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Meet the Sailors and Marines behind next-gen F-35B Lightening II launch (Exclusive to CDN)

Written By | Apr 25, 2019
13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B. FB Lightening III

March 2019. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit made history with the first combat deployment of the F-35B Lightning II. The 13th MEU returned home from a successful, eight-month deployment where the unit supported operations across four combatant commands. (U.S. Marine Corps video by Sgt. Francisco Diaz)

SAN DIEGO: The Essex Amphibious Ready Group (Essex ARG) and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (13th MEU) ushered in a new era of readiness after an epic deployment with the F-35B Lightning II. Welcoming family and friends were waiting for the more than forty-five hundred embarked sailors and Marines.  Navy and Marine Corps teams worked together to advance regional stability and security around the world. The F-35B provided close air support engaging systems never before seen.

It took nearly a year of workups to deploy and execute “Dynamic Force Employment (DFE).” This is a forward-action concept that means Sailors and Marines are prepared and trained to go anywhere at any time our nation needs them. The three phases of DFE are readiness, deployment, and sustainment. The USS Essex, the USS Rushmore, and the USS Anchorage sailed with a Marine air-ground task force. Sharp as a tack, they are primed to put potential adversaries on their heels.

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The Essex ARG and 13th MEU is the first continental United States Navy/Marine Corps team to deploy with the F-35B. The multi-role fighter is touted as the world’s first supersonic short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) stealth aircraft. Navy and Marine commanders worked with F-35B pilots, to engage the jet’s advanced systems in real-world combat operations while meeting readiness and defense goals.

The ARG commodore, the 13th MEU commander, an F-35B pilot, and a Marine Corps combat photographer/videographer weigh in on this legacy, impacting journey.

Commodore Gerard R. Olin: A dedicated high-ranking naval officer steers ARG towards advanced warfighting.

After 35 years in the Navy, Commodore Gerard R. Olin is no stranger to shouldering maritime command. His career started (out of high school) as an enlisted Sailor. Eventually, becoming an Aegis Weapons Systems Technician. Olin joined to learn a trade and the advanced electronics interested him.

Later, as a Surface Warfare Officer, he served almost exclusively on destroyers and carrier strike group staffs.

13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B

TANDUO BEACH, MALAYSIA (Aug 17, 2018) – U.S. Navy Capt. Jerry Olin, commander of Amphibious Squadron One poses for a photo with Sailors assigned to Assault Craft Unit (ACU) – 5 while conducting Cooperation Afloat​ ​Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class​ ​Molly DiServio)

He’s now commander of Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 1. The Essex ARG/13th MEU is his first tour associated with the amphibious Navy.

“We don’t just get on a ship and go.” says Olin. “We’ve got to go through this long process of training and certifying. By the time we are ready to leave on deployment – we’re ready.”

From training to combat – there is no switch to flip, according to Olin.

“I think our training is actually harder than our real world operations…so when the time comes to respond to real world ops, it’s kind of second nature,” Olin says, stressing operational focus to his team.

“You need to put the focus on ‘why are we here’ – ‘what are we doing’ – ‘what do we need to be as ready as possible’ because it’s an unpredictable and dangerous world,” he adds.

As Rushmore and Essex conducted operations in the Middle East, Anchorage represented the ARG/MEU team as they operated in the Mediterranean Sea with the Italians.

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An ARG does not anchor itself to a specific theater. Olin conducted operations in every geographical Fleet Area of Responsibility (AOR) around the world, except for the Atlantic.

This creates the operational unpredictability of Dynamic Force Employment and allows strategic shaping of the environment.

Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) provided necessary opportunities for the ARG/MEU.

The formidable presence of an amphibious ready group promotes regional stability and security. When our enemies attack or a crisis erupts, we need to know how to work with allies.

“Some of it is from the most basic stuff – learning how to steam together in a formation or land the aircraft on each other’s ships and operate as a force…We have to come up with communications – radio circuits that we can both talk on. To be sure we work through things like language barriers. Everywhere we operate in the world – we make a concerted effort through TSC to help build our partnerships and friendly navies,” says Olin.

