PACIFIC OCEAN (NNS) -- Aboard amphibious assault ship USS America's (LHA 6) combat cargo department is a group of Marines dedicated to their main mission -- to facilitate the movement of cargo, equipment, supplies, and personnel across the flight deck and vehicle deck in support of amphibious operations.
The Marine Corps has been the United States' expeditionary force in readiness since 1775. Their mission is to respond swiftly and aggressively in times of crisis. As soldiers of the sea, Marines provide forces and detachments to naval ships and shore operations and are trained, organized and equipped for offensive amphibious employment.
Their task and purpose supports all landing forces and staffs aboard during routine operations, and most importantly during crisis response. Additional missions include liaison between ship's staff members and the landing force, ensuring the habitability of living and work spaces for embarked Marines, and ultimately fostering a smooth transition for forces embarking and disembarking their seafaring base of operations.
America has a unique approach to the Marine Corps mission and is at the forefront of the latest technologies and methods of amphibious assault from an aviation perspective.
"It's well-known that the LHA-class is an [amphibious assault ship] that is much more air centric than other amphibious assault ships on the waterfront," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shane Duhe, America's combat cargo officer. Therefore, all landing forces embarked will have to plan in order to conduct operations ashore via air."
America recently embarked 115 Marines assigned to Marine Expeditionary Battalion Hawaii (MEB-HI) consisting of a regimental landing team staff, an air combat element, and several Marines providing logistics and communications support. In addition, America is scheduled to embark more than 800 Marines total in the next few weeks in support of the international partnership exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016.
The gear stowage is carefully calculated, making it a task in itself to retrieve gear for operations, but the combat cargo team accomplishes the job quickly and efficiently.
"If the Marines embarked need access to their gear it's not an issue," said Gunnery Sgt. Steven Sullivan, assigned to America's combat cargo unit. "Or if they need to fly out in an emergency or for a VIP, they will request we coordinate with the [America staff] to help them out."
America's unique air capabilities currently stem from MV-22 Ospreys assigned to the "Greyhawks" of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 161 and MH-60S Knighthawk helicopters assigned to the "Wildcards" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 23.
When Marine units need to embark, combat cargo takes charge to find out what gear will be brought aboard. From measuring and weighing vehicles to placement and arrangement of freight, the small group of 16 makes it happen.
"This is a wonderful opportunity to build experiences for the near future, as the very first Marine Expeditionary Unit with an America [class] Amphibious Ready Group is scheduled for next year," said Duhe. "The reason for having a combat cargo team permanently staffed is very important, because we ensure that Marine Air Ground Task Forces who embark will be taken care of."
Combat cargo not only takes care of the gear stowed aboard, but they are responsible for the habitability of embarked Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). With America able to house 1,872 Marines, this is no easy task. They must inspect, record, and ensure readiness within the living spaces, offices and workspaces.
"We make sure they have everything they need," said Cpl. John Hurd. "Once they get here we will guide them to their workspaces and show them where the berthing, mess decks and gym are located."
As Marine units embark, America Sailors train the embarked units to operate the ship's equipment so the Marine teams are able to work independently regarding cargo on-load and flight deck operations.
"I get the combat cargo Marines trained to work on the flight deck and vehicle deck," said Gunnery Sgt. Fernando Salinas. "They need to be forklift and flight deck qualified so that we're able to support embarked forces, while meeting the Navy's training and qualifications standards."
The Navy's aviation support equipment technicians, logistics specialists and, aviation boatswain's mates (handling) coach the Marines to be proficient forklift drivers as well as teach them the procedures of the flight deck.
"[Gunnery Sgt.] Salinas contacted me through the chain of command," said Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic Joseph Tatum, Aviation Intermediate Maintenance Department's IM-04 division officer. "He requested forklift training for combat cargo, and we were able to provide him with the prerequisites. So as the Marines complete them, we are able to provide training."
While they are completing the required prerequisites for the forklift qualification, they are pressing hard on becoming flight deck qualified. They are getting hands-on training with the aircraft landing on America.
"They're grasping the knowledge very well," said Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Handling) 1st Class Gerson Gonzalez, Air Department leading petty officer. "Right now they're observing flight quarters, and I imagine that they will be qualified well before they are called upon."
America's Navy-Marine Corps team will continue to grow and work closely together over the next few weeks in preparation for the successful execution of RIMPAC 2016.
Twenty-six nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in RIMPAC from June 30 to Aug. 4, in and around the Hawaiian Islands and Southern California. The world's largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. RIMPAC 2016 is the 25th exercise in the series that began in 1971.
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