Gearing Up: 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit Prepares to Deploy

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An estimated 600 combat-armed Leathernecks and sailors from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are scheduled early this month to prowl through the streets and waterways of Savannah, Ga., as part of an intense training regimen that almost certainly will lead to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The unit is in Savannah to conduct two weeks of training in an urban environment, which is designed to prepare the unit to operate in cities, towns and villages when they deploy in the fall.

The 22nd, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., will complete its training sometime in September or early October with a certification exercise, dubbed CERTEX, off the coast of North Carolina. That event will be designed to determine whether the MEU is "special-operations capable," or SOC, explained the unit's commander, Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.

"I personally spend a lot of time training to meet that standard," said McKenzie, who has commanded the 22nd since Oct. 2002. The unit recently returned from a 2004 deployment to Afghanistan.

The two exercises, like much of the unit's training, will be overseen and evaluated by the II Marine Expeditionary Force's Special Operations Training Group. This unit, also headquartered at Lejeune, doesn't try to turn Marines into special operators, like members of Army Special Forces or Navy Sea, Air and Land teams, said the group's operations chief, Gunnery Sgt. Terry Sahlbom.

Instead, he said, the group's job is to make sure that a MEU can conduct the full range of specialized missions that it may have to perform during its deployment. This can include anything from amphibious and airborne raids to urban combat, peacekeeping, non-lethal riot control, hostage rescue, embassy evacuations and disaster relief. "Basically, if it's going to be required of them in-country, we train it," Sahlbom said.

In June, for example, the 22nd's maritime special-purpose force was training for direct action and close-quarters battle. As its name suggests, the MSPF is designed to execute difficult seaborne missions, McKenzie explained. "It's built around our force and division reconnaissance and security platoons with an infantry element."

At the same time, leathernecks from Golf Artillery Battery, part of the MEU's ground-combat arm, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, were participating in helicopter rope suspension training, learning how to insert or extract Marines and sailors by helicopter into or out of tight locations, such as thick forests, mountainsides or congested urban neighborhoods.

A UH-1N Huey helicopter lifted several Marines at once, connected by harnesses to a sturdy rope, high into the sky and lowered them gently to the ground. CH-46E Sea Knights and CH-53E Super Stallions also can do the maneuver, said 1st Lt. Chad Grimmett. "A '53 can lift up to 14 Marines at a time," he explained. "You can insert a lot of guys in a hurry. It's just a lot of work."

Across the field, other members of the battery were learning non-lethal techniques for breaking up riots and other civil disorders. Individual Marines, dressed in full combat armor, Plexiglas face masks and shin guards, practiced taking down and handcuffing roleplayers--other leathernecks from outside the MEU, clad in civilian clothing. The role-players had returned recently from Iraq and were about to be released from service.

Later, members of the MEU gathered in a combat phalanx, in tight rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, armed with 12 gauge shotguns and 40 mm M203 grenade launchers. Advancing slowly toward a crowd of shouting, rock-throwing role-players, the unit stopped periodically to order the "rioters" to disperse, and when they did not, fired smoke grenades and blanks in their direction. In real life, the ammunition would include pepper spray and non-lethal rounds, explained the instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Posada. When the "rioters" assaulted a passing convoy, the Marines pulled out their batons and waded into the crowd to break it up. …