Battle Rattle

On the cover: Interpreters fear for their lives, Marines fear they’ll leave a man behind

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On the cover this week, I dig into a complex problem: The Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives alongside U.S. Marines and now fear for their lives as they wait for approval for special immigrant visas, a State Department process that can take years.

Marine Corps Times cover

Many of the interpreters I spoke with asked that we blur their faces and disguise their names, because their work with U.S. troops makes them a target for insurgents.

Over the course of this story, I received emails from over 50 interpreters pleading for help in speeding up this process, and describing threats to themselves and their families. The problem appears to lie in the bureaucratic process and the three different agencies that must run security checks on each SIV applicant.

But one Marine officer thinks military commanders could do more to help interpreters as well. Read his story below:

On the ground, some argue there’s more the Defense Department can do as well to ensure the success of interpreters seeking SIVs.

Capt. Rucker Hunt Culpepper, a Marine infantry officer now on terminal leave, said many linguists in Afghanistan are still working on forward operating bases where they may not be given regular access to the internet. Staying on top of a visa application, he said, can be difficult.

“I think that if DoD, Marine Corps, Army leadership came down with a very firm stance in favor of assisting those interpreters who deserve it, that could go some way to influencing the units who are there on FOBs,” he said.

It’s personal for Culpepper, who has been helping his Afghan interpreter, Amin, to navigate the visa system for more than a year, submitting redundant forms into a system that is opaque and often frustratingly uncommunicative. Culpepper shared a March email exchange between an interpreter he has sponsored and the U.S. embassy in Kabul as an example of the real problems that continue, despite optimism from State Department officials.

An articulate four-paragraph email from the interpreter inquires why his application was labeled refused, refers to a letter of endorsement from Culpepper and asks whether his application status will change, having submitted a U.S. address, which was previously missing from his application. The email took considerable time to draft for the interpreter and for the lawyers from IRAP who helped him, Culpepper said.

The embassy sent a one-sentence response.

“Dear Applicant: Thank you for your email,” it reads. “Your [sic] need to provide us with U.S address. And please check the status of your case online.”

Read the full cover story here. And tell us: do you have a story about an interpreter you worked with?

 

This Marine’s jaw-dropping awards citation for a five-hour fire fight is a must read

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Birth of a Motto: in Helmand Province, 3/3 H&S Marines Prove Their Versatility, Mettle

We recently learned that Gunnery Sgt. Richard A. Jibson would become the latest Marine to receive the Navy Cross for heroism in Afghanistan. The Secretary of the Navy will present the award during a ceremony tomorrow at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Andrew Owensby, a sailor who worked Jibson to save the life of a wounded comrade during a five-hour fire fight in Mazr Abad Janubi, Afghanistan, will receive the Bronze Star for the same action.

Their jaw-dropping medal citations and summaries of action which give minute-by-minute breakdowns of their actions that day are a must read.

The two repeatedly risked their own lives to save fellow troops and repel an enemy attack during a joint operation with Georgian and Afghan forces that we wrote about Friday.

“Throughout the multiple engagements over the ensuing five hours, [Jibson] bravely left covered positions and crossed open terrain many times under withering small-arms and machine gun fire to provide suppressive fire, inspire his comrades and direct the fire and maneuver of the entire coalition force,” his citation reads. “When a fellow Marine was shot in the head by an enemy sniper, Gunnery Sergeant Jibson fearlessly charged into a hail of enemy machine gun fire, pulled the exposed wounded Marine to cover, and then assisted a corpsman in rendering emergency measures to stabilize him,” reads Jibson’s Navy Cross citation.

Owensby also performed selflessly that day.

“After pulling the Marine to safety under enemy fire, he immediately recognized a lack of airway due to extensive trauma to the mouth,” Owensby’s citation states. “Not able to establish an airway, he performed several advanced lifesaving techniques, including a cricotracheotomy. When the Marine stopped breathing, Petty Officer Owensby began breathing directly into the airway adjunct.”

