When Marines and sailors from a II Marine Expeditionary Force task force arrived in Naples, Italy, in the last week of January, their commander told them they had to be ready to respond to crises.
“If something arose, we needed to have a mobile comms system able to be deployed and a small element that was ready to respond,” Col. Ryan Hoyle, leader of Task Force 61/2 Naval Amphibious Forces Europe, recalled telling his troops. Hoyle is also the commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, whose command element made up the task force.
Two weeks later, on Feb. 6, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey.
More than 45,000 in Turkey have died as a result of the quake and its aftershocks, according to the Turkish government, and more than 160,000 buildings have either collapsed or been severely damaged. In neighboring Syria, approximately 6,000 were killed.
The first troops from Task Force 61/2 arrived at Incirlik Air Base on Feb. 8 — home to the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing — and immediately got to work, spearheading command and control while receiving significant help from 39 ABW and the Army’s 1st Combat Aviation Brigade.
At the peak of operations, 34 troops from the task force were involved, according to Capt. Kenzie Margroum, a Marine spokeswoman.
The detachment’s main job was to coordinate the complicated flow of requests for aid and figure out which resources should go where, working in particular with the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, and Turkish officials.
Hoyle said he saw Marines in their downtime — when “they probably should have been sleeping” — help Turkish and other U.S. troops load and unload the aircraft carrying supplies.
“The stack of stuff that needed to go on there was maybe 50 meters away, and you would just see the flow of Marines and soldiers and airmen intermixed with the Turkish military and just begin to hand the stuff from person to person until the helicopters,” he said. “We may not have been able to speak the same language, but the facial expressions that were there, or the fist bump, or the handshake, spoke volumes of the cooperation that was there.”
At the request of the Turkish government, and with help from USAID, Marines and other U.S. troops went to the city of Antakya to build a 100-bed field hospital, complete with an emergency room, two operating rooms and an intensive care unit. The task was scheduled to take seven days, but it was done in five, according to a news release.
Much of Turkey endured aftershocks in the weeks following the earthquake, and Incirlik Air Base was no exception. A 6.4-magnitude aftershock rattled the base on Feb. 20.
“That, I think, really drove home that the situation was still a little bit fragile,” Hoyle said.
Hoyle added that the Turkish government was still intact and leading its own emergency response, though it welcomed the help from the joint force.
“We recognized that we could contribute and help where the Turkish people needed us to and where the Turkish Government wanted us to, but what they didn’t necessarily want was a very large, international military presence,” he said.
Gen. David Berger, the Marine commandant, told Defense One in February that the Corps would have liked to have had the option of sending a full Marine expeditionary unit to Turkey, but was unable to without amphibious ships in the area.
“Here, I felt like the best option, we couldn’t offer them because we have the Marines and the equipment and they’re trained, we didn’t have the ships,” Berger told Defense One.
Berger’s comments came ahead of the release of the proposed Defense Department fiscal-year 2024 budget, which contained no funding for new amphibious warships. Marine generals have insisted that the Corps needs the Navy to maintain a minimum of 31 amphibs.
A MEU that is forward-deployed aboard three amphibious ships gives leaders in a theater a wide set of options, without imposing a large military footprint on another country, Hoyle told Marine Corps Times the week before the budget proposal came out.
“We all want to be able to have the full MEU in theater, especially when there’s a crisis that needs a response,” Hoyle said. “And I think, going back to the commandant’s comments, that is what we would all desire.”
Hoyle emphasized that even though the Marine task force has now left Turkey, with its last member departing on March 9, the U.S. government is still providing support through USAID and connections with non-governmental organizations.
And the field hospital that the troops helped build is up and running.
“The gratitude of the Turkish doctors and nurses that were getting ready to take that facility over and begin to provide the medical services was an incredible experience to see,” Hoyle said.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.