marines to accomplish their mission in the exercise.
Along with the sense of achievement and accomplishment in the air, is the weighted and despondent feeling in the hearts of many on board.
"I think the ARG/MEU team did a great job. It was a great balance of what we trained for," said Donovan. "We were able to pick up where we left off in our pre-deployment training and continue on. The tough part is, obviously, we had a crash during the exercise and you can't go without always thinking about the families and condolences, thoughts and prayers that we need to continue for them back home."
"I do not think you can overstate how important our relationship with Morocco is to our national security," said Capt. Mark H. Scovill, commander of Iwo Jima ARG. "This is a key ally, and we need to prove we are inter-operable with them, especially in view of their strategic location."
The Straits of Gibraltar, separating the Kingdom of Morocco and Spain, is 7.7 nautical miles wide and thousands of merchant and U.S. Navy ships pass through annually. This location is of the utmost strategic importance in the region for the freedom, safety and security of world-wide merchant shipping and U.S. Navy ships transiting.
The ARG/MEU team set aside time during the operation to honor and grieve their fallen brothers-in-arms, assuring each other that although the mission would go on, their memory would be celebrated and not forgotten.
"Losing men makes it very hard to think about how dangerous this job is," said Donovan. "It also provides us an opportunity to step back and say, are we focused and diligent enough, while doing my job on the daily basis to ensure the best chance for success and safety during the mission? It shows how every single day we must show incredible levels of courage, honor strength and skill, in every task."
By the conclusion of African Lion, more than 87 bi-lateral training events and demonstrations had been achieved with the Royal Moroccan and U.S. military. In total, more than 345 flight hours had been logged. For both surface and air movements, more than 70 people had been transported with more than 600 items, totaling more than 45,000 pounds between the shore and ships, including food and parts for aircraft, ships and vehicles.
"This was a great way to warm up before a long deployment. It was very successful and very rewarding in a lot of cases," said Donovan.
The Iwo Jima ARG with the embarked 24th MEU is currently deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility.
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