Battle Rattle

“The enemy is … on the run:” Afghan National Army declares victory amid fighting in Sangin

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Just last month, the Marine Corps executed a carefully planned pullout from Sangin district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, a region best known as one of the most deadly battlegrounds of the war. I was on the ground with some of the units for the final withdrawal.

Less than two months on, the news out of Sangin isn’t good: AP reports that some 27 people, including five civilians, have been killed since Sunday, when the Taliban launched an attack on police checkpoints in the district, swarming the region with between 800 and 1,0o0 enemy fighters. The fighting has also spread the nearby Kajaki and Now Zad districts, a spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defense said. The good news, according to NATO officials, is that no checkpoints have been overrun so far in the fighting.

ANA 215th Corps commander Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk after voting in Afghanistan April 5

ANA 215th Corps commander Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk after voting in Afghanistan April 5

Amid the fray, the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps–the unit responsible for all of Helmand province–fired off a statement from Corps commander Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk declaring victory and saying the Taliban were on the run.

215th Corps release

“Unfortunately, media outlets have broadcasted news that we have been defeated, but this is false,” the release reads. “…120 Taliban have been killed and 200 wounded, many of which have been captured. The enemy has failed and they are on the run, leaving behind heavy and light weapons, ammunition, and vehicles and have left many of their dead on the battlefield.”

The statement closes with a promise that “life will return to normal” with the Afghan National Security Forces in control.

It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret this release. A BBC report from today quotes “local officials” saying more than 100 Taliban have been killed in the five days of fighting in Sangin, but acknowledges no independent confirmation exists for this figure.

The statement from the 215th Corps also seems strangely optimistic given the reports from the ground in Sangin. That said, Afghan officials emphasized to Marine Corps Times the importance of a robust information campaign as an element of warfighting, noting that the Taliban have relied heavily on propaganda to maintain authority. To that end, the 215th Corps public affairs office set up a Facebook page, with the help of public affairs Marines aboard Camp Leatherneck, during the time I spent in Helmand.

The reality of the situation in Sangin has yet to be made completely clear. But will life “return to normal” within the district in the near future? Consider me skeptical.

 

Pimp My Ride: Afghanistan Edition

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During my last few days in Afghanistan, I got a behind-the-scenes look at a “dress rehearsal” for a large-scale training exercise the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps was planning at Camp Shorabak in Helmand province to showcase the Corps’ military training and enhance interoperability.

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Afghan soldiers take a break in the shade while they wait for the exercise rehearsal to begin May 13. //Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

The scale of the exercise was pretty impressive: it involved hundreds of Afghan soldiers, two of the 215th Corps’ Mi-17 helicopters, and over a dozen M1117 armored vehicles, plus Humvees and trucks.

The M1117, used by the U.S. Army’s military police corps and the Army National Guard, has less armored protection than the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, but the ANA fleet does have enhanced survivability features. The U.S. government announced it would be donating nearly 500 of these vehicles to the ANA, and they were first fielded to Afghanistan in 2012. The Afghan National Security Forces also have an extensive fleet of High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, some purchased or donated from the U.S. government, some acquired from elsewhere.

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Afghan soldiers drive a convoy of M1117 armored vehicles during a combat exercise dress rehearsal at Camp Shorabak. //Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

But unlike U.S. armored vehicles, which tend to look pretty standardized, you’ll often see Afghan vehicles “dressed up” with a variety of aesthetic modifications. Marines said the ANSF sometimes used flags or other decorations to indicate the vehicle of a senior official. I’m told the below Humvee belonged to  215th Corps Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Zamen Hassan.

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Tricked-out Humvee of a senior Afghan officer. //Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

Here’s another view of the same vehicle. It’s hard to see all the flags, but I think I counted 11, including the ones painted on the sides. As you can see, the vehicle’s tires and sides also got an accent paint job.

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Side view of the same Humvee. //Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

I’m not sure why the truck below received the “Pimp My Ride” treatment, but in addition to flags on the hood and windshield, the truck has what appear to be Christmas decorations on the dashboard–including tinsel and sprigs of greenery–and a few things I can’t identify. It was even more impressive in person.

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This Afghan military truck appears to have tinsel and pine branches in the front window.//Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

As light-hearted as these observations are, it was incredible to see the 215th Corps on parade in armored vehicles and even conducting air maneuvers in their own helicopters. Considering this Corps was created circa 2010, that’s remarkable progress.