He concludes, “My goal was to be prepared to execute that and we did, I think, seamlessly.”

The Marine F-35B air wing on board made the Essex ARG a ‘drastically different’ experience.

It was the first time an F-35 variant of any kind deployed for a full-on 8 months around the world. The ‘B’ or Bravo belongs to the Marine Corps. Variant ‘C’ is Navy and ‘A’ is Air Force.

“The full integration of the Marine Corps F-35B Lightening II drastically enhanced the ARG/MEU lethality and proved to be a credible strike and defense capability,” states Olin.

“We explored options using that new aircraft to defend the amphibious task force. Not just supporting Marines [like we do normally] projecting force ashore…I think we came up with some new capabilities and as each deployment that goes out with that new airplane – we’re going to explore more options on how to best use that new technology to defend the force,” he adds.

The best part for Olin was the Blue-Green teamwork between the Navy and Marine Corps. A first for him working with the Marines in roles respective to their jobs, yet integrated for the ARG/MEU missions.

Colonel Chandler S. Nelms: Highly- recognized combat Marine leads MEU to new heights; reinforces regional commitment.

Colonel Chandler S. Nelms, Commander, 13th MEU, 1 MEF, has a wealth of experience in warfighting. He has 3,500 mishap-free flight hours, flying C-130s and MV-22s, and ascended ranks through various leadership/command roles. He’s deployed six times to the Middle East and on various MEUS, starting September 2001. When terrorists struck with fury on U.S. soil, Nelms packed his bags to deploy.

13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B

TANDUO BEACH, MALAYSIA (Aug 17, 2018) – U.S. Marine Corps Col. Chandler Nelms, commanding officer of 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), speaks with a Royal Malaysian marine after participating in a simulated beach assault during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Molly DiServio)

Nelms saw malevolence up close while supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Unified Protector/Odyssey Guard (liberation of Libya). A commander manages the pressure, shoulders the loss in battle-torn countries.

Nelms saw prowess, sacrifice, grit, and still sees it now,

“Any time I get down [because of] at how long this thing is going – I just get out and about the ship and start talking to the Marines and start talking to the Sailors. They inspire me every day. You get up on the flight deck or down in the well deck or get out to the beach where we’re training- these young people are so great – they’ll just motivate the heck out of you and it brings you right back up on top,” says Nelms.

The MEU is one big Marine air-ground task force. A command element, and aviation, ground, and logistics combat elements demonstrate daily the essence of who they are.

Excellence, tenacity, endurance come forth as mission requirements are met.

“One, we’re doing a lot of things with our ARG/MEU teams. We’ve got multiple elements ashore afloat in different regions at the same time- so commanding and controlling that and maintaining our situational awareness – it’s an ongoing effort. We’ve got a great team, great commanders, and great Marines and Sailors. The second challenge is maintaining the momentum throughout the long- 8 month deployment,” says Nelms on challenges encountered.

They were out there doing Theater Security Cooperation training with six different nations, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and a few in the Middle East. They supported a range of maritime and ground-based events. The ships, Marines provided direct combat support for Operation Inherent Resolve (to defeat ISIS) and Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan).

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Embarked on the USS Anchorage, was an artillery battery attached to Special-Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response Central Command. From the ship, a platoon size element landed on the ground in Syria to support the Defeat ISIS mission.

Details remain classified.

Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) go live in Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal (TACR).

During TACR training in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, 13th MEU Infantry Marines got the rare chance to do something they had not done before.

13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B

DJIBOUTI – A landing craft, air cushion drives towards the shore during Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal (TACR), Sept. 9, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Danny Gonzalez/Released)

“One of the big exercises is the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) live-fire water gunnery range [one of few such ranges in the world]…That training in Djibouti provides such a great opportunity for those Marines to actually employ their skills, sometimes for the first time in a safe location,” says spokesperson 1stLt. Mallory Martinez.

Targets were set up in Djibouti for the F-35 to drop live ordnance on, supporting teams on the ground. Leaders relish things like this when air-ground elements dig deep into true potential. Throughout the deployment, Nelms was very pleased. On the F-35B debut,

“The readiness was high – the operational excellence was there and everything we asked the aircraft to do and asked those Marines and Sailors to do – they made it happen,” states Nelms.

