A few years back, I was discussing the military's R&R leave program with some friends. Being the young and single sort, the lot of us, we decided that, when we took R&R leave during the middle of a deployment, we would all go someplace expensive. During a combat tour, you get 15 days of leave, and a free plane ride to get there. While I think that it is incredibly cute that some people fly all the way back home to West Virginia and whanot, it's also incredibly sappy. You got a free plane ticket anywhere in the world and you decided to fly to West Virginia? No thanks.
A number of us had taken full advantage of the leave policy during the deployment, with Soldiers going to Italy, Scandanavia, South America, the Serengeti, you name it. I decided a while back that I always wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef, and that, if given the chance, I'd use my R&R leave to do it. Not to mention there were a few other good aspects to Australia--namely, that I didn't have to learn another language, and that I'd also be as far away from the US military as possible during my leave. After eight months of reflector belts, it's good to get as far away from them as possible.
So imagine my surprise when I check into my hotel and the receptionist asks me if I'm with the Marines. I replied no, and asked why she would inquire such a thing.
As it turns out, less than 1/4 mile from my room is a 3000-strong Marine Expeditionary Unit, housed aboard the dock landing ship USS Tortuga and the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, USS Essex. Yes, despite my efforts to be as far away from the flagpole this vacation, I nevertheless find myself in the middle of a massive US-Australian combined exercise, named Operation Talisman Sabre. Fuck my life.
Much to my surprise, however, the US military has gotten quite the rock star reception here from the local community in Cairns. Whereas I would have expected protests, I was pleasantly surprised to see that each issue of the newspaper the past week has included a front-page story of American service men and women in action in Cairns, and there was even an eight-page pullout in the last issue regarding the USS Essex, which is quite an impressive ship.
The town of Cairns has shown incredible hospitality to the visiting ships, even hosting a 4th of July celebration, complete with concerts and a fireworks display which rivaled any of those found in the US. The service men of the ships, likewise, have spent the week touring the city, diving the reef, and, of course engaging in "public diplomacy" in the streets of Cairns. That actually roughly translates into walking up and down the streets, downing beer and interacting with young ladies of virtue untrue, but hey, no harm, no foul. In fact, the only large complaint thus far came from an editorialist who lamented the fact that the Americans didn't seem that interested in cricket and rugby.
What's actually great about the Australian newspapers is that, unlike the US, which is morally averse to alcohol, the Australians seem to be welcoming and encouraging the alcohol-fueled revelry. I'd love to drink too if the majority of American beers (Anheiser-Busch, MillerCoors) were more like Australian beers. The Americans have pumped a few million dollars into the local economy this past week (largely into the bars), so it's really a win-win for all involved. Hooray for alcohol: the cause of and solution to all the world's problems.
Going out, I went to a bar and discovered that it was populated by, what else, rotary-wing aviators. Yes, this is my life: I come all the way across the world and run into people who also fly Hueys, Cobras, Sea Hawks and CH-46s. Wonders never cease.
The appearance of the Essex and its capabilities demonstrates that the Marines need to stay true to their "expeditionary" roots. Ships like the Essex provides the United States with an exceptional capability--they're the equivelant of a mobile Brigade Combat Team, complete with armoured vehicles, hovercraft ships, troops, communications equipment and aircraft. Indeed, we must be careful that the ability to remain rapidly deployable does not atrophy, as I fear the case has been in the US Army. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Marines, as well as the lighter, more rapidly-deployable Army forces such as the 10th Mountain Division and the 82nd Airborne Divsion, are used to falling in on well-established bases, which come fully-stocked with hardened buildings, electricity, armoured vehicles and fully-loaded post exchanges and stores. We cannot assume that future deployments will look like the ones we are currently facing in Iraq and Afghanistan. At any time, the US may have to respond to a humanitarian crisis or a small war anywhere in the world that will require rapidly-deployable land and air forces. The Marine Expeditionary Units aboard ships like this are a vital means in providing that capability.
Being in Australia has also caused me to reflect on my own interaction with Australian troops in the past. I've been in units which frequently had an Australian liaison officer assigned to it, and I must say, that Australian troops are exceptional Soldiers. Although lacking the high-tech toys that the US has, they seem to make up for it with competence and audacity. Just take a look at one the US military's most prominent counter-insurgency advisors, Lt. Col/Dr. David Kilcullen. Whereas the US military's solution to roadside bombs was an ever-increasing amount of armour plating on vehicles, Kilcullen (and other counterinsurgency experts as well) noted that the best way to defeat the bombs was to get out of the trucks and constantly patrol on foot. While initially risky, these sorts of tactics gained the trust of the Iraqi people, who would turn in bomb makers and point out the locations of roadside bombs to US troops. Not to mention, if anyone doubts their audacity, look at the most recent recipient of the Victoria Cross (the British Commonwealth's highest military honor)--Trooper Mark Donaldson of the Australian SAS, who is one of the few who not only earned a VC, but also lived to tell the tale.
With that said, great place, amazing hospitality. Now, off to let my liver recover before punishing it yet again...