Cpl. Chris Leoni, with Security Element, Headquarters and Service Company, Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, takes aims with his M4 during a live-fire training exercise aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima on Dec. 9. (Lance Cpl. Tucker S. Wolf / Marine Corps)
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As violent protests erupted across the Middle East and North Africa this fall, the 4,000 Marines and sailors comprising the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group were on alert, ready to go in. In fact, they remained on that status for 150 days, the majority of their deployment in the 5th and 6th Fleet areas of operations.
The tension may have reached its zenith on Sept. 14, when protestors, angry over an anti-Islam online video, attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sudan. The crisis-response force for top military commanders in the region, including U.S. Central Command, was prepared to go and waited for the order to respond, said Col. Frank Donovan, the 24th MEU commander.
That order never came, however, as Sudanese officials rejected a plan for additional Marines to augment embassy security.
The unrest in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, was part of widespread unrest across Northern Africa and the Middle East sparked by the online posting of the trailer for a film, made in California, that ridiculed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Protesters also clashed with police near the U.S. embassy in Cairo and attacked Western embassies in Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. In Benghazi, Libya, terrorists attacked a U.S. consulate that had no Marine security force assigned, killing the ambassador and three members of a State Department security team.
Donovan said he couldn't discuss details of mission planning due to operational security concerns, but he and his staff spoke directly to U.S. embassy officials and ambassadors' teams to get detailed updates on the protests and happenings on the ground.
"At different times, we were given direct liaison authority right to the embassies. We were getting hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute pulses — Hey, how is it looking," Donovan said, speaking by phone from the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima at sea.
While tracking developments in multiple countries, their primary focus was on Sudan.
The 24th MEU stayed in contact with officials ashore "to make sure we knew exactly what the situation was so if they needed us, we would be ready, and then we could time out that long flight into Khartoum," he said.
Evacuating Americans from overseas embassies and rescuing downed pilots are among the two dozen or so specialized missions that an MEU, along with its Navy amphibious ready group, train to do. As the nation's "911 force," as Marines often call such MEU deployments, Marines and sailors are ready when trouble flares up and the call comes for them to respond to a crisis.
The Khartoum protest wasn't the first time the 2,300 members of the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based unit prepared to respond, Donovan said. The 24th MEU, embarked with the Iwo Jima, dock landing ship Gunston Hall and transport dock New York, was "on alert" for 150 days "supporting embassy reinforcements or other missions" during the deployment, he said.
"We've been on alert and been lined up for so many contingencies," he said. For much of the deployment, which included a total of two months' spent ashore training, the MEU was "focused on crisis-response planning, preparation, alert statuses [and] full-mission profile rehearsals."
Although other military units train and respond to crises overseas, Donovan said the seagoing MEU/ARG team is unique in that it gives commander, ambassador or other diplomatic official "a whole lot of flexibility when he's thinking about his options when faced with crisis."
"We provide that decision space for … the commanders and the ambassador," he said. "We can move in close to the beach. We can back off."
Donovan said the aerial refueling capabilities of its MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, CH-53E Super Stallion transport helicopters and two KC-130J Hercules refueler transport airplanes gave the 24th MEU the flexibility to reach and respond far from their ships or temporary bases ashore. And, with at-sea replenishments, an MEU deployed on Navy ships can loiter "indefinitely off the coast," he said. "We can ramp up our posture or ramp it back down."
The 24th MEU and Iwo Jima ARG spent several months in the U.S. Central Command region, where forces are stretched from Kuwait and the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti and Italy, said Capt. Robert E. Shuford, an MEU spokesman. They are winding down the extended deployment this week. But their return home was delayed in mid-November when the force received a last-minute order to return to the Mediterranean and again provide the 6th Fleet commander a crisis-response force to use if needed.
The MEU is now en route to the United States, and Marines and sailors are expected to be home for the holidays.