He restored the Marine’s pulse and stabilized him for 45 minutes until casualty evacuation arrived.

That is just one of many things — detailed in their summaries of action — the two of them did that day to earn their well-deserved valor awards.

Read the Bronze Star citation of this year’s Leftwich Trophy recipient

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Before Capt. Christopher Ashinhurst was selected for the Leftwich Trophy, honoring the Marines’ top ground forces captain, he was awarded a Bronze Star with combat valor device for heroism leading his company during a grueling five-day battle against insurgents, and later rallying to the aid of coalition troops at Combat Outpost Shir Ghazay following a suicide car bombing that left seven Georgian soldiers dead.

Capt. Christopher Ashinhurst, speaks with the Marines of his company after receiving a Bronze Star Medal with combat-distinguishing device at the unit’s tank ramp Jan. 21, 2013. Ashinhurst stands in the formation with three other award recipients. Photo: Cpl. D.J. Wu/Marines

The commander of Delta Company, 1st Tanks Battalion, Ashinhurst proved calm under fire, assessing casualties and directing Marines even after being hit on the head with a wooden divider after a blast destroyed his company office. Following the attack, he ran toward enemy forces breaching the outpost without protective gear and armed with the only weapon he could find: a Georgian rifle that had been left behind.

The summary of action from this incident is remarkable: it’s worth reading the whole portion reproduced below.

On 15 May 2013, a Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) detonated in the entry control
point (ECP) at Combat Outpost (COP) Shir Ghazay. Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) estimated the car was
carrying 200lbs of bulk explosive. The effect of the blast wave on the interior of the COP was tremendous.

Captain Ashinhurst and his company staff were in their office, approximately 100 yards from the blast. The blast
wave immediately destroyed the company office. Interior walls, air conditioning units, and pieces of the ceiling
were thrown through the air. Captain Ashinhurst was struck in the side of the head by a wooden divider in the
officer, but immediately ordered his Marines to get to the Indirect-fire (IDF) bunker and then after clearing the
debris off himself, pushed his men out the door of the office. As Captain Ashinhurst left the office building, he
checked each of the rooms in the buildings for casualties left behind and recovered a Georgian rifle left behind in
one of the offices. As he came outside and into the IDF bunker, he took a quick head count of his staff and then
moved past the Georgian living areas directly to the site of the explosion.

The SVBIED blew a gap in the perimeter wall several meters across. Approximately two minutes after the blast,
four enemy fighters armed with AK-47s, UGLs and RPGs dressed in military uniforms, stormed the COP through
the hold made by the SVBIED. Firing through the gap in the wall and over the COP with their AK-47s the enemy
forces shot at Georgian casualties lying in the rubble and soldiers running to assist.

At the same time, Captain Ashinhurst, Georgian Liaison Team Officer-in-Charge, and the Georgian battalion
commander, already heading for the site, accelerated their movement, bounding between MRAPS parked in a lot
between them and the blast site. Without Personal Protective Equipment, and using a rifle he had found in one
of the offices, Captain Ashinhurst unhesitatingly assaulted towards the enemy forces breaching the COP.

When Captain Ashinhurst reached the blast site, he identified casualties among the rubble and after ensuring
that the enemy forces were dead, and soldiers were covering the breach point, he began treating one Georgian
soldier with open fractures to his legs, a mangled hand, and a penetrating chest wound. Capt Ashinhurst applied
a tourniquet to the soldier and directed other Marines to get a stretcher to transport the casualty to the FAS.

Captain Ashinhurst, recognizing a stretcher was unavailable, prepared the soldier to be lifted on to his shoulders
and taken the 200 yards in a firemans carry. As Captain Ashinhurst began the carry a stretcher arrived and he
then transferred the soldier to the stretcher. A moment later, Captain Ashinhurst recognized that some of the
downed enemy fighters were wearing possible suicide vests. He alerted the Georgians securing the scene and
then notified the GLT chain of command so they could get EOD to check the enemy bodies.