Have you seen any tricked-out combat vehicles on deployment? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Arlington at 150 — Celebrating America’s Heroes

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Arlington at 150

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Arlington at 150 — Celebrating America’s Heroes.

Since the first military burial on May 13, 1864, Arlington National Cemetery has become the final resting place for more than 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families. Those who on Sept. 11, 2001, died only a few hundred yards away at the Pentagon are buried here, as are the Challenger astronauts. Fifteen thousand soldiers from the Civil War — Union and Confederate — rest in Section 27 and Section 13, known as the Field of the Dead. Four thousand freed slaves, many identified only as “Citizen,” and two presidents also are buried at Arlington. Section 60 is the final resting place of many service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving their “last full measure of devotion.”

As the nation celebrates Arlington’s 150th anniversary this Memorial Day, the Military Times takes an in-depth look at the time-honored and revered cemetery, weaving in personal stories of veterans, their families and little-known ceremonies and traditions. The project is rich with photos, videos, including an interview with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and an interactive map that highlights notable memorials and burial sites at Arlington.

Click on the photo above to view Arlington at 150.

On the ground in Afghanistan: the last days of a FOB

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As I prepared for my first embed with in Afghanistan, I figured I might spend some time sleeping under the stars and taking “health and comfort breaks” in the woods as the Marines shut down several of their remaining forward operating bases. I’ve done a bit of tent camping, and I figured I couldn’t be disappointed if I managed my expectations.

But, as it turned out, even the final days of FOB life came with quite a few creature comforts.

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The surprising greenery surrounding FOB Sabit Qadam

Soon after I arrived in Afghanistan, we moved to FOB Sabit Qadam (formerly FOB Jackson) in the Sangin district of Helmand province. Only a few hundred troops with Charley company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines remained at the base, which was due to close in about three days.

True, there wasn’t any air conditioning or cold water in the heat, which pushed into the triple digits, but the lights and electricity were still on in the stone house that served as a base HQ and lodging for reporters. (Power was supposed to be out in the tents where the Marines stayed, but the guys in one tent told us they’d “tactically acquired” a power source nevertheless).

Tribal leader/drug lord's house where we stayed.

Tribal leader/drug lord’s house where we stayed.

About that lodging situation: we were told the stone stronghold once belonged to a tribal leader/drug lord back in the day, and it was some pretty nice digs: beds with mattresses, and tile designs in the ceilings, albeit what looked like a few bullet holes in the walls. A good night of sleep anywhere.

View of my messy bed. Bullet holes?

View of my messy bed. Bullet holes overhead?

My stay at Sabit Qadam was, however, my first introduction to the Wag Bag, an ingenious little invention designed to deal with the facts of life in austere environments.

Photo taken by my former colleague, Dan Lamothe, on a previous embed.

Simply put: it’s a self contained single-use system to help you answer the call of nature. Open it up, take out a good-sized trash bag filled with an absorbent kitty litter-type material. Use that bag to line a toilet seat, and you’re ready to go. The kit comes with toilet paper and a wet wipe. After you’re done, you drop all the used items back into the outer bag and throw the whole thing away. The men had the option of using “piss tubes” in the dirt for No. 1, but for women, it’s Wag Bag and Wag Bag only. Pretty simple.

In the morning at FOB Sabit Qadam, I discovered the Marines were still serving a hot meal at the little mess tent on base, even if the water at the hygiene station outside the tent had been turned off.

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The hot food was a Unitized Group Ration-Express (UGR-E) and included a potato hash with cheddar cheese, biscuits, sausage, and cinnamon rolls, complete with an optional cream cheese frosting. The Marines manning the mess tent graciously offered me some of everything, but after I tried the cheese-hash mixture, I found out I wasn’t as hungry as I thought. All of the reporters and some of the Marines, I found, were as skeptical of UGR-Es as I was. Oh well.

When we moved to FOB Nolay later in the day, we found a base that had advanced even further into the shutdown process.

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My digs at FOB Nolay

My bed situation was still comfy:  I slept in a cool tent on a cot near an open panel that let fresh air in.

But electricity at FOB Nolay was a thing of the past, as was running water.

MRAP Command Operations Center

MRAP Command Operations Center

The only power to be had on base was at the command operations center, which turned out to be an idling MRAP staffed by officers who sat knee-to-knee inside.

