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The Marines Have Landed…Vilified On Vieques Embraced By Eglin

The Marines Have Landed

All eyes trained on exercise

Kimberly Blair

December 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Pensacola News Journal, Pensacola, Florida. All rights reserved.

As 14 Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicles rumbled across U.S. 98 about 9 a.m. Friday for combat training at Eglin Air Force Base, few spectators realized they were watching the same vehicles that advanced on Baghdad, Iraq, on March 21.

Some vehicles even carried seasoned Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans who volunteered for the exercise here to pass on sage advice to the combat-novice Marines training to deploy to the Persian Gulf region next year.

"My advice to them is to think outside the box at times because you never know what will happen," said 2nd Lt. Darrell F. Commander, 24, of Niceville, who recently returned from Iraq and was eager to help his comrades train in his own backyard.

All together, some 7,400 Marines and sailors spread across 15 Navy vessels are taking part in the 10-day military exercise meant to test the combined combat and tactical skills of the USS Wasp Expeditionary Strike Group and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. The exercise concludes Wednesday.

It's the largest land and sea operation ever to come to Northwest Florida. It also marks the first time the expeditionary forces have trained here.

More Marines were ferried by boat and helicopter from ships poised about 4,000 yards off Santa Rosa Island in the Gulf. More of the 1,700 Marines - along with hundreds of trucks, tanks and other vehicles - will continue to build up on the reservation today to begin three days of ground combat training on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Navy vessels will conduct manuevers in the Gulf.

Many of the young Marines didn't find what they expected when they got their first glimpse of their new training grounds.

"Where are the warm weather and palm trees?" asked Cpl. Jesse Gant, 21, of Minnesota. He made his first trip to a Florida beach encapsulated inside an assault vehicle packed with 20 others.

The cold weather will be the Marines' ally, though, said Navy Lt. David Thomas, medical planner for the exercise.

"Hopefully, because it is so cold, snakes won't be an issue," he said, referring to Eglin's reputation as home for an abundance of venomous species.

And the black bears?

"They should be hibernating," Thomas said.

The road crossing on U.S. 98, which raised many concerns about creating crippling traffic gridlock, went off without a hitch.

To everyone's amazement, the highway was closed a fraction of the planned time, and there were no traffic issues.

In less than 15 minutes, civilian traffic was stopped, and Marines literally rolled out the red carpet to protect the asphalt as the huge tracked vehicles rumbled across. By the time the last vehicle disappeared into the reservation seven minutes later, traffic on U.S. 98 was flowing smoothly again.

That was the first indication that Friday's landing exercise was unfolding much differently than initially planned.

Everyone was expecting thousands of Marines and hundreds of trucks, Humvees and tanks to arrive at Wynnhaven Beach on Hovercraft transport during a four-hour period. That would have required U.S. 98 to close up to three times, for 30-minute periods, during that window.

Plans were altered to convoy many of the troops and trucks straight from Santa Rosa Island to Eglin by road. That took convoys through Fort Walton Beach on Friday. Several similar convoys are expected to go through the city today.

That, in turn, took out much of the power and punch spectators had hoped to see at Wynnhaven on Friday.

Such last-minute changes are inherent to expeditionary forces, said Mike Spaits, an Eglin spokesman, adding, "They call it Semper Gumby: Always be flexible."

Lt. Col. Ben Braden, commander of the Marine Expeditionary Unit's Service Support Group, said landing plans were altered to reduce the impact on the public.

That was good news to Gen. Mike Hagee, Marine Corps commandant and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, who was on hand to oversee the exercise.

"(Highway 98) is one of the sensitive things here," he said.

Hagee expected the second crossing, which was rescheduled for sometime between 6:30 p.m. and midnight Friday, to be just as expedient.

In fact, Hagee, who toured the reservation by air, praised Eglin and the community - which, he acknowledged, has shown so much support for the operation.

"This is my first visit to Eglin," he said. "There is real potential down here. As you saw in Operation Iraqi Freedom, warfare today is joint. That is the way we are going to fight."

Eglin offers many opportunities for joint training with the Air Force, as well as Air Force Special Operations forces, Army Rangers and Alabama National Guard units, he said.

He declined to make comparisons between Eglin and Vieques, the tiny Puerto Rican island used by the Navy and Marines for training for more than half a century. Training shifted to Eglin and dozens of other bases along the East Coast when the military abandoned training there in May amid public pressure.

Hagee preferred to talk about the goal of the training exercise.

"This particular (Marine Expeditionary Unit) is preparing to go into harm's way," he said. "We bring a certain set of capabilities and need to train to that capability. We will train off North Carolina and here. And we are looking at any training area that will allow us to test our tactics, technology and procedures in a realistic way," he said.

Braden said Eglin will test the way they fight.

"One thing we know about deployments of MEUs is you are going to go places and do things you didn't plan to do," he said. "Any kind of training we can do in a new and unexpected environment during our work-up period is going to pay dividends later. That is why this type of training is so very valuable to us."

Residents get an eyeful

Several residents turned out to see what they could of the massive 10-day training exercise under way in the area.


Sandra Neto, 35, owner of a cleaning business, goes to Navarre Beach early and often.

