MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. (NNS) -- Sailors and Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) aboard amphibious dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41) returned to the United States following a 10 1/2-month deployment when the ship pulled into Morehead City, N.C., Feb. 4.
After offloading the embarked 22nd MEU Marines, Whidbey Island is scheduled return to its homeport at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Ft. Story in Virginia Beach, Va., Feb. 7.
Whidbey Island deployed March 23, 2011, as part of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), which spent the past 10 months supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet area of responsibility.
"It was a tremendous accomplishment," said Whidbey Island Commanding Officer Cmdr. Eric L. Conzen. "I thought the holidays would be the toughest, but we really came together as a 'naval family' away from our true families to make it through, enjoying ourselves while we were at it. In the end we have a great sense of accomplishment - we did what no one else has done in a long, long time."
Whidbey Island Command Master Chief (SW/AW) Kevin Goodrich said the deployment itself is one of the crew's greatest achievements.
"Two years ago this ship was cold, dark and uninhabitable," said Goodrich. "We brought her through a year-long extended planned maintenance availability where more than 40 percent of the crew were replaced, brought her through the basic and advanced phases, certified for an independent humanitarian deployment and then, at the last minute, shifted focus to an integrated ARG/MEU deployment. We have met every mission during these past 10 1/2 months, and our crew is at the pinnacle of their profession."
Whidbey Island visited 11 ports in eight countries throughout the 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibilities.
"The opportunity that we were afforded to visit so many different and diverse countries was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the majority of Marines and Sailors on the ship. Having the chance to visit these places was a real treat," said Marine Sgt. Deric Graham, 22nd MEU. "For me personally, the visit to Cannes, France, was the most enjoyable. I got to see the place where the international film festival is held, experience the Mediterranean/French culture, attend a few tours to Saint Tropez and dance and have a good time at an outdoor techno concert."
The Navy/Marine Corps team aboard Whidbey Island participated in three amphibious joint multinational exercises, as well as maritime security operations and theater security cooperation evolutions.
"I am most proud that we were part of a contingency force that was on alert in the Middle East and ready to respond to any mission asked of us," said Marine 1st Sgt. Charles McDew with the 22nd MEU. "That takes a lot of dedication and discipline to be mentally, morally, and physically ready at times where it may seem that not much is going on around you. It also feels pretty good that we were part of making history being deployed as long as we were."
Goodrich said he couldn't be more pleased with the results of the integration and teamwork displayed by the Sailors and Marines on board during the deployment.
"Our blue-green team is the most productive and integrated group I have had in four ARG/MEU deployments. Our Sailors maintained an unparalleled state of material readiness and far exceeded my expectations for advancement and professional qualifications," said Goodrich.
"Honestly, I believe the blue and green team worked very well together," said McDew. "That comes from the senior leadership on both sides teaching our young Sailors and Marines how to work with each other personally and professionally. After that lesson was achieved, the sky was the limit and we knocked it out of the park."
Graham also said he enjoyed having the chance to interact and travel with both the Sailors and Marines during the deployment.
"As a person who really enjoys a good road trip with friends and family, as well as having been to a large number of European countries, being able to spend these last 10 months with Marines and Sailors who I have come to call friends of mine, being able to wine, dine, dance, and see new sights with them is definitely one I will hold onto for the rest of my life," added Graham.
Conzen said one of the major benefits of such a long deployment is that the crew has a lot of time to earn professional qualifications and reach personal goals, including more than 100 Sailors earning their enlisted surface warfare specialist (ESWS) qualification.
"We were able to get almost every eligible officer surface warfare qualified, and a vast majority of the crew ESWS-qualified," said Conzen. "Even the most junior Sailors can proudly wear their ESWS pins as they walk off the brow at homecoming - something their peers ashore most likely will take much longer to earn."
Thanks to the Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE), 66 Sailors and Marines on board completed college courses during the deployment, to include English, college algebra and math.
"We did this and we accomplished every mission we were tasked with, including more than a few days working well past midnight," said Conzen. "This crew never said 'no more' and doesn't know the words 'I can't.' They outperformed every team I have seen in more than 18 years in the Navy - hands down. They have every reason to be as proud of themselves as I am of them."
Goodrich said one of the biggest achievements for the crew occurred in December when they promoted 36 percent of the crew to the next pay grade.
"In my 20 years and five ships, I have never been more proud of a single accomplishment than I am of my Sailors' achievements during this deployment," said Goodrich.
The crew also conducted 41 underway replenishments during the deployment, to include connected replenishments and vertical replenishments.
"These young men and women never worked harder in their lives toward a goal this demanding and expansive," said Goodrich. "I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve with them and stand in awe of their motivation, drive and determination every day. I would sail with them again anywhere."
In addition to all of the professional goals the Sailors and Marines aboard Whidbey Island have to be proud of this past year, more than 31 of the men serving on board will return home to a new baby.
"I honestly wish I could have been there for her birth, but I know and accept the fact that I'm doing what I need to do to ensure she has the best life I can possibly give her," said Fire Controlman 3rd Class Spencer Kariefenton, whose first child, Rosaline Allyson, was born in August. "I'm really looking forward to meeting Rose and starting a new chapter in my life."
When asked what the crew has to look forward to now that the deployment is over, Goodrich and Conzen agree that well-deserved time with family and friends is at the top of the list.
"Of course, some time to reconnect to family, friends and the lifestyle of the United States," said Goodrich. "We have essentially been in a bit of a time warp out here. Many things have changed back home, and the crew is anxious about our return."
"The crew can look forward to a little respite in the spring but a summer full of training, heritage celebrations and maintenance awaits," said Conzen. "We will take just over a month off for reconnection with our families and friends, but we have a full schedule coming up as the Navy celebrates the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812."
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