Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C. --
It’s over for 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines. No more mid-day patrols in 150 degree heat or endless gusts of powder-like sand. No more sleeping on humvee hoods or in some Afghan villager’s bombed out compound. Marines began returning home following an eight-month deployment to southern Afghanistan today.
Their deployment illustrated how adaptable a Marine Air Ground Task Force is in the Global War on Terrorism.
“As a MEU, our missions are always unique and you can never predict what the next year will hold. Deploying to Afghanistan was another example of how versatile this unit is. One year we evacuated Americans from the Beirut Embassy in the largest such evacuation of non-combatants, and the next we spent eight months in southern Afghanistan fighting the Taliban," said Lt. Col. Kent Hayes, executive officer, 24th MEU.
After much self-sacrifice many Marines returned longing for life’s simple pleasures. Such was on the mind of Gunnery Sgt. Angel Cruz, who just wanted to be back home, “sleeping in my own bed, next to my wife and being in my house playing with my daughter and the dogs.”
Cruz, the 24th MEU’s information assurance officer, and a handful of other Marines who came back before of the rest of the unit and were unexpectedly greeted by USO volunteers while walking through the airport.
“I was taken back by all of it. It was the last thing I thought would happen at 11 p.m. in Baltimore. Those families of other service members waiting to greet us was a beautiful display of support for us,” he explained, still noticeably honored by the patriotic display.
As Marines continue arriving, there are constant reminders of their still-fragile success in Helmand province. The 24th MEU commander, Col. Peter Petronzio, has begun explaining the exploits of his Marines as a text-book case-study in Marine counterinsurgent operations.
“The tenants of a successful counterinsurgency are clear, hold and build. You can’t just clear. If you don’t hold, the insurgents come back and if you don’t build then you really aren’t making the place any better. You need to make the place better so the people can see the value of choosing government rule vice accepting insurgent intimidation,” said Petronzio, part of the 24th MEU’s brain trust that will stay behind in Afghanistan to help incoming Marine units transition to the unique challenges of the area.
As he discusses the counterinsurgent strategy, it seems to be at the very least a subconscious explanation to one of the most famous phrases from their deployment. The planned first fight with the Taliban was to be an aerial raid, rivaling any previous heliborne insertion dating back to Vietnam. The Marines of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion 6th Marine Regiment packed lightly for their mission, counting on returning to base in seven to 10 days for another assignment in the volatile South, instead they stayed.
Taliban fighters flowed into the area resupplying and reinforcing those already well-equipped and aiming in on the Marines.
“We were told that there were insurgents in the area just south of the British southernmost forward operating base (Delhi) and that they would fight us for a few days should we try to move through the area. As we moved to secure the route the insurgents did fight us, but not for a few days. They fought us daily for more than a month,” said the 24th MEU commander.
The increased resistance caused a reexamination of plans. If the 24th MEU moved on after clearing their way through Garmsir, the Taliban would obviously attempt to take back their precious gateway into Afghanistan.
The Marines stayed and transitioned from quick reaction raiders to counter insurgent specialists, and over the next few months focused the full-spectrum of the 24th MEU in the Garmsir city-district. Taliban fighters battled Marines for 35 days in more than 170 engagements. The death knell for the Taliban came May 28 when the Marines of Charlie and Weapons Company, both of BLT 1/6, captured Fort Jugroom, a former British strongpoint turned Taliban headquarters. Meanwhile Alpha Co. reclaimed the once Taliban-controlled Amir Agar Bazaar.
In keeping with counterinsurgency doctrine, Marines held their ground. Just a few days after the Battle for Jugroom, the Marines of Alpha Co., met with village elders in a shura, the first such gathering of local elders in three years. During their shura and in subsequent meetings with locals, the Marines invited people to return without fear of the Taliban. For many, it was the first time they could safely bring their family home since the Taliban forced them out years ago. Petronzio felt the Marines needed to stay in the area to reinforce the sense of security to a population that hadn’t seen international troops since the Soviet occupation decades earlier.
“Another factor was the concern about giving the insurgents a false victory by enabling them to claim they had run us off if we vacated the area a soon as we pushed further south. Also, as we secured the routes through the district center, Afghan citizens who had been displaced by the insurgents began to return to their homes. It would not have boded well for them had we left just as they were returning to an area they thought we had secured and they thought we would remain in to sustain the security,” said Petronzio.
The 24th MEU began the last block of the three-stage counterinsurgent doctrine on June 23 when the Alpha Battery sent Marines from their six-cannon gun line to Forward Operating Base Delhi. There they opened a civil military operations center where Marines doled out cash payments for battle damage. By the time Marines closed the center they had met 1,082 locals and paid them a total of $785,000.
Throughout the city Afghan National Forces began joining Marines on daily patrols and security exercises and shortly after British forces were walking side-by-side with their American allies. They hunted for improvised explosive devices and other weapons caches, finding 86 unexploded ordnances and 26 weapons stockpiles. On Sept. 8 the Marines official handed control of the city-district back to the British, the country previously tasked by NATO for securing Garmsir and the rest of Helmand Province.
The Marines spent the better part of September and October cleaning and packing all of their gear in preparation for the trip home from one of the largest Afghanistan bases. Frustratingly tiny sand particles had to be washed from each vehicle, weapon system and piece of equipment before the Marines could board planes and head home. The trip itself was an exercise in endurance for the traveling Marines as they spent days split between flights and layovers at airports along the way.
“The flight was long but exciting,” Cruz said of the nearly 20-hour flight home.
The Marines landed and loaded busses for the final leg of their journey home. They exited the busses to the screams and cries of their much-missed loved ones. Their arrival home moves their actions in Afghanistan from front-page news into historic context.
“Al-Anbar has come to signify the Marines success in Iraq, and I believe Helmand Province and Garmsir will show the world what impact the Marines can have in Afghanistan,” said Hayes.
“I’m proud of what these Marines have accomplished. They lived in some of the most undesirable locations and conditions imaginable in Garmsir. Seeing the warm welcome they received from their friends and family was a well-deserved end to a demanding deployment.”