Elite Marine unit makes first strikes on Taliban

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11/05/2001 - Updated 05:44 AM ET Elite Marine unit makes first strikes on Taliban

By César G. Soriano, USA TODAY

ABOARD THE USS PELELIU — After weeks of sailing in circles off the coast of Pakistan, the U.S. Marine Corps finally picked a public fight with the Taliban. AV-8B Harrier jets were used in combat in Operation Enduring Freedom on Saturday. It was the first time such missions have been acknowledged by the Marines. The Harriers, which can land and take off vertically, dropped 500-pound bombs on command-and-control targets in southern Afghanistan. The pilots said they hit their targets. More airstrikes were launched Sunday from Harriers. In a separate mission Saturday, 24 Marines trained in the recovery of downed pilots left on two CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters to destinations that were not revealed. Each man aboard carried 100 pounds of gear including flak vests, ammunition, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons. By late Sunday, they had not returned to the ship.

The 2,200 Marines aboard the Peleliu and her two sister ships, the USS Comstock and USS Dubuque, are part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), an elite force trained in all aspects of warfare, from anti-terrorism and amphibious assault operations to airport seizures and civilian evacuations.

The 15th MEU is the largest known contingent of ground troops currently in the Afghan region. Its members are eager to see action. "I envy the Army. They're doing what I trained to do, and I'm stuck here on the ship," said Lance Cpl. Miguel Garcia, 21, of Hollister, Calif., referring to the recent raids in Afghanistan by Green Berets.

The Peleliu's motto is "Pax Per Potens," Peace Through Power. More than 800 feet long and 20 stories tall, it has the largest hospital of any ship in the Arabian Sea. Passengers include a contingent of Navy SEALS and special-ops Marines from the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company.

In addition to Harriers, the Peleliu's aerial arsenal includes Cobra attack helicopters, CH-46E Sea Knight troop transport helicopters and CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters.

In the belly of the three ships are parking lots crammed with 200 vehicles: M-1A1 Abrams tanks, amphibious assault and light armored vehicles, Avenger anti-aircraft systems, Howitzers, Humvees, trucks, motorcycles and ambulances. Giant hovering landing craft can be used to ferry the vehicles to shore.

"We are a 911 force," said Col. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the 15th MEU.

Saturday's mission seemed to indicate a growing role for the 15th MEU. Until now, the only ground mission off the Peleliu that the Pentagon has officially acknowledged was the recovery of a helicopter that crashed in Pakistan last month, killing two Army Rangers.

Marines from the MEU's Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Pilot force were sent to the crash site the morning after the accident Oct. 19. They encountered heavy gunfire, so the mission was aborted. However, the TRAP team successfully recovered the Black Hawk a few days later.

Ship officials would not comment on whether Saturday's mission was related to Friday's helicopter crash in Afghanistan that left four crewmen injured. The crew was rescued and the helicopter was later destroyed by Navy F-14 Tomcats to prevent it from falling into Taliban hands.

"We want to be used as a team, but at the same time it's not a good thing if the TRAP is called up because it means somebody got hurt," said Marine Staff. Sgt. James Byer, 29, of Melbourne, Fla.

There have been other missions off the ship, but officers won't comment on how many or where they went. The missions undertaken by Peleliu leathernecks are classified. Journalists are barred from reporting on ground operations originating from the ship.

"There are some things we do that people will never know about," said Lance Cpl. Mark Mooter, 20, a machine gunner from Seward, Alaska.

He said he has left the ship at least once but isn't permitted to say when or where. "Of course I'd love to tell everybody, but I can't. Since Sept. 11, everyone has gotten a lot more serious about what we're doing. Playtime is over."

Marines say it doesn't bother them that most of what they do may never be known.

"I think the public gets too much information already," said Lt. Lisa Newkirk, 23, a native of Novi, Mich., and commanding officer of the 15th MEU's Landing Forces Support Party. "If we get the recognition, that's great. But if not, we're still going to continue doing what we're doing."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 05, 2001

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