EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- A visit by Gen. Michael W. Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and his senior enlisted advisor, Sgt. Maj. John L. Estrada, underscored the importance of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit's (MEU's) arrival in northwest Florida for the second portion of its Expeditionary Strike Group Exercise (ESGEX).
ESGEX began in North Carolina earlier in December where the MEU executed a number of missions including a noncombatant evacuation operation, heliborne precision raid, embassy reinforcement, and humanitarian assistance mission. The second portion of the exercise, to be conducted aboard Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, entailed an offload of nearly 80 percent of the MEU's forces, established of a large command post ashore, live fire and maneuver training, a supporting arms exercise, and mechanized, boat, and helicopter raids.
Hagee and Estrada arrived just as the first vehicles and personnel of the MEU began streaming ashore and were greeted by Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the MEU's commanding officer, and his sergeant major, Sgt. Maj. George H. Mason. After a brief on the pending exercise, the four boarded two UH-1N Huey helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the MEU's aviation combat element, for an aerial tour of the landing sites and inland ranges of Eglin AFB.
Upon completion of the tour, the group arrived at Santa Rosa Island, a barrier island where the initial landings were taken place, and met with local and state distinguished visitors and a throng of press covering the exercise.
"We're looking at any training area that will allow us to test our tactics, techniques, and procedures in a realistic way," said Hagee, addressing the rationale for the MEU's exercise aboard Eglin Air Force, just outside the city of Fort Walton Beach.
While Hagee and McKenzie shared the microphone, Sergeants Major Estrada and Mason circulated among the Marines gathered on the beach.
"I've been where you are before," said Estrada, addressing a group of Marines and Sailors from the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) and Combined Arms Anti-tank (CAAT) Platoon of Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, the MEU's ground combat element. "I know it's hard to train, train, and train just to prepare to go on deployment, but all this will help you win when you get there."
Estrada then asked if there were any Marines in the group who had recently been promoted, and Staff Sgt. Jason B. Thompson, of Chutauqua, New York, the LAR platoon sergeant, offered up his platoon's corpsman, Petty Office 3d Class Robert S. Spejcher. Only days earlier, the Chicago native had been meritoriously promoted to his current rank.
Moving forward to shake Spejcher's hand, Estrada slipped the young corpsman one of his coveted coins emblazoned with his name, title, and rank insignia.
"It was pretty neat, something I'd never have expected" said Spejcher, fingering the coin after Sgt. Maj. Estrada moved off to meet with other Marines.
One of these Marines was Lance Cpl. Mike D. Mosier, of Bluffton, Indiana, who was surprised to see the Marine Corps' senior enlisted Marine climbing onto his light armored vehicle for a chat.
"He just asked me how the training was going," said Mosier, answering a reporter's question about what he and the sergeant major discussed.
Hampered by a tight schedule, Hagee and Estrada could remain with their Marines and Sailors for only a short time, but their visit left a lasting impression.
"I've never met him [Sgt. Maj. Estrada] before, or even seen the commandant, but it was a great experience."
In addition to BLT 1/6 and HMM-266 (Rein), the 22d MEU consists of its Command Element and MEU Service Support Group 22. The unit is scheduled to deploy early next year aboard the amphibious assault ships WASP, WHIDBEY ISLAND, and SHREVEPORT as part of ESG 2.
For more information on the mission, organization and status of the 22d MEU, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.