Battle Rattle

“Going out to pick a fight:” Marines from 1/9 remember one of their own

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During my short visit to Helmand Province, Afghanistan earlier this month, I was struck by the way honoring and remembering fallen brothers becomes an integral part of everyday life for Marines.

One of the first stories I heard from a Marine on the C-17 ride over from Kabul to Camp Leatherneck was about a white board hanging in a company office with a simple inscription: “Going out to pick a fight.”

It was a favorite catch-phrase of Sgt. Daniel Vasselian, a Marine with Bravo company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, a unit that is now returning home after a deployment providing security to Leatherneck with Task Force Belleau Wood.

Sgt. Daniel Vasselian. Photo from Facebook.

It’s also the last message Vasselian wrote on the board before heading out on his final patrol Dec. 23, 2013. According to local media reports, Vasselian was ambushed and killed by small arms fire that day as he dismounted from a Humvee.

Marines with Bravo company told me that after Vasselian’s death, the unit decided to keep his last message there to remember him by, even though they erased the rest of the board and continued to use it for daily business.

Though 1/9 declined my request to see the board with Vasselian’s message, Marines with the unit said they remembered him in other ways, too.

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Sgt. Ernest Jefferson, left, and Cpl. William “Meat Hammer” Kristel  //Photo by Hope Hodge Seck

Cpl. William Kristel, who I met on a perimeter patrol around Leatherneck, still goes by a nickname that Vasselian gave him: “Meat Hammer.”

“We were on a four-day patrol op,” communicating by radio 12 hours a day, Kristel said. “Over the radio, we called each other ridiculous names.”

When Vasselian gave Kristel his nickname, it stuck.

“Then he died,” Kristel said. “So it definitely wasn’t going away.”

There’s no doubt the Marines are in the final stages of this war. With fewer troops going outside the wire, casualties are also on the decline; the last Marine killed in action was Lance Cpl. Caleb Erickson, also of 1/9, who died on Feb. 28 of this year.

But it’s good to be reminded of the sacrifices that our service members are still making–and the quiet ways their brothers-in-arms work to keep their memory alive.

 

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 >

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.

GQ magazine profiles attack on Camp Bastion, Marines who repelled it

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Marines kneel beside a battlefield cross to pay final respects to Sgt. Bradley Atwell on Sept. 20. He died in the Sept. 14 attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. (Cpl. Mark Garcia / Marine Corps)

The deadly attack last year on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, has received widespread coverage, especially by Marine Corps Times. But it isn’t every day that a Marine operation makes the pages of a gentlemen’s magazine.

The newest GQ magazine profiles the Sept. 14, 2012, battle, sharing a number of details that square with previously published reports. It was written by Matthieu Aikins, whom I crossed paths with last October while embedded with Marines in Helmand province.

Aikins’ story is written colorfully, and includes one troubling new allegation that had not previously been reported:

But a troubling question still lingers: How could fifteen insurgents have penetrated a mammoth base like Camp Bastion, inflicting the largest loss of American aircraft in combat since Vietnam?

According to an American official familiar with the after-attack inquiry, there had been warning signs. The Marines and British had caught lone men crawling inside the wire on several occasions in the months leading up to the attack. But the Marine leadership in Helmand, led by Major General Charles M. Gurganus, was managing a drawdown in forces as the surge came to an end. And a month before the attack, says the official, the Marines cut their forces assigned to patrol outside the wire from 325 down to one hundred—forces that might have caught the attackers before they struck.

Commandant Gen. Jim Amos requested that U.S. Central Command to investigate the circumstances that led to the attack in May, some five months afterward. The cut in forces patrolling the base has previously been reported, but the military catching individual men attempting to crawl beneath the wire had not.

Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, the commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, and Sgt. Bradley Atwell were killed in the melee. At least four other Marines have received Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in the attack.

 

Purple Hearts awarded to Marines wounded in Camp Bastion attack

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Former Cpl. Matthew Eason, receives a Purple Heart from Lt. Col. Cory Simmons, left, the commanding officer of Marine Attack Squadron 211, for wounds he received while defending against a Taliban attack at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, on Sept. 14, 2012. The awards ceremony was held Aug. 1. (Photo by Cpl. William Waterstreet/Marine Corps)

At least four Marines who served with the Harrier squadron attacked last year at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, have received the Purple Heart, Marine officials said in a news release published Thursday.