After Captain Ashinhurst assisted a few more soldiers and Marines with the evacuation of casualties he located
his company 1stSgt to ensure all his Marines were accounted for. Recalling a tank in from outside the base,
Captain Ashinhurst took the company executive officers tank and crew back outside the COP to command the
defense of Shir Ghazay during the medical evacuation of casualties and the reconstruction of the perimeter. His
fearlessness in the face of the enemy and boldness of action inspired his men and those around him. His
unhesitating reaction assisted in breaking up the enemy follow-on attack, saved the life of at least one Georgian
soldier, and secured the COP from follow on attacks.

And here’s Ashinhurst’s medal citation:

Citation

 

Read more about the May 13 attack on Shir Ghazay and the heroism of Marines who ran to the rescue here.

 

Former MARSOC commander to pen foreword for ‘Level Zero Heroes’

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Staff Sgt. Michael Golembesky in Afghanistan with MARSOC.

Staff Sgt. Michael Golembesky in Afghanistan with MARSOC.

Maj. Fred Galvin, who led the first Marine Corps Special Operations Command unit to ever deploy to Afghanistan and was later the subject of an investigation into a controversial firefight that got his unit booted from the country, will write the foreword for “Level Zero Heroes,” the book’s author recently told Marine Corps Times.

Penned by former Staff Sgt. Michael Golembesky and set for release this fall, Level Zero Heroes will follow the story of Golembesky’s unit, Marine Special Operations Team 8222, which fought an entrenched insurgency for seven months in 2009 and 2010 out of Forward Operating Base Todd  in Afghanistan’s Bala Murghab River Valley, near the border of Turkmenistan.

His account will be the first to detail the experiences of a Marine special operator in Afghanistan.

MSOT 8222’s exploits were also featured in an episode of National Geographic’s Eyewitness War and inspired a documentary film about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder called INFIL_EXFIL. Written and produced by Golembesky, it features members of his unit, soldiers and airmen with the Army’s Operational Detachment Alpha 1314 and Afghan commandos.

Galvin, the foreword’s author, deployed in 2007 as the commander of MARSOC’s Fox Company. The 120-man company was booted from the country after their involvement in a controversial firefight on March 4, 2007 that allegedly resulted in the deaths of as many as 19 civilians. The engagement near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan was sparked by a suicide vehicle bomb and small arms ambush.

Galvin contended that his unit responded appropriately to hostile fire but he was relieved of command before eventually being cleared of any criminal charges relating to the deaths of civilian Afghans on May 23, 2008.

Level Zero Heroes is now available for preorder through amazon.com or Barnes & Noble for about $20.

Eyewitness War: Level Zero Heroes from Level Zero Heroes on Vimeo.

This blog post was amended to reflect that Galvin and other Marines in the unit were cleared of criminal charges related to the 2007 firefight on May 23, 2008. Additionally, Galvin’s executive officer Capt. Robert Olsen was not relieved of command. Galvin continues to serve on active duty.

New Silver Star Citation details corpsman’s 4 harrowing runs through gunfire to save Marines

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This post is from our friends at Navy Times. You can check out the full story in Monday’s issue of Marine Corps Times. 

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Zackery Penner will be awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in Afghanistan.

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Zackery Penner will be awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in Afghanistan.

His squad had come under heavy fire – and was likely to face it again.

Penner

Penner

On June 22, 2012, Hospitalman Zackery Penner had risked life and limb to rush to care for a Marine shot during an patrol in Afghanistan with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. The Marine died due to the severity of his wound, a toll that hung heavy on the company.

On June 23, the squad was helping Afghan soldiers clear a compound when they came under sniper fire. Two men were hit: a Marine and an Afghan soldier. Insurgent machine guns roared.

What Penner did next would later earn distinction with the nation’s third highest award for valor.

The Silver Star citation, obtained by Navy Times, reports: “Hospitalman Penner unhesitatingly ran more than 100 meters across fire-swept terrain to reach the casualties. He established a casualty collection point behind a wall then moved in and out of the kill zone four times in order to retrieve the casualties and get them to cover. When the squad began receiving fire from the rear, Penner courageously shielded the casualties from the enemy fire with his own body until the evacuation aircraft arrived and then bravely exposed himself to enemy fire as he moved the casualties to the aircraft.”

