By MEB-Afghanistan, PA Office
100 Days In Helmand
(September 13, 2009)
|CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — They are not the first Marines
in Afghanistan, nor are they the first Marines in Helmand province. Combined
Task Force-58, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Task Force 2/7, Special
Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Afghanistan, Marine Corps Forces Special
Operations Command ... these Marine units have also trod the unforgiving ground of
|Hasaan Abad, Helmand , Afghanistan-Sgt. Ryan Pettit, left, and Cpl. Matthew Miller, from 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, fire their service rifles during an operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 3, 2009. The Marines are part of Regimental Combat Team 3, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau
But on May 29, 2009, Col. Duffy White, commanding officer of
SPMAGTF-Afghanistan, transferred control of the battlespace to Brig. Gen. Larry
Nicholson, commanding general of Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. Thus
began a new chapter in Marine Corps expeditionary operations as the
10,000-strong MEB, nicknamed Task Force Leatherneck, began planning for decisive
operations while Marines secured perimeters and crews of Seabees tackled the
challenges of creating forward operating bases at sites that had been nothing
but dust days before.
Sept. 6 marked 100 days since MEB-Afghanistan assumed control of its battlespace,
and in that time, the landscape that greeted the brigade in May has changed
considerably. Four thousand Marines, in conjunction with Afghan National
Security Forces, poured into the Helmand River valley July 2 to commence
Operation Khanjar (Strike of the Sword) to protect the populace from insurgents,
criminals and narco-traffickers who had, until then, kept the area in a
Four forward operating bases, 10 combat outposts, six patrol bases, and four
ancillary operating positions, helicopter landing zones and an expeditionary
airfield have replaced miles of stones and sand throughout Farah, Helmand,
Kandahar and Nimruz provinces, many in circumstances as challenging as the
senior Marine here has ever seen.
“I've had the great honor and privilege of being able to visit routinely our
Marines living in the most rugged and Spartan conditions out at the front,” said
Nicholson. “Those Marines don't have a lot of creature comforts ... and this is
tough, this is hard work.”
Lt. Col. Matthew Kolich's unit, Regimental Combat Team 3, is responsible for
operations in southern Helmand province, an area known as a Taliban stronghold.
He sees the results of the Marines' efforts in increased interaction with locals
and more frequent visits by the provincial and district governors.
“The local nationals are starting to come over to our side,” said Kolich,
assistant operations officer for RCT-3. “The Taliban are on their last legs in
some areas ... Locals are capturing Taliban and turning them over to Afghan
security forces. Over the last few weeks, we have been able to make huge strides
in freedom of movement.”
The Marines and sailors of Marine Aircraft Group 40, the brigade's aviation
combat element, have helped facilitate the improvements since the brigade's
arrival. The group's aircraft have flown almost 12,000 flight hours providing
airborne tactical and logistical support.
While the pilots and aircrews conduct the assault support, close-air support,
strikes on targets and crucial resupply operations, there is a behind-the-scenes
element working 24/7 to make sure the aircraft are ready for the steady flow of
tasks they are assigned in support of the MEB and other ISAF forces. Aviation
maintenance personnel have completed more than 18,000 maintenance hours since
the group first arrived in Helmand.
Col. Kevin Vest, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 40, said the
staggering workload shouldered by the ACE is easy to explain.
“Our accomplishments here are a testament to the efforts of our Marines and the
leadership of our staff NCOs,” said Vest. “In the harshest conditions I've ever
seen for aviation, with no shelter, they work day and night, in blowing
sandstorms trying to maintain these extremely complicated machines. Their work
The logistical requirements have been as daunting in the MEB's area as anywhere.
Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 arrived in theater during March 2009 as the
first element of the MEB and conducted Reception, Staging, Onward Movement &
Integration (RSO&I) as well as Camp Commandant functions for all MEB-Afghanistan
forces flowing into theater.
Working together with Naval Maintenance Construction Battalions 5 and 8, the
MWSS “Sand Sharks” coordinated the use of heavy equipment, conducting a swap of
personnel at dusk and dawn to ensure 24-hour construction operations of the Camp
Bastion Airfield's parking expanse made with aluminum matting, also known as
MWSS personnel also continued to prep the battlefield by conducting HLZ site
surveys at the multiple FOBs and COPs throughout the area of operations
providing expert assessments and ensuring a safe flight and landing environment
for Marine aviators. In some cases, the fine sand of Afghanistan caused
dangerous “brown-out” conditions, rendering some sites unusable until MWSS-371
established safe and secure HLZs. At Camp Dwyer, the Sand Sharks also completed
an assault strip, an expeditionary airfield built on top of the harsh Helmand
desert floor that can accommodate the Marine Corps' biggest fixed-wing asset,
the KC-130J Hercules.
The Sand Sharks' AM2 construction projects were the largest ever built in a
combat zone, and the Bastion expanse is the largest continuous AM2 expanse
anywhere, according to squadron Commanding Officer LtCol. Dave Jones.
