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USS Iwo Jima Crew, Technology Wow Civilian Leaders

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

SOUDA BAY, Greece, Sept. 21, 2008 – Loaded bow to stern with 26 combat aircraft and ready to deliver up to 1,800 Marines ashore on demand, USS Iwo Jima has a lot to bowl over a first-time visitor.

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Participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference observe Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier aircraft conducting vertical takeoffs and landings aboard USS Iwo Jima, Sept. 21, 2008. The group visited the ship off the coast of Crete during its first stop in Europe visiting U.S. European Command operations. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kevin Gruenwald

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But Navy Capt. Robert M. Irelan, Iwo Jima’s commanding officer, said he has little doubt the civilian leaders who visited today were as wowed by the ship’s crewmembers as by its technology and combat power.

“It’s not the steel,” Irelan told participants in the Defense Department’s Joint Civilian Orientation Conference of Iwo Jima, one of the Navy’s largest amphibious assault ships that honors the 6,000 Marines and sailors killed during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

“It’s the flesh and blood. It’s the sailors and Marines who really are the Iwo Jima,” he said. “They are a national treasure, and the reason they are out here is they are committed to what they do. They are proud of what they do, and they want to show off what they do.”

The crew had a captive – and captivated – audience today as 47 business, civic and local government leaders boarded CH-46E Sea Hawk helicopters at Naval Support Activity Souda Bay and flew 15 miles off the coast of Crete to spend the day on Iwo Jima.

Iwo Jima left its homeport of Norfolk, Va., in late August and is in the Mediterranean Sea with five other ships and a fast-attack submarine that make up the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Group. In the days ahead, the group will begin its scheduled transit to the 5th Fleet area of operation in the Middle East.

“This is going to be a fascinating deployment,” Navy Capt. Brian T. Smith, the strike group commodore, told the JCOC group. “There are a lot of interesting events taking place in the world, and we have several ‘firsts’ for this strike group.”

One of its ships, USS San Antonio, is on the first operational deployment for its class of warship that brings advanced communications, targeting and force protection capabilities to the strike group. “It’s performing extremely well, beyond our wildest expectations,” Smith said. “It’s having a very successful first deployment.”

In addition, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage is the first ship from the East Coast to deploy with a ballistic missile defense system.

The JCOC group got a glimpse at the strike group’s capabilities as they toured Iwo Jima, the centerpiece of the group, which stretches three football fields long.

Iwo Jima carries 26 aircraft, including Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers that provide air defense and close-ground support, CH-53 Super Stallions and CH-46E Sea Knights that ferry troops and supplies, and AH-1W Super Cobras that provide close-in air support.

But much of the ship’s power rests below deck, where landing craft air cushions stand ready to deliver the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit with its vehicles and equipment for an amphibious assault. With some of the MEU forward deployed for a mission in the U.S. Central Command area, Iwo Jima has 1,100 Marines aboard, ready to respond to any contingency in the region.

“We are the strategic reserve for CentCom,” said Marine Corps Col. Mark Desens, the 26th MEU commander. “So we are part of the Johnny-on-the-spot guys. … We’re thrilled to be here, and we’re ready.”

Desens called the mission an important way to reacquaint his Marines with their amphibious roots. Although about 65 percent have deployed to Iraq, 85 percent are serving their first deployment aboard a ship, he said.

With so much of the world population in littoral areas, Desens said, it’s important that the United States maintain its amphibious capabilities.

“We are carrying the torch for the rest of the Marine Corps right now. We are keeping that flame alive and building to the future,” he said. “It’s a critical capability to the nation, not just for down the road, but for today, too.”

The JCOC group observed those capabilities as they watched an LCAC zip by at speeds hitting 45 knots, and saw Harrier aircraft demonstrate their vertical takeoff and landing capabilities from Iwo Jima’s flight deck.

They also saw how, in addition to its combat capability, Iwo Jima contributes to the U.S. maritime mission in a way a traditional carrier simply can’t.

Iwo Jima can support humanitarian and disaster relief missions by transporting people, delivering food, making drinkable water and providing medical care in an onboard facility that includes operating rooms, X-ray rooms, a blood bank, laboratories and patient wards. In a catastrophic situation, most of the ship’s hangar bay and flight deck would provide an overflow triage area.

Iwo Jima served as a command and control platform off New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 aided in an evacuation of Americans from Lebanon in 2006.

“This is not just a combat force but it is also a force for good in the world,” Smith said. “We have a tremendous span of capability as an expeditionary strike group, with an ability to provide humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and a great deal of assistance when it’s needed.”

That’s a big source of pride for the Iwo Jima strike group, but it also sends an important message, he said. “It’s a way of showing the world the type of people Americans are – good citizens who care about helping other people.”

As they toured the ship, the JCOC members chatted with the ships’ crew, asking about their jobs, why they joined the military and what keeps them motivated.

The participants walked away from the experience raving about what they saw and heard.

“There wasn’t one crewmember who wasn’t extremely enthusiastic, and they all seemed duty-bound to what they were doing,” said Brad Howell, chief executive officer of Lodestar Logistics Corp. in Houston. “Getting the opportunity to visit with them was truly inspirational.”

Admitting to a penchant for all things high-tech, Mona Bonaci, Microsoft Corp.’s senior director for strategic partnerships, said she was wowed by Iwo Jima’s technology. But what stood out most from her visit, she said, were the people.

“It’s just amazing to get to talk with these people who are giving their lives to serve,” she said. “This sounds corny, but I felt proud just to be in their company. The technology here is great, but it just doesn’t compare to seeing these men and women.”

“You look at the equipment and it’s pretty impressive,” agreed Brad Bulkley, president of Bulkley Capital in Dallas. “There’s a lot of the ‘awe factor’ here. But the bigger piece is meeting the sailors and Marines.”

Bulkey said he was particularly impressed by the leadership they demonstrate at such a young age. “It’s obviously instilled in them by the Corps and the Navy,” he said. “To see how this is all organized, and how well it all comes together, all I can say is that corporate America has a lot to learn from the armed forces.”

The JCOC group visited Naval Support Activity Souda Bay and USS Iwo Jima as the first leg of a week-long trip through the U.S. European Command area of operations.

The JCOC program has been introducing civilian “movers and shakers” to the military since 1948 by showing them military operations and giving them an opportunity to see men and women in uniform on the job. The first U.S. defense secretary, James V. Forrestal, created the program that remains DoD's premier civic leader program.

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Related Sites:
USS Iwo Jima
Special Report: JCOC 76
Joint Civilian Orientation Conference
U.S. European Command

Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard USS Iwo Jima demonstrate a fast-rope exercise for participants in the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference who visited the ship Sept. 21, 2008. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Kevin Gruenwald  
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