Penner, now an HM3, is scheduled to receive the Silver Star at a March 19 ceremony in Pensacola, Fla.

Look for an exclusive interview with Penner in our upcoming issue of Marine Corps Times, out on newsstands Monday.

Facebook features fallen Marine’s love story

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Blog_Stacey_2

(Facebook screenshot)

The love story between Kimmy Kirkwood and her fallen Marine boyfriend, Sgt. Will Stacey, will forever be preserved in a Facebook tribute of the two showing how their lives became intertwined on social media in honor of website’s 10th birthday.

While most users saw their timelines filled with “a look back” videos over the past few days, 10 people were selected for a bigger project Facebook launched to highlight how people come together through social media. It’s called called “Ten Stories,” and was launched on Tuesday.

Blog_Stacey_3

(Facebook screenshot)

Kirkwood and Stacey’s Facebook story starts when the young couple reconnected a few years after high school in 2006. They started dating in 2007. Stacey, who was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, deployed to Afghanistan for the first time in 2008, while Kirkwood studied abroad in Italy. They exchanged letters since communication was difficult.

In September 2011, after reenlisting and being meritoriously promoted to sergeant, Stacey deployed to Afghanistan for the third time. He left weeks after the couple celebrated their third anniversary.

Their Facebook story closes on January 31, 2012, when Stacey was killed by an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan.

Blog_Stacey_4

(Facebook screenshot)

Kirkwood wrote about the decision to share their story on her Facebook page on Tuesday.

“When Facebook approached me about participating in this, I was happy to help,” she wrote. “I realized awhile ago that without Facebook, so much of my life with Will would never have been documented, and probably would be eventually forgotten over time.

“…A couple months after he was killed and I was back in California, I realized that I had no one to share my grief with. A lot of my memories were of the two of us alone together and couldn’t be shared easily with other people. It was a really lonely place to be.”

Then she realized that much of what she missed about him, their conversations, his humor, was all documented on Facebook, she wrote.

“I am incredibly thankful for what Facebook has given me.” 

You can view the couple’s full story here.

Professor: Marines can stop bad behavior by speaking up, reminding wrong-doers of their identity

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A Harvard professor is suggesting that bad behavior in the war-zone could be prevented  if just one person in the unit stepped forward to say, “Marines don’t do that.”

Michael Wheeler, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, posted a piece to his LinkedIn profile examining how someone’s decision-making can be changed in a matter of seconds. He cited the case of British Royal Marine Sgt. Alexander Blackman, who was recently sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty for killing an insurgent at close-range during a 2011 patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The act was captured on helmet cameras worn by other Royal Marines.

Footage captured by a camera mounted on a helmet during a patrol in Afghanistan in Sept. 2011, showed a British Royal Marine shooting a man in the chest. A Harvard professor is arguing that Marines and other troops can stop bad behavior by speaking up.  (AP Photo/ Ministry of Defense)

Footage captured by a camera mounted on a helmet during a patrol in Afghanistan in Sept. 2011, showed a British Royal Marine shooting a man in the chest. A Harvard professor is arguing that Marines and other troops can stop bad behavior by speaking up.
(AP Photo/ Ministry of Defense)

Wheeler writes that some military experts believe the act might have been prevented if just one other marine in the unit told Blackman, “Marines don’t do that.”

The phrase is effective, he argues, because it includes the word “Marines,” which is an important part of someone’s identity. And since it doesn’t include words like “stop,” “order” or “wrong,” it puts the spotlight on the person rather than the act, he wrote.

“‘Marines’ is the most important word,” Wheeler wrote. “It comes first and works on two levels. It tells the soldier, ‘Remember who you are. Don’t renounce your identity.’ Uttered by a fellow marine, it also says, ‘Your brothers are here with you.’ ”

Wheeler reached out one of his former students, retired Maj. David Dixon, for his input. Dixon said the concept of reminding another service member about their values is exactly in line with what Marines are taught from their first day at boot camp.

