ABOARD THE USS WASP -- Assaulted by a biting Atlantic wind, a group of young Marine infantrymen, mostly teenagers on their first deployment, crowded the fantail of the USS WASP to catch a final glimpse of the North Carolina coastline before it disappeared beneath the horizon.
As the sandy beaches slipped from view, the Marines filtered away one by one into the gray hull of the amphibious assault ship, their new home for at least the next six months.
The February 19 departure of the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) from the eastern U.S. seaboard marks the 19th time the unit has sailed forth into harm's way. In addition to the WASP, the MEU is embarked aboard the SHREVEPORT and WHIDBEY ISLAND as part of Expeditionary Strike Group 2 that also includes the cruisers LEYTE GULF and YORKTOWN, destroyer MCFAUL, and attack submarine CONNECTICUT.
The 22d MEU (SOC)'s long and difficult journey to reach this point began in August 2003 when the unit assumed operational control of its major subordinate elements; Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), and MEU Service Support Group 22.
"This is as good a MEU as has ever pushed off the coast of North Carolina and headed east," said Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commanding officer of the 22d MEU (SOC). "We're poised and ready to go out and strike at the enemy's heart."
Most of the Marines boarded their three amphibious ships at Norfolk, Virginia, while rolling stock and equipment were loaded via the port at Morehead City, N.C. and across Camp Lejeune's Onslow Beach. Prior to its Marines leaving, BLT 1/6 and the MEU's other elements hosted departure briefs for the Marines and Sailors' families.
"It's with great honor and humility that I deploy with these men," said Lt. Col. Asad A. Khan, commanding officer of BLT 1/6, speaking to a group of Marines and their families. "No unit is better trained and ready to go, so take this brief time and spend it with each other."
Also attending many of the departure events was Sgt. Maj. John L. Estrada, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, who set aside the time to bid farewell to the MEU.
"In many ways I envy you as you go out," said Estrada, who deployed as the 3d Marine Aircraft Wing's Sergeant Major during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM prior to assuming his current position. "Everyone in the Washington, D.C. area are glad the Marines are on watch."
The 22d MEU (SOC)'s deployment is expected to last until at least August and will take the unit to the Mediterranean region and Central Command area of operations.
For more information on the organization, mission and status of the 22d MEU, visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.