DJIBOUTI (Sept. 16, 2018) Marines assigned to Battalion Landing Team 3/1, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, brace the force of an explosion during Theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal (TACR) 18. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Danny Gonzalez/Released)

Capt Tyler “Ditch” Bonnett: Former civilian flight instructor cleared to fly the world’s most advanced strike fighter.

After graduating from the University of North Dakota in Aeronautics, Capt Tyler “Ditch” Bonnett was unfulfilled with civilian flying. He tried to join the Marine Corps, but he had a medical condition that had to be cleared.

Bonnett says he still has a heart murmur but was able to get it cleared by a heart specialist. The Marines welcomed this very experienced pilot into the F-35B program.

Bonnett credits his F-35B training squadron at MCAS Beaufort, SC with doing a “fantastic job.” A building block syllabus teaches how to fly the jet. A number of simulators are required before flight.

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Bonnett’s F-35B home is Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, and squadron VMFA- 211 Wake Island Avengers. His first time in the F-35B cockpit was a “Taxi Fam.” An instructor hooks up to the jet to talk through the start-up process and drives behind the jet out to a vertical landing pad. Bonnett said that was an emotional event because it’s the first time the lift fan spools up behind you and all the doors open. The F-35B is the only variant with a lift fan, and has more complex components and flight systems.

Next for Bonnett is a high-altitude chase by his instructor flying a chase jet behind him.

“Pretty cool, you get to break the sound barrier the first time you fly,” claims Bonnett. “It’s a little bit different when you are up there at 30,000 feet. You don’t have that ground rush – more or less a number that ticks by.”

Bonnett’s top speed to date is 1.2 mach. The F-35B program helped Bonnett get his feet underneath for deployment.

“I wanted to be the best wing man I could be…Obviously; you want to be at the top of your game when you’re going out to support Marines on the ground. That was my mindset going into it.”

Bonnett joined nine other F-35 B pilots and six jets on the 13th MEU.

The tall, dark-haired pilot’s first combat mission was his most memorable. Bonnett continually strives for that perfect flight each time. Yet, pilots have to overcome bumps and continue on. He and his lead overcame a refueling challenge to successfully fulfill air support for Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.

“My lead and I were both feeling pretty good….As I land on deck – you can see the smiles on the guys’ faces. Climbing down that ladder and shaking everyone’s hand…that was a pretty special memory for me,” says Bonnett.

13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B

PACIFIC OCEAN – Four F-35B Lightning IIs with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), fly over the Pacific Ocean during a regularly scheduled deployment of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), and the 13th MEU, Aug. 1, 2018. The Essex ARG and 13th MEU is the first continental United States Navy/Marine Corps team to deploy with the F-35B Lightning II (U. S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Francisco J. Diaz Jr.)


“As a squadron – we flew 1200 combat hours – training can only get you so far. When you’re out there – the situation is fluid and things are always changing. You can’t simulate something like that.”

More close air support during TACR, Djibouti, and Eastern Maverick 19, with Qatar Marines.

Bonnett, cast a single at the time, employed the F-35B gun, using live ammunition in both exercises.

“We knew we were about to get in combat ops – any opportunity you have like that to get some good training in is obviously important,” says Bonnett.

“There are eight months of invaluable lessons that I learned, not just flying, but how to integrate with the MEU, how the ARG works; there’s a multi-service world-wide effort to make something like this happen. Understanding where we fit in all that – is probably the biggest lesson I will learn.”

Capt Bonnett’s first media interview after deployment. Includes an exclusive video of Bonnett sharing his F-35B experiences on the 13th MEU and the fighter jet in flight.

Sgt Francisco Diaz: First-time deployed Marine cameraman records history-in-the-making.

Sgt Francisco Diaz wanted to do something creative. Didn’t know photography or videography was really a job in the military. When a recruiter brought it up, he knew he wanted it and waited a year to go to Defense Information School. He learned how to operate a camera, shooting techniques and film theory.