“If the Marine next to you is falling asleep in class, you must have the moral courage to wake him up and motivate him to stay awake,” Dixon told Wheeler. “If you are caught sleeping in class at boot camp, not only do you get in trouble for laziness, but the Marine to your left and to your right get in trouble for lack of moral courage [because] they should have corrected you when you were in the wrong.”

Helping someone about to make a bad decision means Marines shouldn’t look away, Wheeler wrote. They should have the moral courage to speak up.

Tell  us what you think. How can Marines help hold their peers accountable in the war-zone and at home?

UK media: British 3-star disputes claim his troops failed to prevent Camp Bastion attack

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Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevanht, left, and Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus were asked to retire in the wake of last year's deadly attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, left, and Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus were asked to retire in the wake of last year’s  attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.  Two Marines died during the incident and six AV-8B Harriers were destroyed.

Appearing before members of Britain’s Parliament on Tuesday, a top British general disputed assertions that his forces are to blame for the security failures that led to last year’s deadly Taliban attack on a coalition airfield in southwestern Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. David Capewell, who oversees the planning for British military operations abroad, told lawmakers that even though the Brits were in charge of security for Camp Bastion at the time of the attack, they are not responsible for the deaths of two Marines gunned down after 15 insurgents breached the base perimeter in September 2012. His testimony before Parliament’s Defence Select Committee was reported by The Independent, a British news agency.

Two senior Marine Corps officers, Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus and Maj. Gen. Gregg Sturdevant, were asked to retire this fall after the results of a U.S.-led investigation concluded they should have done more to ensure Bastion was safe from such an attack. U.S. officials also pointed out that the Brits’ command structure was separate from the Marines’ principal headquarters, which is based at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck. Because of this, there was not a single commander overseeing security for the whole complex.

After the U.S investigation was released in October, questions were raised in the UK as to whether any British officials also bore responsibility for the attack.

From The Independent’s report:

British officers had recommended a protective fence be built around the airfield following an earlier suicide attack. But Lt. Gen. Capewell said that a “ditch and berm to prevent vehicular access” had  been approved instead, and insisted that no request for extra protection had been. When reminded that more than half the guard towers were empty on the night of the attack, Lt. Gen. Capewell replied: “He who defends everything defends nothing.” … Requests for greater protection had not been denied and the US report was wrong in stating otherwise, he insisted.

British media, particularly The Independent, have criticized the country’s Defence Ministry for not thoroughly investigating the Bastion attack, noting that two of the top officers there at the time have since been promoted. Similarly, at least one member of Parliament has expressed dismay at the military’s “apparent unwillingness to address the U.S. document’s allegations openly and transparently.”

At the hearing Tuesday, Capewell addressed those allegations by saying that although British mistakes contributed to security failures at Camp Bastion, “there is no culpable failure on the part of UK forces,” according to The Independent.

Marines engage Afghan insurgents in pitched battles as 2014 withdrawal looms

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Under Fire

Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a machine gunner with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, hunkers down behind a compound wall during a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar in the Nad Ali District of Helmand province, Afghanistan. His unit engaged insurgents for about five hours Dec. 4.

A recent story by combat correspondent Cpl. Paul Peterson, offers a look into ongoing operations on the eve of the Afghanistan drawdown. The majority of U.S. and allied troops are slated to leave the country in 2014, but Marines in southern Afghanistan continue to engage in intense, hours-long firefights even as the Corps prepares to begin shipping men and equipment home.

A few recent command shifts have taken place preceding the pull out including the handover of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing forward to Col. Scott Jensen from Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas.

But, those on patrol continue to take regular contact. One such fight recently occurred in the Nad Ali District, of Helmand province Afghanistan. Peterson was along for a dawn mission during which 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines made contact with a group of determined insurgents. The unit quickly found itself battling for its survival over about 5 hours. An excerpt from his account of the battle:

“Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a machine gunner, and three or four Marines under [2nd Lt. James] Salka moved in behind us. The crickets and roosters that echoed across the desert only minutes earlier were suddenly silent as we moved across the field.

