ABOARD USS BONHOMME RICHARD -- The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit wasted no time "being ready," as President George W. Bush demanded of all U.S. forces in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Finishing its Special Operations Capable Exercise a month ahead of schedule, "The Fighting 13th" executed 11 ship-to-shore missions during a 13-day at-sea period off the Southern California coast, Oct. 28 to Nov. 9.
"As the I Marine Expeditionary Force's G-7, our job is to prepare the 13th MEU to go to the Commanders In-Chief (CINC) of the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf regions, and as of Sept. 11, it's to prepare the MEU to go to war," said Maj. D. Bowen Richwine Jr., the operations officer for the Tactical Exercise Control Group (TECG), which evaluates and determines SOC certification for MEUs.
"Our business is warfighting and now more than ever, we want to get our fellow Marines ready for war, safely, correctly and completely," Richwine added.
At a later date, TECG will compile its evaluations of every mission and the MEU's Rapid Response Planning Process and determine SOC certification. A SOC certification will enable the 13th MEU to leave for its scheduled six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf region in January.
The I MEF Special Operations Training Group coordinated the scenarios for each mission, including 400 augmented actors, aggressors, mock media, 5th Platoon, 1st Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team (FAST) from Norfolk, Va., and representatives from the Department of State.
California National Guardsmen and reservists also volunteered as actors to ensure the MEU got the most realistic training possible, Richwine said.
"We tried to build scenarios that reflect real-world happenings," he said. "Units like the Reserves, Navy SEALS and FAST don't have the ability to put an exercise like SOCEX together. So when they heard about it, they came knocking and that adds to the realism and better trains the MEU. We're all on the same team here."
At SOCEX, the MEU planned and completed two Maritime Special Purpose Force missions, a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, a long-range helicopter raid, a troop reinforcement exercise, a boat raid, a humanitarian assistance exercise, an embassy reinforcement, a mass casualty exercise, a non-combatant evacuation exercise and an amphibious assault.
In addition to those missions, the MEU conducted a Supporting Arms Coordination Center Exercise - a three-day live-fire evolution on San Clemente Island.
Conducting such complex missions requires practice - a challenge due to the shortened timeframe before SOCEX.
"Despite the shortened timeline, the MSPF has come a long way," said Capt. Eric N. Thompson, platoon commander of 1st Platoon, 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, and San Diego native. "Moving into an (objective rally point) initially was just mass confusion. Now, everyone knows where to go and what to do. I contribute that to time spent working together and many late nights.
"It's been challenging not having as much time to work as an MSPF before SOCEX, but we're lucky because we have exceptionally strong personnel. There's a high level of confidence here."
Richwine put all concerns about the 13th MEU's shortened training timeline to rest. "This SOCEX was not different from the past, the Marine Corps has a standard that we set for the CINCs, and we're upholding that here. Even though the timeline for the 13th MEU was shortened, Col. (Patrick M.) Odonogue, the I MEF G-7, was not going to lower the bar."
The types of missions the MEU conducted during SOCEX reflect what they might be called on to do overseas. Out of 21 men, the Force Recon platoon has five Gulf War veterans and two who participated in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia - not a concern, Thompson said.
"We overcome a lack of actual combat experience by training in the most realistic environment possible. And SOTG and I MEF make this exceptional training come to life."
The 13th MEU Marines and Sailors hope to take that exceptional training and experience overseas, but for now, they stand ready waiting for the nation's call.