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The forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) arrived in Okinawa Nov. 18 to offload the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) after successfully completing Annual Exercise (ANNUALEX) 21G.
Essex Sailors and Combat Cargo Marines moved approximately 75 vehicles and 300 pieces of MEU cargo, as well as dozens of aircraft assigned to the 31st MEU's Aviation Combat Element (ACE), marking the end of the 21st edition of the exercise, which is designed to enhance naval interoperability between the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).
"Once again, ANNUALEX has served as a great opportunity for us to strengthen our relationship with the Japanese," said commanding officer Capt. Troy Hart. "It is always a great opportunity for us to enhance our efforts in surface warfare with our closest ally in the region and this year's exercise was no different."
The exercise focused on enhancing improving command and control, air, undersea and surface warfare.
"It improves our ability to communicate and coordinate between the U.S. Navy and the JMSDF," said Lt. Patrick Isom, Essex' assistant operations officer. "Both countries have shared responsibilities in leading various events, and ANNUALEX exercises our ability to communicate and steadily helps us to improve at sea in a complex environment."
Isom cited the long history of successful U.S.-Japan bilateral efforts and said he views ANNUALEX as an opportunity to build on that success.
"The ability to work together ensures stability in the Pacific," said Isom. "Our ability to practice these exercises with our Japanese partners shows our commitment to that stability."
According to Essex Command Master Chief Brannon Knox, the exercise is an opportunity to not only become more cohesive militarily, but culturally as well.
"We always look forward to working with Japan, whether if it's in a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief drill, or maritime security efforts like ANNUALEX," said Knox. "Exercises like these allow both countries to plan and operate together, and it's a great opportunity to exchange bodies and let both navies get experience from each other."
The exercise also served as a chance for Essex Sailors to work with Marines of the 31st MEU. Many of those Marines were experiencing their first deployment underway.
"It feels good to get that first deployment under your belt," said Lance Cpl. Dalton Kuegn, of Tyler, Texas. "This was a short one, but it was enough to get into a different kind of mindset and be ready for the next big patrol."
Essex is the lead ship of the only forward-deployed U.S. Expeditionary Strike Group and serves as the flagship for CTF 76, the Navy's forward-deployed amphibious force commander. Task Force 76 is headquartered at White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa, Japan, with a detachment in Sasebo, Japan.