CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
Over varied terrain here - from loose rocks, to sandy creek beds, to hills and unforgiving asphalt - 80 members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit's command element marched eight miles under the California sun Sept. 23, and with Navy company.
Joining the hike was San Antonio-born Navy Capt. Humberto L. Quintanilla II, commander of Amphibious Squadron 5, the squadron that with the 11th MEU will form the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group.
"It was a superb experience to join the 'Pride of the Pacific' for their training event," said Quintanilla. "Every American is proud of our Marine Corps, and I had a chance to hike with the men and women that we read about in the news."
The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group is a Navy and Marine Corps team designed to conduct missions that span the overlapping spectrums of peace and combat, from disaster relief to war. The units will deploy together globally with unique assets for timely responses to crises.
"The tensile strength of the 'blue-green' partnership is integral to combat success. The Navy-Marine Corps team continues to win America's wars one lift, one battle, and one crisis at a time. The nation rightfully depends on us to carry the day. And we do. That's the partnership," said Quintanilla. "I look forward to sailing with the 11th MEU in the near future."
With 60 percent of its members new to the unit since the 11th MEU returned from a seven-month deployment in April, the hike bolstered the command element's cohesion in a controlled training environment, said Gunnery Sgt. Robert Lytle, 32, the unit's assistant operations chief.
"The interesting thing about morale, and about esprit de corps, is they tend to appear when the unit suffers together," said Lytle, who hails from Asheville, N.C. "Whatever we were forced to endure - whatever the difficulty - we endured it together. Marines need that sense of accomplishment and to test themselves as far as gut checks go. And we did that."
Lytle said the hard part was not the distance. He said 90-degree temperatures made the hike difficult for the average Marine, and the contrast of soft, almost moondust-fine sand and football-sized rocks made it difficult to get one's footing.
"It caused more of a strain than if we were marching over sturdy terrain," said Lytle.
Pfc. Sammantha Meidl, 20, from New Ulm, Minn., said she had a few minor scrapes after tripping to the ground. She was one among a handful of others who stumbled.
"The Marines around me picked me right back up," said Meidl, a field radio operator. "It's a good feeling when Marines have your back and knowing that I got back up and kept going."
The hike route reversed direction and the hikers marched back the way they came, returning to their start position only to keep marching.
"I wasn't expecting that we had to keep going," said Lance Cpl. Daniel W. Scruggs, 24, from Aston, Pa. "Your body can withstand more pain and discomfort than you realize, and once you do realize that, the rest is just keeping one foot in front of the other."
Lytle said that out of the last four hikes, including a six-miler, an eight-miler and a 10-mile night hike, the unit's latest hike showed the most discipline.
"Marines kept the formation tight and pushed through the mental fatigue. But that's what Marines do: We carry out orders under mental duress," said Lytle. "We showed that ability to hang on."
Helicopters extracted the hikers from the finish at the 43 Training Area and delivered them to the 42 Training Area. Airlift support was provided by two CH-46E helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 and one CH-53E heavy-lift cargo helicopter from Marine Aircraft Group 16.
For Meidl, Scruggs and several others, riding in military aircraft was a first-time experience.
"Right before boarding the helo - walking up to it - was exciting," said Scruggs, a field radio operator who boarded the CH-53E. "Seeing how big it is and feeling the air rushing down was surreal. It's something you see in movies. It was motivating."
Lytle said hiking with the Navy, executing more team building, and working with aviation helped the unit improve its proficiency.
"We showed mental and physical endurance," said Lytle. "The command element came together. But we wouldn't expect it any other way."