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Garden City Marine Corps base gets new commander

Lt. Col. Ed Bitanga relinquished command of the Garden City-based 2nd Battalion 25th Regiment Marines to Lt. Col. James Sweeney during a change-of-command ceremony on Friday, July 7, 2017.  (Credit: Steve Pfost)

A towering, battle-hardened Nebraskan on Friday took command of Long Island’s only Marine Corps installation, the Garden City-based 2/25th.

“We’re going to jump right in,” the new battalion commander, Lt. Col. James Sweeney, said during a brief change of command ceremony at the guarded facility on Stewart Avenue. “I’ve got a lot to learn. I’ve never led a reserve unit.”

Sweeney, hulking at 6-foot-4, has served in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He commanded a company of some 300 Marines in Kunar province in the months of 2005 immediately before Patchogue’s Lt. Michael Murphy perished there in a firefight that earned Murphy the Medal of Honor.

The 2/25th — 2nd Battalion, 25th Regiment — is a 1,000-member reserve unit that is among the largest Marine Corps contingents in the Northeast. Some 600 Long Islanders are among the 2/25th, which has companies in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but which is headquartered near Mitchel Field.

The unit’s mission is to supply active duty Marine Corps units with battle-ready reserve troops — as it did in 2008, when it sent two 500-member units into combat in Afghanistan. Reservists typically train one weekend per month, and two consecutive weeks per year.

The 2/25th has a colorful history, having served at Iwo Jima during World War II.

Sweeney, who once was the chief instructor at a program for training beginner Marine Corps officers, arrives from an assignment as executive officer of the 4th Marines, stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and plans to make his home in East Meadow.

He takes over from Lt. Col. Ed Bitanga, who led the 2/25th for two years.

Bitanga said commanding a New York City-area reserve unit poses difficulties because Long Island lacks the large military reservations that combat troops depend on to sharpen skills in mortar fire, coordinated aircraft attacks, infantry advances, and other military methods.

Just last month, some 700 members of the 2/25 traveled to California for three weeks of training at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center — a 1,000-square-mile desert tract near Twentynine Palms.

And Bitanga said Long Island lacks the concentrated military culture present at larger Marine Corps facilities, such as Camp Lejeune, a giant base near Fort Bragg, in North Carolina.

“So we have to make sure we have our own Marine Corps discipline here,” he said.

Sweeney said he looks forward to the challenge of molding military personnel from residents of largely nonmilitary Long Island.

“We’re not in Camp Pendleton, we’re not in Camp Lejeune, we’re not in Okinawa again, but we have a diverse population of Marines — bankers, lawyers, construction workers, truck drivers, dentists — that come in here and for that weekend want to be Marines, want to be machine-gunners,” said Sweeney, who is married and has young children. “That’s what we’re — the family and I — are really excited about.”

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