AGADIR, Morocco (NNS) -- On his way home from a trip to Afghanistan, the Honorable Ray Mabus, 75th Secretary of the Navy, paid a visit June 5 to troops participating in exercise African Lion 2010 in Agadir, Morocco.
For the past seven years, African Lion has been conducted annually between the U.S. and Moroccan militaries to further develop joint and combined capabilities between the two countries, which have been allies for more than 200 years.
This year's African Lion includes about 700 Marines and Sailors from Marine Forces Reserve units throughout the United States, as well as teams of active duty Navy Seabees and explosive ordnance disposal technicians.
Although he is a civilian, as secretary of the Navy, Mabus is the third most senior person in the Marines' and Sailors' chain of command, next to the president of the United States.
The day started early for Mabus on the morning of June 5. He met with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Col. Anthony Fernandez, the Task Force African Lion commanding officer, and received an in-brief from the task force staff in the command operations center.
He then addressed a formation of Marines, Sailors and Tennessee National Guardsmen, thanking them for their hard work over the past several weeks and explaining the strategic importance of their work with the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces.
"Things that happen in places like Morocco affect the overall national security of the United States," said Mabus, who himself served in the U.S. Navy as a surface warfare officer during the Vietnam War. He was also the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1996.
"You can surge people; You can surge equipment; But you can't surge trust," explained Mabus. "And that is what you've been doing here; establishing a key (military to military) relationship that will pay dividends in the years to come. I understand how this deployment can disrupt your lives, especially for Reservists. The things we do around the world today, we couldn't do without the Reserves. Less than one percent of the population of the U.S. wears the uniform. That one percent protects the other 99 percent. It's important that Americans understand who you are, and what our military is capable of."
Marines from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 234, a Marine Forces Reserve unit based in Fort Worth, Texas, flew their KC-130 Hercules aircraft into the Agadir military airfield from their base several hundred miles north in the town of Kenitra to pick up Mabus and his staff. They flew the group down to Tan Tan, a rural desert region in the southwest of Morocco.
Marines from the task force conducting operations in the Cap Draa Training Area nearby convoyed Mabus out to see the troops conducting live-fire mortar and machine gun training in the desert.
Mabus met the Marines from Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, based in Chicago, and Company F, 4th Tank Battalion, headquartered at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
They were training alongside their counterparts from the Moroccan Army.
The Marines and Sailors, most of whom have been living in small pup tents in an austere bivouac site for the past two weeks, were covered in dust and soot from training.
"I know it's hard work," Mabus told the service members. "I know you are a long way from home. But it's important work you're doing. The skill level you have and the dedication and confidence you show is something no other country can match. Thank you for your willingness to serve. Thank you for your willingness to sacrifice. Thank you for your service to the people of the United States of America."
Mabus promoted Capt. Todd Schunk, a Reserve Marine from Jacksonville, Fla., to the rank of major in a field ceremony about a hundred meters away from where Schunk, the Company F executive officer, had been firing machine guns with his Marines just minutes earlier.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have the SecNav do this in the field with my Marines present," said Schunk. "It was really a great honor."
Mabus took the time to speak one-on-one with some of the Marines from his native state of Mississippi, where he served as governor from 1988 to 1992.
"I think it's important that he came all the way out here to visit us and explain how it all comes together, how we fit into the big picture," said Cpl. Nathan Cooley, a Reserve Marine with Headquarters Battalion, 4th Marine Division. "The Marines can see that we're not just out here getting dirty for nothing. They can see that it's being recognized back in Washington D.C., and around the country. What we're doing is not going unseen."
Mabus and his staff then moved on to the logistics support area (LSA), which Marine Wing Support Squadron 273 scraped and leveled on the desert floor in late April and early May to prepare for the main body of Reservists who are temporarily living there during the exercise.
Although the troops staying in this dusty, barren bivouac site typically have Meals-Ready-to-Eat for lunch, the food service Marines from 4th Marine Logistics Group prepared a special lunch of T-ration "chili mac," corn and fresh salad for Mabus and his entourage, as well as for more than 400 troops staying on the logistics support area.
After lunch, Mabus toured the 4th Marine Logistics Group's Forward Resuscitative Surgical Suite trauma center.
This new medical capability, which was first employed in its current form in 2003, provides trauma and surgical care to both U.S. service members and host country nationals in an expeditionary environment.
"We all thought it was great, especially the young enlisted guys who have never seen or met a dignitary before. They appreciated it a lot," said Cdr. James Cole, a Navy reservist and trauma surgeon from Detachment 5, Surgical Company A, 4th Medical Battalion in Chicago.
"Those of us who have been forward (to Iraq or Afghanistan) before have seen a lot of senior government officials, but what really impressed me was that he is just a very personable and candid person who hung out and talked with the troops in the chow hall," said Cole, who is a trauma surgeon in Downers Grove, Ill. "Oftentimes, these VIP visits can be stressful and full of protocol. He made it simple, and just had a question and answer session with the Marines and sailors."
The Marine engineers also laid a 600-meter gravel road from the beachfront to a four-acre lot nearby, which can be used as a staging area for transport and retrograde of personnel and equipment to and from the LSA and other training areas in Cap Draa.
In a truly joint endeavor, U.S. Navy SEABEEs based in Rota, Spain helped in construction of the K-Spans and soldiers from the Tennessee National Guard heavy equipment transportation unit hauled out bulldozers, dump trucks, cranes, compactors and backhoes several hundred kilometers from the port in Agadir.
The K-Spans, in addition to the LSA, gravel roads and ammunition bunkers, are intended for use by U.S. troops and Moroccans for summer exercises scheduled annually here in the coming years.
Mabus spoke to the Marines about U.S. Department of Defense's future vision of African Lion. One concept involves large-scale amphibious exercises, where Marines and Moroccan soldiers will come ashore in high-speed landing craft.
Another plan is to conduct Maritime Prepositioning Force offloads of tons of supplies and vehicles for joint and combined training.
With the completion of the beach road, the four-acre staging area and the LSA with K-spans this year, the stage is set for a regimental-sized element to come ashore at Cap Draa, move inland and reside in relative comfort while taking advantage of the area's training opportunities.
With this amphibious capability, future exercises can be conducted at a lower cost and with greater safety, as vehicle convoys will no longer be required to run from the port in Agadir.
"When we leave Afghanistan, we want to get the Marines back to their amphibious roots," said Mabus. "One reason we conduct these exercise is to help develop [the Moroccan] military. We also aim to improve their rural civil works projects and infrastructure, like you've done here. Morocco is the closest friend we have in this part of the world, and we want to continue with the ongoing development of this relationship."
After doing an on-camera interview with an American Forces Network crew that had flown in from their base in Germany, Mabus and his crew headed back to the Tan Tan airfield, where the KC-130s were waiting to take them back to the task force headquarters in Agadir.
"We could not do what we do today without the Reserves," concluded Mabus. "You make so much possible. You've got Reserve Marines out here who bring all their skills sets and share them with the Moroccan military. You've got Navy Reserve corpsmen and doctors who can do surgery in a tent in the middle of Morocco. You've got National Guardsmen out here hauling supplies and equipment. Every time we call on the Reserve, hands go up. You've been living hard out here. It's hot. It's dusty. But you are the face of America. You're showing how good the armed forces of America really are."
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