OKINAWA, Japan (Sept. 26, 2011) Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit walk down the pier at White Beach Naval Facility to board the forward deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew R. Cole)

OKINAWA, Japan - The ships of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) embarked more than 2,000 Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) at White Beach Naval Facility for the ARG's amphibious integration training (AIT), and certification exercise (CERTEX) Sept. 26.

The amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42), and the amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9) worked hand-in-hand with the Marines to safely load personnel, equipment and vehicles in support of the upcoming training and exercise.

Throughout the AIT period, the MEU will conduct various exercise raids, ship-to-shore movements, flight operations and visit board search and seizure (VBSS) exercises.

"The embarkation of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit allows our amphibious ships to train for real world situations", said Capt. Bradley Lee, commodore, Amphibious Squadron 11.

During the exercises, ARG ships will conduct flight and well deck operations at sea across all of the platforms. The exercise will aid the ships of the ARG in remaining proficient in flight operations, well deck operations, ballasting, surface craft control, navigating close to shore and numerous deck evolutions, all of which may be called upon if the ARG is needed to assist in a disaster relief mission.

"Working with the MEU allows our Sailors to increase their overall effectiveness at conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, a core capability of the Navy's Maritime Strategy," said Lee.

The MEU will work with the ARG in conducting amphibious raids via landing craft air cushions (LCACs), landing craft utility vehicles (LCUs), and amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs).

AIT and CERTEX give the ARG and the MEU the opportunity to practice their skill sets in a combined and joint environment and are designed to increase both unit's effectiveness.

"The ability to work jointly with our Navy brethren is crucial to our contingency response mission in the Asia-Pacific region," said Marine Capt. Andrew Reaves, 31st MEU fires officer. "Given the rapid major subordinate element turnover of the MEU, conducting regular joint training like AIT is vital in maintaining unit readiness and proficiency in core competencies."

AIT and CERTEX are important in assessing the ARG and MEU's ability to conduct operational maneuvering from sea to shore before supporting bi-lateral exercises or contingency missions, said Reaves.

"Thirty-first MEU's amphibious integration training is a crucial event which allows the Marines of the MEU to conduct training and practice integration with our Navy counterparts of the amphibious ready group," said Reaves.

In order to conduct the exercise and various training evolutions, the ARG's combat cargo department had to onload 242 pieces of cargo, 33 trailers and more than 60 vehicles across three ships.

"The onload went very well," said Gunnery Sgt. John W. Janney, Essex senior combat cargo assistant. "We completed it with the rising tides, and we were able to kick out one LCAC in the middle of operations. We were able to use the two weeks before we got under way to get our Marines trained and licensed to operate the forklifts, and they knocked it out of the park."

The Essex Amphibious Ready Group reports to Commander, Amphibious Force Seventh Fleet, Rear Adm. J. Scott Jones, who is headquartered in Okinawa, Japan.