Meanwhile, mealtime at Nolay was the real deal: a tent equipped with tables, chairs, a variety of hot sauces, and a pick-your-own selection of Meals Ready-to-Eat, or MREs.

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Mess tent at FOB Nolay

It was a first combat zone MRE for me, and I went with Menu 23: Chicken and pasta with pesto, complete with all kinds of snacks–way more than you could eat in one sitting. Not bad, and way better than the UGR-E experience that morning.

An MRE. Photo via Wikipedia

I discovered later that evening, however, that the Afghan linguists at FOB Nolay still found ways to make a hot Afghan meal: long-grain rice with potatoes. They shared some of the bounty with me, and it was delicious.

The next day, I discovered the true extent of Marine Corps ingenuity.

Someone had figured out how to hook up a tactical vehicle to a big-screen TV, and we watched Lone Survivor on the remaining office chairs in the dark as we waited for the heat of the day to abate.

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Lone Survivor at FOB Nolay

Within 48 hours, Marines would pack the remaining portable equipment into a convoy of vehicles and leave FOB Nolay behind for good. Truly, a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the final days of a FOB.

FOB Nolay, just before closing.

FOB Nolay, just before closing.

 

 

Meet Steel, the Marines’ morale dog in Afghanistan

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Not all working dogs in Afghanistan sniff explosives or walk patrols.

Meet Steel.

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Steel, a three-year-old black Lab, was trained was an Improvised Detection Dog (IDD), skilled at sniffing out explosive devices.

But when he arrived at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, his trainers realized that his paws were too soft and sensitive for patrols over rugged, rocky terrain. He would never patrol with his infantry unit, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. Instead of being sent back to the States, however, Steel was sent over to Camp Leatherneck’s Concussion Restoration Care Center–its consolidated medical facility for sick, injured and wounded troops.

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Steel would become the base’s only working morale dog, given the job of playing with patients and putting them at their ease. He’s the second morale dog to work at the center: Sgt. Joe, the first, was retired from IDD duty after five deployments when he developed a sensitivity to loud noises. His handlers worried he might have PTSD, and brought him to the center to do a less stressful job.

Like Joe before him, Steel is still considered a military working dog; only now, work means fetching tennis balls, being petted, and providing a calming presence for Marines who might be recovering from battlefield injuries or struggling with combat stress.

Sometimes patients stop by informally to play with Steel; other times, he’s part of their treatment plan.

With some patients being treated for stress, “we say, ‘your job is to play with the dog for half an hour,’” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ken Fechner, the center director. “People light up. It’s pretty funny.”

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One Marine who has benefited from the morale dog program is Sgt. Kyle Edwards. Edwards, a Motor T Marine with Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was injured Feb. 13 while on a “wrecker run,” sent to assist another truck that had been hit by an IED. But during the run, Edwards’ mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle ran over another live IED.

The force of the blast carried the 15-ton vehicle 50 feet through the air, Edwards said. He was life-flighted away from the scene of the blast with burns to his face and neck and a severe concussion. Edwards spent four days in the Camp Leatherneck concussive care center. He was back at work with his unit within two weeks, but he found the blast had left him jumpy and tense, and he had bad headaches for weeks. So he would return to the center as a visitor.

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“I would come out in the morning and sit out here and watch movies and [the dog] would just come out here and hang out with me,” Edwards said. “It’s more just like feeling at home having a dog.”

His unit’s deployment over, Edwards is going home in a few days. Steel will likely keep working as a welfare dog in Afghanistan until this fall. After that, his military working days will be over and the Marine Corps will make him available for adoption.

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Something tells me it won’t be hard for him to find a good home.

 

We weren’t surprised about how Marines kept fit in Sangin. Well … except for this one guy

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Sgt. Sylvester Brooks whups it on in Afghanistan with his high altitude mask.

Sgt. Sylvester Brooks whups it on in Afghanistan with his high altitude mask.

By Hope Hodge Seck

FOB Sabit Qadam—It’s springtime in Afghanistan, and that means the mercury is already pushing into the triple digits here in Sangin. That didn’t seem to make a difference for Sgt. Sylvester Brooks, who tore through the FOB at top speed on a 45-minute run, wearing a high-altitude mask to make an already sweltering workout more challenging.

During a quiet deployment focused on drawdown efforts, the outdoor gym seldom sits idle as Marines bide their time by knocking out endurance workouts and strength training. Marine officials said the gym will remain in place as drawdown efforts continue, meaning Marines will be able to continue to work out until they leave the base behind for good.

