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Navy, Marine leaders tour 3 ships returning to SD

Three Navy ships that approximately 4,500 sailors and Marines have called home for the last seven months are sitting about 5 miles off Camp Pendleton — close enough to see, almost close enough to touch and close enough to be home.

Most of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit personnel onboard the ships were transported back to shore on Monday and Tuesday, but for the warfighters who remain onboard, their Wednesday return to home base can’t some soon enough.

The Makin Island Amphibious Readiness Group — which includes the USS Makin Island and her crew of roughly 1,200 sailors and 1,500 Marines; the USS Comstock with her crew of 750 personnel roughly split between Navy and Marine Corps.; and the USS San Diego, which housed 500 Marines and 400 sailors — will return to Naval Base San Diego on Wednesday morning after what Brig. Gen. Joaquin Malavet called a “long, tough deployment.”

The USS Makin Island as seen from the helicopter carrying Brig. Gen. Malavet and Rear Adm. Ponds who set out to tour all three ships in the Makin Island ARG.

Malavet, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and his naval counterpart, Rear Adm. Fernandez Ponds, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 3, toured all three ships Tuesday morning, thanking their personnel for a job well done and time for much-deserved relaxation.

The ARG operated out of the 5th and 7th fleet area of operations, but was called into unplanned action shortly after starting out.

With Tropical Storm Iselle inching closer to a group of six National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association researchers on a small island off Hawaii, the ships were turned around to go and rescue the scientists.

Because the island is a bird sanctuary, a helicopter or Osprey rescue was impossible, so troops from all three ships took small boats ashore to get researchers off the island.

The rest of the deployment included many opportunities for exercises and collaborations with foreign navys and military forces, including the Malaysian Armed Forces, Exercise Red Reef 15 with Saudi Arabian forces, Exercise Cougar Voyage 14 with British and Kuwaiti troops, as well as Marine sustainment exercises in Kuwait and Djibouti.

One of the last groups of Marines to disembark from the Makin Island after a seven-month deployment waits for their transportation in the hangar bay.

The vessels also conducted air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and spent time near Yemen, prepared to evacuate the embassy amid growing instability since Shiite rebels took control of the government.

Malaysia was a high point for several Marines, who said the Americans learned a lot about jungle warfare and survival, and the Malaysians came away with a better idea of amphibious transport and landing of soldiers.

There was also time for fun in Malaysia, including a soccer game pitting the Americans against the Malaysian forces. The U.S. lost, 2-0, but the sailors said it was fun and went a long way in deepening the relationship between the two nations.

All three ships had their own unique missions based off their capabilities, so they did not interact much during this deployment.

This was the first deployment for the San Diego, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock. Sailors onboard said it performed well, with no major problems coming to light.

“As you know very well, these are tough times for our country and there’s great strategic uncertainty,” Malavet said in an all-hands call aboard each of the three ships. “No worries Makin Island — with all of the uncertainty, there is clear certainty — it’s you. You guaranteed certainty and victory out forward on this deployment. Your goodness resonates kind, strong, courageous, dependable, honorable and, above all, patriotic.”

By all accounts, the Marine integration on Navy ships and with Navy personnel went smoothly, and though most Marines were gone by Tuesday’s visit, Ponds said their presence could still be felt, and he sang the praises of amphibious forces.

“Some people say the amphibious forces are the Swiss army knife that our nation needs — I say that’s true,” Ponds said. “But the blades are made of Ka-bar [a type of metal] and sustainable steel that could cut through anything and do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done.”

For now, the only thing that needs to be done for these 4,500 sailors, Marines and their families is clear — obey orders: “I want you to relax. Reflect. Reconnect with your families and friends. You have earned it,” Ponds said.

The Makin Island will be the first to pull into port at around 10 a.m. Wednesday, with the Comstock coming in an hour after, and the San Diego roughly an hour later.

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