Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Blog Post - Bill Leighty

Day 3

What we did today is going to be a hard day to describe because "awesome" just doesn't cut it.

We had a wonderful European style breakfast at the hotel and headed to Naval Support Activity Souda Bay where we were assigned into six different "sticks" and strapped into safety gear. Each "stick" was assigned to fly on a CH 46 Sea Knight helicopter to the USS Iwo Jima.

Because of the noise levels we followed the directions given to us by hand signals and loaded on the choppers. It was a busy trip because we were taking it all in as we flew in formation with our sister aircraft clearly visible on our flanks. Upon arriving on the Iwo we were greeted by the Commodore of the battle group, Brian Smith. We also met the Commanding Officer of the Iwo, Captain Robert P Irelan and the Commanding Officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) 26, Colonel Desnes. A MEU is a force of about 2,200 - 2,400 battle ready Marines capable of quick reaction and projection into an operational area. The Iwo and the 26th MEU are here in the Mediterranean Sea for six months, just in case they are needed for rapid deployment anywhere in Europe, Africa or the Middle East.

Needless to say, for this old Marine it was quite an honor to be on the decks of the Iwo. She is relatively new to the Navy, (only 7 years old) and was designed from the ground up to do exactly what she does (what Marines specialize in): amphibious warfare. She houses an array of aircraft; helicopters and AV8 Harrier fighter jets. The deck was busy with flight operations and activities.

After a short briefing we headed to the "mess deck" and paired up with a Marine or Sailor for lunch. Since it was Sunday we had brunch. I sat with Lance Corporal Anthony Artis from Virginia. He told me about his role as a administrative specialist keeping the training rosters and records straight. Although trained as a supply clerk, he is enjoying this temporary assignment. Virtually everyone aboard has more than one occupation.

We went below decks to the "hold" to see how the combat support equipment is stored and prepared for deployment. To say the hold is packed tight would be an understatement.

We had a briefing in the hold and saw three LCACs. (Landing Craft, Air Cushioned). These landing craft are the only ships in the Navy with an entire crew that are all enlisted. The pride displayed by the crew was very evident. After briefing us on the statistics of the ship (It can carry 75 tons at speeds up to 50 knots and can move up to 200 miles inland in smooth terrain) our briefer was asked by one of the women in our group to tell us something about himself. His reply, " I am a cancer and I enjoy long walks on the beach....."

We proceeded to the hanger bay below decks for a series of briefings on the weapons carried by the MEU. We held, mounted and otherwise familiarized ourselves with a wide assortment of rather lethal weapons. Each weapon demonstration was manned by a team of Marines both helpful and knowledgeable about these weapon systems. My favorite; the MK (Mark) 19 grenade launcher. Capable of a sustained firing rate of 60 grenades a minute, the weapon is mounted atop a Humvee. When deployed side by side, two of these are capable of creating a complete "wall of steel shrapnel" because each grenade has a 5 meter "kill zone." The Mark 19 has a range of 1500 meters with a computer assisted targeting capability.

We observed an LCAC in operation and received a demonstration by Marines of a rapid rope decent to the deck of the hanger from a helicopter located on the flight deck. The display was damn impressive. When these professionals finished and took off their helmets you could see how remarkably young they are, yet with so much responsibility.

We returned topside for a hand to hand combat (martial arts) demo. All Marines now must receive this training. They demonstrated a wide variety of ways to incapacitate an opponent. Interestingly, for each hour of instruction a Marine receives on how to utilize these potentially lethal techniques, he (or she) is given four hours of instruction on when it is
appropriate to use such techniques and on respect for life. The goal is not to kill, but to gain the respect of your adversary so that the world knows that US Marines can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. So, from the design of the ship to the individual training of the troops, there is a huge awareness (and quite frankly pride) by all that while fighting is one option, humanitarian missions are a critical component of what today's military must do.

We then went to the vulture's nest, (a observation area just below the ship's bridge) were we observed launching of AV8 Harriers doing flight operations. They did vertical take off and landing procedures. Wow! We observed a Navy chopper rescue operation and had a final briefing in the ships wardroom by the officers.

We were just plain worn out but no less excited as we returned to our helicopters and headed back to Souda Bay. We had a traditional greek dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Mylos (the Mill) and called it a day. And what a day it was.

Tomorrow will be a surprisingly different day.

Yassou, Bill

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