‘Workhorses’ out at sea
Iwo Jima group’s sailors, Marines keeping busy with missions
Climbing onto a 36-foot inflatable boat to be lowered 40 feet from the deck of USS San Antonio onto the Atlantic is just part of the day’s work for sailors with the Norfolk-based USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group.
“We do this every day,” said Capt. Darren Nelson, the group’s commodore, in a phone interview from the seas south of Ireland.
It’s an exercise to make sure that high-risk search and rescue missions on the high seas don’t go awry, he said.
It’s also how the group’s sailors, as well as the Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit who deployed with them three weeks ago, get to other ships when they need to board, inspect and if necessary, seize illegal weapons.
And that’s just some of the missions the group is ready to take on.
The Iwo Jima has Marine aviators and their Harriers — short-take-off jets that can land vertically — on board. With the group are sailors from Norfolkbased Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 26 and Assault Craft Units 2 and 4, which operate the landing craft and air cushion vehicles that bring Marines to the beach.
Those Marine Harriers mean the group can undertake strike missions while the Marines, the beach masters and Seabees are an expeditionary force that can respond to crises.
Onboard with the group is Fleet Surgical Team 6, with doctors and nurses who can turn the Iwo Jima and San Antonio medical department spaces into emergency operating rooms. They’re ready to go ashore with the Marines and sailors, as well.
Search and rescue and maritime security is yet another mission for which sailors drill on every day when lowering those inflatable boats.
“This is a dangerous evolution, and that’s why we practice it to make sure we do it right,” Nelson said.
This deployment marks the first time Marines from the East Coast have taken their new Joint Light Tactical Vehicles to sea.
They’re slightly bigger than the Humvees the Marines had been using. They and the group’s sailors were trying to find the best way to secure them onboard and load them onto the landing craft and air cushion vehicles on the San Antonio and Carter Hall well decks.
“It’s been a learning experience and we’ve got that down now,” said Col. Eric Cloutier, commander of the Marine unit.
The Marines and the group’s sailors have been working together for the better part of a year, Cloutier said.
That included several at-sea exercises and an intensive preparation for deployment earlier this year culminating in a livefire raid exercise that saw nearly 100 Marines and sailors converging on targets at Camp Lejeune’s newest range and an amphibious assault by a force of nearly 600 Marines and sailors.
Even in the tight confines of a ship at sea, the Marines continue their training — though it at times can demand plenty of ingenuity to figure out safe ways of doing so, Cloutier said.
Even live-fire practice is possible, off the ships’ flight decks, he said.
“We are ready to respond to anything,” Cloutier said.
And drilling every day, whether that’s the sailors on the group’s inflatable boats, or the Assault Craft Units’ sailors delving deep into their vehicles’ mechanical system, or the helicopter flights on which Navy nurses train on caring for the wounded, all add up to one thing, in Nelson’s view:
“We’re one team, a Navy and Marine Corps team ... we are workhorses.”