WHITE BEACH NAVAL FACILITY, Okinawa (March 3, 2012) Landing Craft Utility (LCU) 1631 is guided to the forward-deployed amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46) by Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Jonathan Miller as Boatswain's Mate 3rd Class Christian Riddle stands ready to cast a heaving line to begin stern gate marriage operations to unload U.S. Marine 7-ton trucks as LCU 1627 passes behind. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Crosby)

OKINAWA, Japan - Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) embarked more than 2,000 Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and departed White Beach Naval Facility in Okinawa, Japan for the ARG's amphibious integration training (AIT), and certification exercise (CERTEX) March 4.

Amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), amphibious dock landing ship USS Tortuga (LSD 46), and 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 ship-to-shore movements, day and night flight operations, and visit board search and seizure exercises.

"Embarking the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit allows our amphibious ships to train and prepare for a broad range of operational scenarios", said Capt. Bradley Lee, commodore, Amphibious Squadron 11.

The exercises will aid the ships of the ARG ships and their crews in remaining proficient in flight operations, well deck operations, ballasting, surface craft control, navigating close to shore and numerous deck evolutions, all of which the ARG and MEU must maintain proficiency in to support operational assignments in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility.

"Working with the MEU allows our Sailors and Marines to hone their interoperability and overall effectiveness at conducting the core capabilities of the nation's maritime strategy," said Lee.

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.

"It is always exciting working alongside our Navy counterparts," said Col. Andrew R. MacMannis, 31st MEU commanding officer. "The Navy and Marine Corps team have done an excellent job executing the loading plan of the ARG ships in a safe and timely manner. We can now move on to working together in order to successfully complete AIT and CERTEX."

AIT and CERTEX are important in assessing the ARG and MEU's ability to conduct operational maneuvering from sea to shore before supporting multilateral exercises, contingency operations, or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

In order to conduct the exercise and various training evolutions, the ARG's combat cargo department had to load 2,500 tons of cargo, more than 120 vehicles, and 30 aircraft across the three ships.