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Associated Press Newswires

Marine Exercise 'Went As Planned' At Eglin

December 17, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) - Marines from North Carolina ended their first live-fire exercise in the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday and now will conduct an evaluation to determine if they'll return.

The Marine Corps is looking for new training sites to replace a Navy bombing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. The Navy closed it in May following a series of protests triggered when errant bombs killed a civilian security guard in 1999.

The Marines reported no significant injuries during the six-day exercise here.

"Everything went as planned," said Lt. Col. Bryan Salas, a Marine spokesman. "We're going to do a cost-benefit analysis to determine the future of our training here."

Current plans are to hold exercises at several installations so Marines can experience various types of terrain and geography. Also, certain training cannot be conducted at some sites.

At Eglin, large landing craft could not be used to bring tanks, troops and equipment to shore because of a shallow slope and many sandbars on Eglin's beach along the Gulf of Mexico.

That, however, is the kind of problem Marines may find on a real-world mission, said Col. Bob Nolan, commander of Eglin's 46th Test Wing.

About 1,700 members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, came ashore from three assault ships in smaller landing craft, hovercraft, amphibious assault vehicles and helicopters.

The landing on Santa Rosa Island was restricted to a small part of the beach to avoid harming dunes, plants and wildlife. As a result, Marines were unable to make an amphibious assault, but that's something they can practice at their home base, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

What Eglin offers that cannot be matched elsewhere in the eastern United States is a huge maneuvering area where the Marines can do live-fire training with every weapon at their disposal, including rifles, tanks and aircraft.

"I talked to a young captain from the MEU artillery and he said this is the only place he has trained in the same way he would employ if he had gone into combat," Nolan said.

Navy warships supporting the exercise were prohibited from firing at the beach. Instead, they used a virtual targeting system to lob shells at simulated land targets in the gulf.

The Navy already uses Eglin for live-fire training by aircraft carrier battle groups as a substitute for Vieques. No carrier, however, was involved in the Marine training.

Instead of protests, Marines were greeted by flag-waving supporters as their convoys passed through Fort Walton Beach and other communities.

Local officials see the Marine training as a plus for Eglin in the 2005 round of base closures and realignments because the military favors joint-use installations.

"We'd welcome them back anytime," said John Lulue, manager of the nearby city of Mary Esther, who said there was little disruption and no complaints from the public.

Traffic backups were feared but failed to materialize. U.S. 98 was closed as tanks and other tracked vehicles crossed the busy highway, but closures lasted no more than 10 minutes as the exercise began and ended.

The Marines will get a holiday vacation before resuming preparations for deployment to the Middle East.

"Within the next three months they could be on the ground somewhere in harm's way," Salas said. "What they learned here can save lives."

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