The sound of machine guns ripped the silence. Several insurgents began firing to our left, so the Marines in the front of the patrol crouched low and ran to a nearby house. Lance Cpl. Nathan Gulbronson was running in front of me with his M32 grenade launcher sticking out of his pack. He decided the house was too far away, so he juked, sagged to his knees, and let his body fall prone into the dirt. I slid into one of the shallow irrigation ditches.

I could no longer see Salka or the Marines. Chandler was still behind me, cheek nestled against his machinegun, screaming out for a smoke grenade. Rounds zipped and cracked over our heads.

Under Fire

Sgt. Steven Pendleton (left) and Lance Cpl. Brian Schaeffer provide supporting cover at the entrance to a desert compound during the firefight.

Chandler and Gulbronson shouted back and forth – Run or stay put?

Their packs were heavy, gear cumbersome, and it was nearly 100 yards to the compound. There would be no moving without support.

A smoke grenade landed in the field and spit a green cloud between us and the shooters. Bravo Company’s snipers and machine gunners fired back at the insurgents. Fire over the field slackened. We ran.

***

MEDEVAC

Nearly an hour into the firefight, a call came across the radio that a Marine had been hit. I knelt inside a small, walled-off garden when a surge of gunfire rang out in the distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but Bravo Company was providing suppressive fire as a team of Marines ran into the open to grab the injured Marine. They dragged him back to cover and immediately began first aid.

Salka relayed the injury of the Marine over the radio—gunshot wound to the abdomen. Salka requested a medical evacuation and a helicopter was inbound within minutes.

Each squad of Marines held their positions and prepared to support the evacuation. The fields around the bazaar fell silent as the medevac moved in to pull out the wounded Marine.

As the helicopter made its approach, the insurgents concentrated their fire in an attempt to shoot it down.

Streams of bullets from AK47s and machine guns erupted from compounds around the area.

***

EXTRACTION

As we left the bazaar, insurgents once again attempted to pin us down in an open field. Helicopters flying overhead provided cover fire for the Marines, killing one insurgent fighter, as the Marines took shelter in a building.

By the end of it, I was pretty exhausted. We had been running, crawling, walking and running again in full gear for more than twelve hours. We had patrolled nearly four miles of the district and zigzagged in and around the bazaar for who knows how many more. We spent almost four hours under constant fire from the enemy. The energy I got from the bag of gummy bears I ate for lunch was gone.

Evening loomed as Bravo Company streamed out of the village and converged on the extraction point to wait.

Dusk settled over us as we finally slipped back onto our helicopters under the cover of darkness. I was thankful for the thrum of the CH-53.”

Under Fire

Cpl. Kyle Klingamanm a scout sniper with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, provides cover for a group of Marines moving across an open field.

For the full version see Peterson’s story “Under Fire.”

 

Colonel takes over Marine Corps air operations in Afghanistan

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Transferring the Colors

Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas passes the Marine Corps colors to Col. Scott Jensen during a change of command ceremony at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, Dec. 9. Marine Corps/Sgt. Bobby J. Yarbrough

A new commander is taking charge of Marine air operations in Afghanistan.

Col. Scott Jensen took command of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (FWD) from Brig. Gen Gary Thomas, Dec. 9 during a ceremony aboard Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

Jensen, who was the unit’s assistant wing commander, will run operations through February when 3rd MAW will take over in preparation for the final withdrawal of U.S. forces next year.

As operations are curtailed and Afghan forces assume more responsibility for local security, Marine units like 3rd MAW are adapting their command structures.

“Over the past several months, significant gains have been made in Regional Command (Southwest’s) area of responsibility,’ said Thomas in a Marine news release. “The Afghan National Security Forces continue to take great strides in taking the fight to the enemy and is daily increasing in its capabilities and strength.”

More changes in senior Marine leadership in Afghanistan are expected in the months to come.