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1st Marine Division battle colors pass on to new hands

21 Aug 2004 | 1st Lt. Eric M. Knapp

"Sergeant major, deliver the colors to the commanding general," boomed the narrator.

In a small ceremony in an Al Asad airplane hangar Aug. 20, Brig. Gen. Richard F. Natonski received the battle colors of the 1st Marine Division and his new command from Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis.

"Marines, sailors, soldiers of the 1st Marine Division, you have done a job greatly in the past and I know you'll continue on doing it," Natonski said. "Just remember we are no 'better friend, no worse enemy' in the 1st Marine Division."

Natonski, who commanded the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade - better known as Task Force Tarawa - last year in Iraq, was frocked by Conway to the rank of major general Aug. 21 in a separate private ceremony in Fallujah.

"I am really proud to be part of the 1st Marine Division," Natonski said.  "I never dreamed this in a million years, just to be here among those professionals who are in this audience, that are out on patrol, that are spread throughout this province and that are back at Camp Pendleton. This really is a first-class outfit."

Natonski's way ahead for the division includes both those deployed overseas and those back home.

"He understands this is a warfighting division, but there is a behind-the-scenes part of that, which is the family program," said Sgt. Maj. Robert N. Thomas, acting division sergeant major. "If that chain is broken, if families are disrupted, that disrupts the warfighting readiness of our Marines."

"If not for our families, our jobs would be much harder," Natonski added.

Mattis relinquished command of the oldest and most decorated division in the Marine Corps to Natonski after serving two years as commanding general.

The division has deployed twice to Iraq during Mattis' time in command. It has been an arduous task that the Marines, sailors and soldiers have stepped up to accomplish.

"In the last 5 1/2 months we have taken 1,555 killed and wounded," Mattis said. "Out here, our soldiers, sailors and Marines are giving 100% and continue do so. General Natonski, you are inheriting probably one of the finest commands privileged in America."

Mattis credited Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commanding general of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, with his parting words to Natonski.

"There are two words General Conway gave me when he handed me the battle colors two years ago when we prepared for what we knew was coming," Mattis said. "Those two words that I will pass on to you: 'honor it.'"

Those words have special meaning to those that command the division, according to Thomas.

"When it's time for you to pass the torch on, you take it and say to the next person 'honor it,'" Thomas said.  "That is a tradition of words that have been passed from division commander to division commander. Hopefully that chain has never been broken."

The ceremony was not complete without an invocation from the 1st Marine Division chaplain, Father Bill Devine.

"As one relinquishes command he thanks you not only for the opportunities and challenges he's been given, but for the privilege of leading Marines, sailors and soldiers in battle," said Devine.

Both generals extolled on those battle-proven troops of the 1st Marine Division.

"Our most important asset is not our M-16, it's not our M1-A1 tank, or our laptops," Natonski explained. "It's the individual Marine. Our success is not due to our superior technology. What really matters in Fallujah and Ramadi is one individual with a rifle next to another."

The outgoing Mattis gave his praise of the Leathernecks in his own unique fashion.

"Obviously, I owe a great deal of thanks to the cocky, rambunctious, oftentimes obnoxious grunts who are always willing to go in harm's way," said Mattis. "I stand in awe of them every single day."

Both incoming and outgoing generals then stood before Conway while he read their citations for the Distinguished Service Medal. Both received the medal for their great part in last year's offensive.

Mattis will go on to take command of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va. He has led Marines in combat in Desert Storm, Afghanistan and last year's march to Baghdad.

"Under his leadership, the division conducted the longest sequence of coordinated overland attacks in the history of the United States Marine Corps and added yet another laurel to the Division's historical wreath," read Mattis' medal citation.

Natonski was commended in his citation for securing the bridges in An Nasiriyah and liberating the city during a bloody eight-day battle, allowing the 1st Marine Division to use a major highway for their attack to Baghdad.

An F-18 flew low and fast overhead after each man was awarded, signaling the National Anthem. All three generals stood together one last time, saluting the colors before being dismissed.

The ceremony over, Mattis flew back to the U.S., accompanied by many of his Marines.

Mattis left the 1st Marine Division with these words, printed in a letter to the troops:

"Thank you, my wonderful young soldiers, sailors and Marines. May God be with you all as you head out once again into the heat of the Iraqi sun, into the still of the dark night, to close with the enemy."

"Beside you, I'd do it all again - MATTIS SENDS"

Natonski, however, returned to his new command in Ramadi, where he addressed those very same Marines for the first time.

"Cherish the time that you have here," said Natonski. "I have heard stories from regimental commanders of Marines who will not even take (rest and relaxation) back at their base camp because they don't want to leave their squad buddies. What a testament to the Marines that we have. Take care of these Marines and they'll take care of you."