During December we were all keeping close tabs on the news as it seemed obvious that something was about to happen with Iraq. None of us went far from home over the holidays.
I spent the holidays with my wife, June, in our quarters aboard Camp Lejeune. I went through all of my personal equipment ensuring everything was in a good state of serviceability. In my mind I knew we would be going somewhere soon. I think June realized where my mind was at, when in late December I disassembled all my firearms and began greasing them up for long term storage.
At the 2MEB Hq, we were already "leaning forward" as they say, anticipating what would soon come, preparing and staging all of our stuff for rapid embarkation. It was around the 3rd of January that the official word came. We finalized our packing of personal and unit gear in short order. The word was "plan on being gone for a year".
I'm a member of the 2MEB Command Element (G-3, Fires). Our Brigade consists of three subordinate elements, the GCE (Ground Combat Element, 2d Marine Regiment), ACE (Air Combat Element, Marine Aircraft Group 26), and CSSE (Combat Service Support Element, CSSD 22). My particular duties as the Fires Chief involve planning, coordinating, and execution of fire support (fixed-wing, rotary-wing, artillery, rockets, naval gunfire) in support of the Brigade's mission.
2MEB embarked on seven amphibious ships from the east coast. I and over 1000 other Marines embarked on the USS Kearsarge. 11 January was like a typical training type deployment. Up at zero-dark-thirty, (0300). I hate being rushed so had my pack and seabag cinched up and ready to go a few days prior. I had enough time to drink about a pot of coffee and relax before putting my stuff in my June's car so she could drive me down to the unit armory at 0500. She was pretty quiet that morning, and strong. It was well below freezing outside, so after drawing my M9 pistol (Beretta 92), KA-BAR, and 2 MREs, I went back and sat in the car with my June for another 30 minutes or so. The plan was to muster at 0600, board busses and be on the way to Norfolk by 0700. So, at 0555, I kissed June goodbye and told her I loved her. She told me she loved me and would pray for the fighting angels to protect me, smiled, and drove away into the darkness. I remember how calm she seemed leaving me that morning and I was thankful for her strength and faith. Well, as usual, busses were late, and we stood around until 1030 before actually getting moving, by then it had warmed up to about 45 degrees or so. We passed the time together talking and joking in typical Marine fashion, we are experts at playing "hurry up and wait" and this was another fine example of it. Some of the wives waited with their husbands until the busses came. Also some media was there filming and doing little interviews with some of the Marines and their wives.
The bus ride to Norfolk was uneventful and quiet. I think we were all either sleeping, or thinking of our families, and the uncertainty of what laid ahead.
We finally arrived at the bustling pier at Norfolk around 1600. Sailors were busy loading all manner of supplies onto the ship from food to toilet paper. Ammunition and fuel was already aboard. The grey beast seemed somehow different this time as I looked at her. I couldn't help but wonder If and when she would carry me back home. The busses pulled right up on the pier so it was nice only having to walk a short distance to the gangway of the ship. My back was still tender from disk surgery only 9 weeks earlier. I did manage getting all my kit aboard in one trip but it seemed like it was going to do me in. The Medical Officer had recommended I not deploy, but there was no way in hell I was staying home for this deployment if I was able to walk. I made my way up the gangway, saluted toward aft as is customary, then saluted the officer of the deck, and requested permission to board. He returned my salute and gave me permission to board. I knew the layout of the interior of this ship as I have been aboard the LHDs on many occasions. It was cool outside, but inside the ship, it was warm. All the different smells: the strong smell of fuel, paint, chow on the mess decks, the bread from the bakery, and the smell of mechanical grease seems to be the over riding smell that sort of permeates everywhere. So I made my way to the senior enlisted troop berthing and claimed a rack, made it, and stowed my gear. It is a relief to unburden myself of the weight of my gear and equipment. I had worked up a sweat just getting to berthing. Between the seabag, pack, helmet, flak jacket, harness, weapon I have about 170 pounds of stuff, moving with all of it through narrow passageways, up and down steep ladders is a royal pain in the a$$. It never gets easy no matter how many times you do it. Somehow, it seems every time I get on a ship, it feels like I have never really left it. I checked my men's berthing and had dinner in the chiefs mess. The Navy certainly does feed well. The Kearsarge is an amphibious assault ship designed to transport and sustain a Marine force of over 1000. It resembles an aircraft carrier sort of, with a 860 ft flight deck. But it also has a floodable well deck with a stern gate for putting surface landing craft ashore.
Then began the next phase of our deployment, the trip over...
(Continue to PART II)
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