Photo Information

Lance Cpl. Paul Varone, of New City, N.Y. and a basic electrician with the 22nd MEU (SOC), repairs a "turtle" breaker box in FOB Hit, Iraq Jan 12, 2006. The 22nd MEU (SOC) is conducting counterinsurgency operations in Al Anbar province alongside an Iraqi infantry battalion, collectively under the tactical control of the 2nd Marine Division.

Photo by Sgt. Robert A. Sturkie

Keeping the command element running

9 Mar 2006 | Lance Cpl. Peter R. Miller

When the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) left Iraq last month, these Marines were the last ones out. It was typical for them, as they are routinely the first ones in and last to leave. They are the Headquarters Commandant section and are responsible for keeping the command element functioning. 

When they arrive, they have the lead in getting the Combat Operations Center ready, so command and control can be provided to the MEU’s combat forces. Soon thereafter, the Headquarters Commandant Marines seem to fade into the scenery, quietly taking care of nearly every need and potential crisis that usually occurs in the middle of the night. They are an eclectic mix of personalities and backgrounds, collectively focused on the things that many take for granted. 

This handful of Marines brought some of the comforts of home to Forward Operating Base Hit, an area the MEU occupied on the outskirts of Hit, Iraq, approximately 30 miles northwest of Ramadi.

According to the Headquarters Commandant Master Sgt. Edward F. Agans, an Oneida, N.Y., native, after setting up the base itself, his Marines organized potable water distribution, provided hot showers, electricity, heat, and coordinated laundry for the personnel aboard FOB Hit.

Administrative clerk Lance Cpl. Joe L. Castillanos, of Houston, Texas, organized the laundry service and oversaw working parties that kept FOB Hit clean.

While police-calling near the concertina-wire perimeter of the base one crisp morning, Castillanos said, “We’re Marines who people on the base see every single day. Everybody knows Headquarters Commandant [Marines].”

Many Marines stop by the Camp Commandant’s office after they returned to FOB Hit from a mission or convoy; because, even in Iraq, Marines were still required to keep fresh hair cuts.

“Master Sergeant [Agans] cuts the hair, and I fix it,” joked Sgt. Shane M. Laakso, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. native, who is considered the best barber in the MEU.

Meanwhile, two other Empire state Marines were on-call 24 hours a day to fix breaker boxes and generators that provided the Command Element with electricity. Lance Cpls Kelon C. Charles and Paul E. Varone agreed that sometimes being an electrician can be tough.

“Being awoken at two o’clock in the morning to fix a generator in the rain can be frustrating,” said Charles, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native. “But, in this line of work there isn’t really any option.”

“We set everything up from the tents to the generators that power them,” Varone, a New City, N.Y., native, added. “All the Marines really have to do is add fuel.”

“The close proximity of fuel to electrical circuits, scalding surfaces and flammable materials can present many safety hazards,” said Gunnery Sgt. Hubert F. Jones, the MEU safety officer.

Jones regularly conducted electrical, fire, and smoke-detector inspections and bi-weekly classes to keep the base hazard free.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the electrical contraptions I’ve seen,” said the Oveido, Fla., native, during one such class. “Splicing a 220 volt plug onto a 110 volt appliance doesn’t magically make it work, but it might kill you.”

“The Commanding Officer had me give classes to curb any safety hazards that were showing a trend,” explained Jones. “He told me to constantly emphasize ORM (Operational Risk Management), because the one thing he hates most is losing a Marine to a safety mishap.”

After the classes on electrical, vehicle, and knife safety, the number of incidents dropped considerably,” he added. “I’m just thankful I never had to give the same class twice.”

In addition to providing clean laundry, electricity, and a safe work environment, the Headquarters Commandant section also assisted with food service. Several specialists helped in the daily preparation and serving of hot chow.

Sergeant Kentrell L. Davis, after returning to the FOB from weeks outside the wire, attested to the benefits of finally getting food prepared by professionals.

“I love the chow, it’s great,” said the Pikeville, S.C., native. “It’s a whole lot better than MREs (Meals Ready to Eat),” he said

Despite the ups and downs, Pfc. Siddonie L. Logan believes her job as a food service specialist is important. To her and her Marines, eating two hot meals a day can mean everything.

“I see my job as a morale booster,” said the Brooklyn, N.Y., native. “It just means the world to me when a Marine returns from the field, smiles and says, ‘Thank You’.”

Corporal Christian M. Mitchell, of East Orange, N.J., also saw his job as a morale booster because of the easy atmosphere the chow hall provided.

“Obviously, dinner at the chow hall is an opportunity for people to eat together, but they usually hang out and converse for a while,” he said. “It’s a chance to relax during the hectic schedule.”

For Pfc. Sedrick Lawson, an Atmore, Ala., native, unloading trucks and managing the chow-hall’s store room was a welcome break from life aboard ship.

“On ship, the cooks work 16 hour shifts with someone always looking over your shoulder,” said Lawson. “We’re always busy chopping vegetables, handling hot pans of food, and cleaning. The kitchen’s a hot place to work.”

“Working out here is alright,” he added. “Gunny tells us what he wants done every morning, and as long as it’s completed he leaves us alone.”

Lance Cpl. Bellisima A. Gross, of Exira, Iowa, understood the stress felt by many Marines who visited the FOB. She took it upon herself to make them feel at home.

“The Marines in the field had it worse than we did,” she said. “When I saw Marines coming in from patrol, I knew who they were. It was obvious; they were the ones wearing muddy faces and flak jackets. I’d always give them double portions, even though I would sometimes get yelled at for it.” She said with a smile, “I figured it’s worth it when you’re feeding hungry Marines.”

Mitchell understood perfectly the often unseen role he and his fellow Marines played aboard FOB Hit.

“It’s simple, if our section didn’t do our part, then the rest of the unit wouldn’t be able to do theirs,” he explained. “It’s a team effort here in the MEU.”

In addition to the Command Element, the MEU consists of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, MEU Service Support Group 22 and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced). The MEU was conducting counterinsurgency operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, but has since moved out of country and boarded ships of the Nassau Strike Group.

For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)’s role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, visit the unit’s web site at
22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit