Under clear skies, the Navy’s newest “green” ship left its berth Monday morning and headed west with its amphibious ready group carrying more than 4,000 sailors and Marines to the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf regions.
The departure marks the maiden operational deployment for Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship built with hybrid electric-drive engines that use less fuel than conventional ships. The ship is the lead vessel for a three-ship ARG that includes dock landing ship Pearl Harbor and transport dock New Orleans, along with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“We are always sad to leave our families behind,” said Capt. Jim Landers, the ship’s skipper, speaking with reporters on Pier 13 at Naval Base San Diego. “But this is a day of celebration for the crew of the Makin Island to take the ship forward.”
“A lot of sailors want to see the world, they want to make a difference,” Landers said.
It was a bittersweet farewell for Engineman 1st Class (SW/AW/SCW) Eric Green, who stood on the pier to see off friends he’s known over the five years he spent on the ship.
“It is like my baby going away,” said Green, among the ship’s original sailors known as plank holders who have orders to new commands. He spent five years with the ship’s company, including several years at the Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard when Makin Island was “just a hunk of steel, a ship in the making. It’s hard to believe that this moment is here.”
For Marines with the 11th MEU, leaving San Diego means the long-awaited start to the scheduled seven-month deployment that will stretch into the new year and mean separations away from family and friends during the winter holiday season.
“We are ready to go,” said Col. Michael R. Hudson, who commands the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based unit. Noting the bright sunny skies after some weekend rain, “I think the only water around right now is the tears of the families.”
Like many of Makin Island’s crew, Hudson’s Marines spent Sunday night aboard the ship in preparation for the early departure and had said their goodbyes over the weekend. Still, a somber and smaller crowd gathered at Pier 13 for final kisses, hugs and well-wishes.
Allyson Chaney hugged her husband tightly as they spent the final hour before he had to board the ship. Chaney, 24, is no stranger to deployment and separation — her husband spent seven months in Afghanistan with Marines — but it doesn’t make it any easier. The couple just celebrated their second anniversary on Sunday.
“He’s been gone more than we’ve been together,” she said.
This deployment will be the first shipboard for her husband, Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class (FMF) Morgan Chaney, a platoon corpsman with Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine. While that means that he will likely spend more time on the ship — or at least close to it, depending on what missions the 11th MEU is called to do — that uncertainty contrasts with the certain worry she felt when he was on the ground in Afghanistan.
With the ship, “you won’t know what’s going on,” she said. “In Afghanistan, you know where he’s at.”
For “Doc” Chaney, 23, though, getting aboard the ship enabled him to help Marines march on through their own seasick episodes through three pre-deployment at-sea training exercises, earn his own set of “sea legs” and experience the Navy as countless other blue-side sailors do.
“It was an easier adjustment than I thought it would be,” he said.
Among the obstacles he had to overcome?
“Just getting used to the ship’s terminology,” Chaney said, noting unique naval words like “foc’sle, or forecastle. The ship’s berthing is more crowded than, say, a tent at a patrol base in Afghanistan and there’s long lines for meals on the mess decks.
“It’s just whole new experiences,” he added.
Chaney isn’t alone. The departure marks the first shipboard deployment for Lance Cpl. Ron Mitchell, an intelligence analyst with the MEU’s Battalion Landing Team 3/1.
“I’m ready for this. I’m excited,” said Mitchell, who already had said his goodbyes to his wife. “I want to go out and do what we need to do and come back.”
Mitchell, who enlisted nearly four years ago, already saw combat in Afghanistan with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, an infantry unit at Camp Pendleton, but he was impressed by the sight of the 841-foot-long Makin Island, packed with combat equipment that includes helicopters, Humvees, trucks, armored vehicles and artillery cannons.
“This ship is huge,” he said. But his day-to-day grind of getting around the ship will be a simpler formula: “Food, gym and smokes.”
It will get busy once Makin Island takes on its detachment of AV-8B Harrier attack jets and continues west with the ARG toward Hawaii. Navy and Marine Corps leaders weren’t saying just where the force will go or what it will do as the “theater reserve” for the regional commanders.
“It’s an uncertain world. There’s a lot of things that can change for us,” Landers, the ship’s captain, said.
But sailors and Marines likely will train with foreign military in ‘theater security cooperation” exercises.
“We get to work with other nations that we may find ourselves with down range,” said Hudson, who leads the MEU’s 2,400 Marines and sailors. “We seek any opportunity to get off the ship and train with our allies.”
“We bring a very, very robust capability” to track and nab pirates at sea, Hudson said. With the MEU’s Maritime Raid Force, “we can either do the mission ourselves or we can enable (special operations forces) based on the target or national command authority’s direction. We do have a great capability.”
“It’s an uncertain place out there,” he added. “Any mission that we get tasked, I think we are capable of doing it.”
The force also is prepared to help with humanitarian crisis or natural disasters in foreign countries, as well as evacuate citizens or hit the ground in Afghanistan if needed.
“We are going to be poised and ready for power projection based on United States foreign policy … either for combat readiness or combat presence” or humanitarian need, said Navy Capt. Humberto L. Quintanilla, II, commodore of Amphibious Squadron 5 and the ARG/MEU’s commander.
“That is really the key, that we are trained and ready to go as first-responders, to help those in need,” Quintanilla said, noting medical and surgical capabilities he has on the ship. “We can switch into a hospital type of environment. That expertise is in the ARG.”
“The things that are keeping me up at night are the great things we are going to do,” he said. “What are the challenges going to be and our ability to respond to them. We’ve got a well trained team. We’ve scored very high on all of our exercises and tests and challenges that met, so we are ready to go.”
story and photo by: Gidget Fuentes