General: The Marines, Victims Of Their Own Success, Are Stretched Too Thin

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“The sun never sets on II MEF. We’re everywhere,” Lt. Gen. Robert Hedelund, the commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force, said Oct. 24 at the 2017 Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Annapolis, Maryland.


It sounds like a typical Marine boast… but it could also be a big problem. Currently, the Camp Lejeune, North Carolina-based MEF, a 42,000-strong force of ground combat troops, supporting elements, and air assets, is stretched across every combatant command around the globe, with 7,000 Marines and sailors currently deployed in support of operations abroad, according to a slide Hedelund shared with his audience.

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“If there's a bullet flying anywhere on the planet, Marines want to be there,” Hedelund said. “However, if something big breaks, there ain't a lot in the barn."

Marines and sailors with II MEF are augmenting American-led coalition forces in Syria under U.S. European Command. They’re in Afghanistan as part of Task Force Southwest with U.S. Central Command. They’re afloat in U.S. Pacific Command’s theater of operations. And there’s more. The East Coast MEF has personnel supporting operations in U.S. Africa Command and relief efforts under U.S. Southern Command. In U.S. Northern Command, where II MEF is based, the grueling deployment tempo has already taken a toll: Several ships deployed for hurricane relief efforts this year had to forgo participating in Bold Alligator 17, a major biennial naval training exercise.

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Hedelund was speaking ahead of a “Current Operations” panel discussion — and true to his point, one of the slated panelists, Col. Ryan Rideout, the commanding officer of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was unable to attend because he was deployed.

After returning from a seven-month tour that spanned Europe and the Middle East — and included peeling off an artillery battery to support combat operations against the Islamic State in Syria — the 24th MEU was retasked Oct. 11 to support hurricane relief operations in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

“Those ships at sea were not scheduled to be at sea,” Hedelund said. "They're tired, no doubt about that, but they're a ready force, and we can send them off to do the nation's work, should it be needed."

The 24th MEU isn’t alone in enduring round-robin overseas missions. A sister unit, the 26th MEU, was pulled off pre-deployment workups in September to deliver supplies to the Virgin Islands and coordinate logistics following Hurricane Irma, Military.com’s Hope Hodge Seck reported.

The dizzying operational pace could have far-reaching consequences for the Navy and Marine Corps team’s readiness.

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"I know we acknowledge that even though Marines may be ready to deploy, that ship is going to have to be ready to deploy, and we're not going to take any time away from them to make sure they're comfortable where they are," Hedelund said. "The Navy has gone way over the top on ensuring they can support that mission. But we're going to pay that price; we're going to pay that bill in availability in the months to come."

II MEF and its MEUs’ relief efforts, partner training exercises, and “boutique operations” — Hedelund’s description of the 24-hour, all-weather fire missions conducted by MEU-based artillery batteries in Syria — come at a cost for a military organization originally designed for mass maneuver and firepower. As combat ramped down in Iraq and Afghanistan, “warfighting at the MEF level was put on the back burner,” Hedelund said.

Part of the problem according to Hedelund is that the service, in its hurry to rush where there’s a “bullet flying,” may be “over-invested in relevance” but “under-invested in readiness.”

At the conference, Hedelund warned that should II MEF be called to ship out for a “MEF-level” fight — similar to what I and II MEF did during the 2003  invasion of Iraq, when they formed the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, designated Task Force Tarawa — the Marines may be hard-pressed to meet those demands, given II MEFs numerous ongoing missions.

"You begin to find out where your readiness is, and possibly is not, when you do short-notice, relatively ad-hoc deployments,” he said. “We want to be relevant, but we have to invest in readiness.”

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U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard
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NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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