“(We've) witnessed the mental attitude of the Marines and sailors change from an
attitude of ‘Where do we begin?' to one of ‘What can we do next?'” said Jones.
Similarly, the Marines of the Brigade Headquarters Group have been here since
the beginning with a can-do attitude, setting up the camp and establishing
facilities and routines as well as providing perimeter security for the
sprawling Camp Leatherneck, which is increasing in size even today. Reassigned
from their normal role as an artillery battalion, the Marines of 5th Battalion,
10th Marine Regiment have as diversified and essential a mission as any unit
The Marines of Combat Logistics Regiment 2 have provided a lifeline to the
forces in the south, conducting more than 300 exhausting convoys over hundreds
of miles of dirt roads sown with improvised explosive devices, delivering more
than 20,000 pallets of bottled water, and more than 2,300 pallets of MREs by
ground convoy or in one of 380 Helicopter Support Team missions, where pallets
of cargo are attached to a hovering helicopter.
The AM2 matting so crucial to airfield and HLZ construction was too heavy to be
airlifted, so the “loggies,” along with soldiers from the U.S. Army's 100th
Brigade Sustainment Battalion, coordinated to have it trucked to the required
1stSgt Christopher Combs of Headquarters and Services Co., CLR-2, said his
Marines' work in air-delivered supplies is “probably more support via air than
the last five years in Iraq combined. The long hours, austere conditions and
sweltering heat don't seem to affect the Marines and the support they provide.
They never say no and always find a way to make it happen.”
Chow halls at the various bases have served more than 3,500 pallets worth of hot
chow and brigade vehicles have distributed and used more than 2 million gallons
of fuel. Yet the numbers tell only a small part of the story of the changing
face of Helmand province.
In Garmsir district, Marines worked with the district governor and local Afghans
to reroute the Helmand River. The project – known as the Saraban Sluice Gate
project – had an immediate, positive impact on the living conditions of
community residents and highlights efforts by brigade forces to empower the
Afghans to “meet their own needs.”
This theme reappeared in the supporting role International Security Assistance
Force troops played in Afghan elections Aug. 20. Brigade forces supported Afghan
police officers and soldiers as they set up and protected 24 polling stations
within the MEB's area of operations.
“It's important to remember that three quarters of those polling stations were
in areas that 60 days ago there would have been no election,” Nicholson said.
“They were in areas we uncovered during Operation Khanjar and while nationwide
there were less people who voted, certainly in Helmand province and the MEB area
of operations, a significant number of people voted that would never have had
the opportunity previously.”
The brigade has also had its share of visitors, who have come from around the
world to see the progress firsthand. U.S. military leaders Gen. David Petraeus,
Adm. Michael Mullen, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal have each visited Camp
Leatherneck during the MEB's first 100 days, as have British Prime Minister
Gordon Brown and former PM Tony Blair. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus have visited their Marines and sailors, and
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Conway, accompanied by Sergeant Major
of the Marine Corps SgtMaj. Carlton Kent recently spent time with Marines and
sailors in the field as well.
Whether it's greeting distinguished visitors or ensuring the security of a
national democratic election, the Marines and sailors of the MEB have shown
incredible flexibility and adaptability, according to Kolich.
“The flexibility of the force is notable – especially those taking up multiple
roles,” he said. “And the Taliban did not have the effect that they were hoping
to have during the elections. It is a testament to the Marines that they can act
in the warrior spirit one day and transition to a more civil affairs role the
Nicholson views civil affairs efforts and an emphasis on mitigating civilian
casualties and property damage as essential to success in any fight, but
especially in any counterinsurgency.
“The population is key,” said Nicholson. “We understood early on that civilian
casualties were counter-productive and we had to work very quickly to establish
ourselves in the communities that we were going to go in as being helpful, as
offering something the Taliban couldn't and have never offered – that's hope and
The MEB has established comprehensive training programs for the Afghan police
and army forces as part of its efforts to establish trusting and cooperative
relationships within the civilian population. Marines have dedicated thousands
of hours working alongside Afghan troops and police officers, training them in a
variety of combat and security force operations.
“In many of the areas that we're in there has been no evidence of local
government for many years,” said Nicholson. “So the arrival of Afghan police,
the arrival of the Afghan army, I think in many ways indicates to the people
that there is a government and that government is concerned about them.”
With heliborne insertions in multiple operations and locations, route clearance
and resupply convoys, counter-insurgency and close combat, and election support
and civil engagement, Marines seem to have run the gamut of operations here in
Helmand, but they continue to impress their leaders with their efficiency,
effectiveness, and professionalism.
Sgt. Maj. Eugene Miller, RCT 3 sergeant major, summed up the feelings of all
senior leaders throughout the entire MEB.
“The Marines have performed superbly. The further you go out (from Camp Dwyer),
the higher the morale. These Marines want some and are getting some. They're
doing the exact things they came into the Marine Corps to do – to fight, win and
accomplish those things they thought of when they joined.”
By MEB-Afghanistan, Public Affairs Office
Marine Corps Base Quantico
Marine Corps News
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