Brooks, with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, said he’s in the best shape of his life, running daily with a mask that simulates the thin air at 6,000 feet in altitude.

“It’s rough,” he said. “But like anything, once you do something like enough, you’re going to adapt to it.”

That goes for the base, too; Brooks, who first deployed to Sangin in 2012, says he has watched it grow smaller and smaller, eventually losing water and power.

Cpl. Timothy Dykes, also from the unit, did pull-ups nearby.

“We make the best of what we can,” he said. “Strength is this key aspect of being a Marine.”​

NOW CHECK OUT: How combat is an endangered species in Afghanistan’s once most violent district >

Marines work out at the outd​oor gym at FOB Sabit Qadam. Officials say they plan to leave the gym standing when they withdraw from the region

Marines work out at the outd​oor gym at FOB Sabit Qadam. Officials say they plan to leave the gym standing when they withdraw from the region

There are fewer than 300 Marines left in Afghanistan’s once most violent district

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A Marine stands by the Helmand River at FOB Sabit Qadam as Afghan and Marine officials tour the base.​

A Marine stands by the Helmand River at FOB Sabit Qadam as Afghan and Marine officials tour the base.​

By Hope Hodge Seck

FOB Sabit Qadam—The Sangin district of Helmand province once was known as one of the most combat-intensive regions in Afghanistan. The gains made in the area—pushing the insurgents back and making the region more secure for civilians—proved costly in Marine lives, particularly during 2010 and 2011. Three years later, while the Taliban do still maintain a presence here, it’s now the Afghan National Security Forces who patrol and engage with the enemy, as is the case throughout Helmand province.

The Marines still remaining here, a contingent of fewer than 300 from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, are tasked with drawdown operations for the outpost and providing security.

At an outpost where Marines once awoke to machine gun fire overhead, some now look forward to the chance to get outside the wire at all.

Lance Cpl. Alan Lucas, who stood post at a lookout point facing the Helmand River, said he had been on one patrol since arriving at Sabit Qadam earlier this spring, going less than a hundred yards outside the wire to assess damage to a bridge across the river to assess damage after some heavy flooding.

“A really small patrol stepped out,” he said. “We went across the [Afghan National Army] side, and we actually, me and my machine gun team, we were sitting in the water right there pulling security.”

When a Marine fell into the water by accident during the hour-and-a-half mission, Lucas said “we could actually hear Post 1 laughing.”

Lucas said his first deployment has been quiet for the most part, except on election day when he observed enemy rocket fire aimed toward the regional polling place. While most of the rockets were duds, he said, one did explode near a FOB lookout point further down the river.

It’s a tribute to the work of Marines on past deployments that Lucas has given this one a tongue-in-cheek name: “Spring Break Sangin.”

Camp Leatherneck is Afghanistan’s next ghost town

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Plane hatch opens onto Camp Bastion. Time to meet the Marines. Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

Plane hatch opens onto Camp Bastion. Time to meet the Marines. Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

By Hope Hodge Seck

Camp Leatherneck–Greetings from Camp Leatherneck, a once-bustling base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province that is rapidly becoming a ghost town.

Leatherneck is home to most of the 4,500 Marines remaining in Afghanistan, down from some 20,000 at the peak of fighting here.

While the base still has a sprawling footprint, whole sections are emptying as units and elements complete their mission and go home.

Meanwhile, Leatherneck is still home to an array of coalition troops, including Jordanian, Georgian, Estonian, and Danish forces, as well as some 2,500 British troops stationed at Camp Bastion, which borders Leatherneck.

On April 29, though, the base did say farewell to the last contingent of Tongans, some 50 troops who completed their mission with a traditional dance ceremony. The tiny Polynesian kingdom of just over 100,000 people, has seen 75 percent of its military deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom over the last 13 years, Marine officials said.

The Marines’ footprint has contracted significantly within Helmand province; from nearly 250 forward operating bases two years ago, four FOBs and patrol bases remain in use: Camp Dwyer in Garmsir district, FOB Nolay and PB Sabit Qadam in the Sangin district, and PB Boldak near Camp Leatherneck. That number is set to shrink again soon.

Here at Camp Leatherneck, though, some things remain the same: the dining hall is still serving three hot meals a day, and the USO is still offering troops comfy leather couches, free WiFi, and a chance to send a letter home.

NOW READ: How one fallen Marine’s love story was documented on Facebook >

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.