Marine quick-response unit heads for home after Middle East deployment

by Vern Evans

A Marine quick-response unit that had been ordered to move near Israel after the Israel-Gaza war broke out is finally heading for home.

The special-operations-capable 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, embarked across three Navy ships, left the Mediterranean Sea on Tuesday and is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the Navy said in a news release Wednesday.

The Marines and sailors will return to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia, the release said.

“Our presence in the Eastern Mediterranean was exactly what our nation needed: an integrated Navy and Marine Corps force ready to respond when called upon,” said Navy Capt. Martin Robertson, the Amphibious Squadron 8 commodore, in the news release.

The ships — the amphibious assault ship Bataan, the dock landing ship Carter Hall and the amphibious transport dock ship Mesa Verde — deployed from Virginia on July 10, 2023.

Initially, the ships spread out, with the Bataan and Carter Hall traveling in the Central Command region and the Mesa Verde making stops across Europe.

But in the days after Hamas’ Oct. 7, 2023, attack on Israel, Marines departed early from a training exercise in Kuwait and returned to the Bataan and Carter Hall “to prepare for further tasking as a result of emerging events,” unit spokeswoman Marine Capt. Angelica White told Marine Corps Times.

By Oct. 18, 2023, the Bataan was in the Gulf of Aden, captions of photos posted by the Corps indicate. Thirteen days later, the service described the ship as being in an “undisclosed location” in the Middle East region.

“The 26th MEU right now does not have orders,” Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Oct. 26, 2023. “They are there so that the secretary and the president can make a decision if they are needed. They are in the region. But I’m not going to get into specific operational details at this time.”

The Mesa Verde, which had been receiving mid-deployment maintenance in Rota, Spain, headed out into the Mediterranean Sea in October 2023.

In February, a defense official confirmed to Military.com that the deployment of the Marine unit and the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, as the naval component is called, had been extended. The extension came amid maintenance issues that have delayed the deployments of other amphibious ships.

By then, the three ships were in the Mediterranean Sea, and the group was transferred to NATO command to train with NATO forces and the Turkish navy.

On March 1, while the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit was in Souda Bay on the coast of the Greek island Crete, the top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz, met with its Marines and sailors aboard the ships.

The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is the first Marine expeditionary unit to get the special-operations-capable designation in more than a decade, according to a July 2023 news release from the unit. The unit is made up of approximately 2,400 Marines and sailors from the North Carolina-based II Marine Expeditionary Force.

The Marines in the unit aren’t themselves special operators.

Rather, they received enhanced predeployment training in areas including the recovery of aircraft and people, raids, stealthy insertion and extraction of special patrols, maritime interdiction, and noncombatant evacuations. The unit’s Maritime Special Purpose Force has practiced integrating with special operators, including Navy SEALs, White previously told Marine Corps Times.

The Navy’s Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group remains in the Middle East, where U.S. carriers jets and warships have shot down dozens of missiles and drones launched by the Houthi rebel group.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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