"I've been here since 5 a.m.," the Navarre resident said on Friday. When she saw the ships: "I called, like, four of five people to come out here."

Neto and a friend used the Navarre Beach fishing pier to look out toward the silhouetted ships in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's a beautiful, clear day for it," she said.


Navarre resident Calvin Martin's reasons to be at the beach Friday morning were twofold: He wanted to catch some bait fish, and he wanted to see what he could of the Marines.

But both missions apparently turned out to be unsuccessful.

"I figured I'd come out here and see if I could see anything," said Martin, 29, as he was returning to his vehicle with only his fishing poles.

He wanted to witness part of the Marine landing force, but he saw only a couple of large vessels floating miles away in the Gulf.


Harriet and William Elliott of Navarre have a son assigned to the Navy destroyer USS O'Bannon, one of the ships participating in the military exercise.

William Elliott, 80, was a little disappointed he couldn't see more of the 15 Navy vessels involved in the training. He could only see one or two ships in the distance. Ships were as far out as 12 miles.

"I thought we'd see at least four or five ships out there," he said.


Lorene Davis and Tom Wilson spend five months a year at their Navarre condominium, where many of their neighbors are military retirees. Davis and Wilson - both retired - are from Cleveland.

"It seems like they're all retired lieutenant colonels," said Wilson, 66, describing his Navarre neighbors.

With so many of their neighbors having ties to the armed forces, it's not difficult for them to see that this is a military town.

"It doesn't bother us one way or another," Wilson said.

News of a huge exercise that might impact traffic on U.S. 98 didn't keep them from making their annual pilgrimage to Navarre.

"We really like it down here," said Davis, 65. "There's so much to do."


Professional catamaran racer Mark Murray, 42, of Midway parked his white Ford F-250 pickup facing east so he could view the exercise with his binoculars.

"I came out yesterday, and the ships were a little farther out - I couldn't see anything," he said.

Murray worked as a charter boat captain in the Caribbean and was familiar with the exercise when it took place on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico.

Ships in the Gulf of Mexico are warned to keep their distance. Military training could impact local vessels, and possibly local catamaran races, Murray said.

"I'm concerned," he said. "I think the jury is out as to the effect on our area."


At the Wynnhaven Beach landing site, several local residents were engaged in a Marine landing party complete with mimosas - a concoction of champagne and orange juice.

"This is fantastic," said Gene Proctor, 69, of Mary Esther, who joined the group standing on the beach just a few yards from the Amphibious Assault Vehicles that emerged from Santa Rosa Sound and tracked up on the beach.

Don Carver, 63, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who organized the party at his weekend Soundside home, said he loves anything military.

"I'm waiting for the LCACs. I'll be disappointed if I don't see them," he said of the huge Hovercraft transports, which finally showed up several hours later with armored tanks on board.

Anticipation over the exercise was so great, the group stayed up all night to see it kick off at the crack of dawn.

- Compiled by Derek Pivnick and Kimberly Blair

Marines Vilified On Vieques Embraced By Eglin

By Bill Kaczor | The Associated Press

December 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE -- The red carpet was rolled out, literally and figuratively, for Marines who landed Friday on beaches at this Panhandle base.

And that was in direct contrast to the protests that greeted them at a former training site on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico.

William Lightburn, 76, a Korean War Army veteran, and his wife, Wanda, 68, lined their yard at Wynnhaven Beach with small U.S. flags and invited about a dozen disabled veterans to watch from their pier on Santa Rosa Sound about 100 feet from one of three landing sites.

Marines then put out red carpet -- although upside down, exposing its silvery back -- to protect U.S. Highway 98 from sand and possible damage while amphibious assault vehicles and tanks crossed the busy highway to reach the interior of this 724-square-mile base.

"This is where the action is," Wanda Lightburn said. "We are very supportive of the military and have had very good experience with them."

About 50 local people stood along an entrance road and waved at the Marines, who are training for a deployment to the Mediterranean and possibly Iraq, as their vehicles crossed the highway.

Landing craft and hovercraft disgorged about 100 vehicles on the shores of the sound, Choctawhatchee Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

About 1,500 members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., are participating in the six-day live-fire exercise with the Navy and Air Force. Another 5,500 Marines, sailors and airmen are aboard ships in the gulf or flying from Eglin and other nearby bases.

The Marines will use the exercise to decide whether to make Eglin a permanent training site, one of several installations under study to replace Vieques.

The Navy closed its bombing range on the Puerto Rican island in May. A series of protests erupted after errant bombs killed a civilian security guard in 1999.

A visit by Gen. Michael Hagee, commandant of the Marine Corps, underscored the importance of the exercise. Hagee declined to compare Eglin to Vieques but said the air base, which includes beaches, forests and swamps, has excellent potential.

"We are looking at any training area that will allow us to test our tactics, techniques and procedures in a realistic way," Hagee said.

Terry Ewing, 43, of Wynnhaven Beach, who was among the crowd cheering the troops on, couldn't understand the protests that drove the Navy and Marines from Vieques.

"I think they need to get a grip," she said. "These people that protest don't understand the times we are living in."

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