HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
At a forward outpost in Garmsir, a line of Afghans wait to talk with Marines at the newly opened Civil Military Operations Center; they have come to voice their claims and receive cash payments for losses incurred while Marines battled insurgents.
Flown over a sparsely decorated tent, three flags representing the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan flap in the wind, showing the people that this is not just a Marine Corps or American program. This is their government responding. The cash payments are in Afghan currency -- the people see the difference and welcome the Marine presence.
"You guys are different" the locals tell Master Gunnery Sgt. John Garth, civil affairs chief, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is operating with NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
"(The Afghans) know we come in with overwhelming force and might, but we also come in with compassion," he said.
Despite deterrents, an abundance of local residents, some 340 since the operations center opened June 22, have traveled to meet with the same Marines who swept through the district and pushed the insurgents out. Almost overnight, the Marines transitioned from aggressive combat patrols to a friendlier neighborhood watch of sorts. They verify damage claims and help map the area, bringing a sense of order to the once lawless district.
Where once they traded gunfire with insurgents, now there are daily meetings with locals. Marines and British soldiers dole out payments for the incidental cost of waging war and in the process they encourage progress. Heading the efforts in the district is battery commander Maj. Mark McCarroll, Alpha Battery, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th MEU.
At a table, McCarroll listens as an Afghan man discusses his claim. The Marine already has an intimate knowledge of the man’s damaged house. Acting as the battalion’s fire-support coordinator, he processed each request to fire artillery, drop bombs and launch mortars at insurgent targets. His men pulled the cord sending shells downrange that destroyed the very same property that is now being paid for, property the insurgents had commandeered from the local citizens to use as fighting positions.
"It’s uncomfortable and strange," McCarroll said of the unique situation.
When the man showed a drawing of his house, McCarroll recognized it instantly. "Yep, that’s the spot," he said to himself. "We dropped a couple of bombs on it, we did a helicopter run on it and we shot artillery on it."
Regardless of McCarroll’s reservations about meeting the locals, the average Afghan seems glad to sit and exchange stories with the Marines. As they sit and talk, the Marines begin to see why the homeowners are less angered by destroyed property than one would imagine.
McCarroll said he has heard different stories. One Afghan said, "The Taliban kicked me out of my house and the next day you blew it up. At least you killed the guy that kicked me out of my house."
Even with the debris, the way the locals explain it, they have more of a home now then they did just a week ago.
"A lot of people told me they lived in the desert for 18 months," said Garth. "On the edge of the desert, the adult males, at least the working males, came back to their house every day to work their fields, harvest their poppy or wheat, then they went back to the desert. Why? Because the Taliban didn’t want them living in their houses, but they would let them come back and farm their fields every day. Part of that was so the Taliban would have a food source."
Garth equates the current situation to the healing process after invasive surgery: "You have to get rid of the cancer first. Hopefully it is common sense; you do what you have to do to achieve success. Success isn’t determined by what is and is not damaged. It’s a measure of 'Did we get rid of the Taliban? Did we make it safer for them to live their lives? Is there greater opportunity for them now than there was before?' Is their house destroyed? Yeah, but is there greater opportunity for them? Absolutely."
Splitting time between inspecting homes while out on patrol and evaluating claims from the tent center, Garth sees the district coming around.
"Had we not come, their houses wouldn’t have been destroyed, but they still would have been living on the edge of the desert under Taliban control," said Garth. "They were forced to grow poppy and not grow wheat or vegetables, which they could eat and sell at the market. They had to travel from the desert to farm their fields; the Taliban would take what they wanted from them. So when you look at it from that perspective, they didn’t have a home to begin with. We are now giving them a chance to move back home and rebuild."
According to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rene Cote, civil affairs officer, 24th MEU, $300,000 has been given to the Marines on the ground handling claims, so McCarroll and his men have the tools necessary to help this district make a full recovery.
"The Taliban kicked them out of their homes, and the Taliban occupied the compounds and turned them into something these compounds weren’t intended to do," said McCarroll. "Our function now is to make reparations for what we did to their homes. It’s not necessarily feeling bad about it. It is doing the right thing after the Taliban are no longer there. These people have to live there. It's their right."