“Alright, cool, I’m going to see the world,” was his reaction when he knew he was going out with the 13th MEU, his first deployment. Yet didn’t know how significant it was until he heard the buzz about the F-35 going out for the first time.

Diaz’s job is to document through photos the entire eight months.

13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B

GULF OF ADEN – Marine Cpl. Francisco Diaz Jr., a combat videographer with the Communication Strategy and Operations section of the Command Element, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes a photo of a Marine Corps Martial Arts Program class aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2), Sept. 25, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. A. J. Van Fredenberg/Released)


“A lot of the times I worked hand-in-hand with officers and the higher-ups trying to pin down what exactly they wanted to see. Our goal was to take at least five photos a day, every day, to show the big picture of what we we’re doing, whether it be on ship, land, in another country,” says Diaz.

Diaz was on the Essex and was the one covering footage for Malaysia when F-35 did its first drop there. His main thing was, “I hope I get the shot.”

Covering the action that counts.

Diaz and his Cannon 5D Mark III camera went to 12 parts of the world, from Hawaii and the Indo-Pacific to Africa and the Middle East. He took part in 5 different exercises.

“Once I’m looking through that eyepiece, I just wait for the right moment,” adds Diaz.

Diaz says people will care more about seeing an F-35 taking off or signaling Marines to fire than a perfect photo. Marines know he’s not only there to document but to capture the memory. Like “Hey, we’re here to show that we’re doing important things in the Marine Corps and what we’re doing matters,” captions Diaz.

13th MEU, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, USS Essex, F-35B

MALAYSIA – U.S. Marines with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Malaysian Joint Armed Forces pose for a group photo on Kota Belud Range, Malaysia after a Tactical Air Control Party exercise during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2018, August 15, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Francisco J. Diaz Jr.)

Thousands of non-repeatable moments. No second takes.

Being a Marine first helps Diaz be a more effective cameraman. “As Marines, we train the way we fight,” he says.

Basic Infantry 101 comes in handy when attaching to a grunt or artillery unit, according to Diaz. He knows tactical moves and protocols – is confident to gather and carry his gear and move fluidly amongst the troops. He shoots within boundaries without ruining their shot or endangering anyone. Marines know he’s not going to be a liability when he goes out with them.

Enemy forces steal footage for anti-military propaganda.

Diaz’s job as a CommStrat Marine is crucial when it comes to countering poor media reporting or enemy propaganda. Enemy forces will acquire the imagery, doctor it, and use it effectively against us. His work is proof of intent, presence, and records the facts. It shows the bigger picture.

Sailors and Marines came home from the ARG/MEU tour more combat ready.

It was a fulfilling time for them, never to be forgotten. America can know it always has that forward-deployed force ready for crisis response.

Freedom is a hard-won environment. It’s a treasure every one of the 4,500 Marines and sailors help sustain. That day of return to Camp Pendleton, Col. Nelms, all smiles, said,

“It’s awesome to be home…We’ve stayed busy protecting our country…We’ve been away from our families a long time so that’s what today is all about….getting back to California and reuniting with our families because that’s what matters most, now.”

Diaz’ imagery can be seen at DVIDS and is published in both print and video of these stories.

Col. Nelms interview at Camp Pendleton homecoming after historic deployment.

Featured Image: March 2019. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit made history with the first combat deployment of the F-35B Lightning II. The 13th MEU returned home from a successful, eight-month deployment where the unit supported operations across four combatant commands. (U.S. Marine Corps video by Sgt. Francisco Diaz)

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Jeanne McKinney

Jeanne McKinney

Jeanne McKinney is an award-winning writer whose focus and passion is our United States active-duty military members and military news. Her Patriot Profiles offer an inside look at the amazing active-duty men and women in all Armed Services, including U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard. Reporting includes first-hand accounts of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against violent terror groups, global defense, tactical training and readiness, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance, next-generation defense technology, family survival at home, U.S. port and border protection and illegal interdiction, women in combat, honoring the Fallen, Wounded Warriors, Military Working Dogs, Crisis Response, and much more. McKinney has won twelve San Diego Press Club “Excellence in Journalism Awards”, including seven First Place honors.