100 Days in Helmand
US Marine Corps News
9/4/2009 By MEB-Afghanistan, Public Affairs Office
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 southern Afghanistan.
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 destabilized condition.
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 chief 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 is inspirational.”
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 AM2.
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 here.
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 sites.
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 next.”
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 a future.”
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.”
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