Lance Cpl. Cole Collums, Sgt. Jonathan Cudo and former Cpl. Matthew Eason received the award Aug. 1 for wounds sustained in the Sept. 14, 2012, attack, Marine officials said. Maj. Eason, Collums and Cudo are the second, third and fourth Marines from VMA-211 who acted at Camp Bastion to receive Purple Hearts. They were all with Marine Attack Squadron 211, out of Marine Corps Station Yuma, Ariz., when the attack occurred.

Maj. Greer Chambless, a former pilot with VMA-211, received the Purple Heart previously for wounds sustained in the attack, the news release says. The squadron’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible, and a Marine in another unit, Sgt. Bradley Atwell, were killed during the melee. Atwell was assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13, also out of Yuma, and killed in a separate skirmish during that night on Camp Bastion.

The attack received widespread attention, but the Corps did not disclose details about the Aug. 1 Purple Heart ceremony until nearly a month later. In the news release, several of the Marines honored that day reflect on the battle, in which 15 insurgents armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades coordinated a complex attack that destroyed six AV-8B jets and badly damaged two others. Three refueling stations also were destroyed, and six soft-skin aircraft hangars were damaged.

The Marines awarded the Purple Heart were part of the group that Raible led in a counterattack on the insurgents, the news release says. Sixteen of the 50 Marines on hand at the time pushed out of the hangar, said Staff Sgt. Jesse Colburn, an ejection seat mechanic who was among them.

Collums said he was the first one out the door, and “thought it was an entire militia attacking” at the time. “I completely believed that I was going to die that night,” he said.

A bit more:

When the counterattack began, the VMA-211 Marines took up positions outside their hangar before the insurgents could respond. Collums advanced to a forward position within throwing distance of the enemy. He began firing at one of the insurgents while taking fire from multiple locations.

“He kept popping his head out, and I kept shooting at him; I thought, ‘This guy is an idiot. He just keeps sticking his head out,’” said Collums. “Only later did I realize that I was doing the same thing.”

After neutralizing the insurgent, Collums heard the telltale sound of a grenade landing near his position.

“I knew exactly what it was when I heard it,” said Collums. “I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I knew because it was exactly the same as in Call of Duty. When I heard it, all I could think was R2.” [R2 is the button used in the video game, Call of Duty, to throw a grenade back]

The grenade went off before Collums had a chance to react. He was impacted by a concussive blast, hit with shrapnel and launched through the air. Despite the explosion and his injuries, Collums got back up and rejoined the rest of the VMA-211 Marines positioned roughly 10 meters to his rear. He remained in the fight after other Marines quickly treated his wounds.

After the grenade blast and a subsequent lull in the fighting, the insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Marines’ position. One of the Marines shot the insurgent firing the RPG, so it strayed high and detonated on the wall of the hangar behind the Marines. Shrapnel from the explosion wounded Cudo, Collums and Eason.

“I was thrown up against the wall and there was ringing and disorientation,” said Cudo. “I had no idea what was going on, and I just remember being dragged back into the hangar. It was just a small piece of shrapnel in my face but there was blood everywhere so they didn’t know how bad it was at first.”

Marine Corps Times has reported on the attack extensively, including in this piece published during an embedded assignment in Helmand province last year. Raible was put up for the Silver Star, Marines at Camp Bastion said at that time.

More recently, however, accountability issues have been raised about the attack. In April, a Washington Post report said it was each to breach the wire because a number of watchtowers were unmanned and patrols around the base had been cut back the month before as part of the drawdown in U.S. forces across Afghanistan.

In May, Commandant Gen. Jim Amos asked U.S. Central Command to conduct an investigation into what occurred at Bastion, some eight months after the attack. A promotion for the two-star commanding general in Helmand last year, Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, has been put on hold until the investigation concludes.

D’oh! in the Desert: Why was an unwanted $34 million headquarters built at Camp Leatherneck?

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This building cost $34 million to build at Camp Leatherneck — and it may not ever be used. (SIGAR photo)

A short walk from the main U.S. headquarters facility at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, sits a hulking two-story building behind chain link fences and cement walls. It cost $34 million to build, and it will likely never serve any purpose for U.S. forces.

That’s the groan-worthy findings of John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. The 64,000 square-foot building has been roundly panned in the media today, after it was highlighted in a Washington Post story this morning.

SIGAR, as Sopko’s organization is known, sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter this week asking about the decision-making process that led to construction of the building. Available here, it says Marine commanders at Camp Leatherneck asked for the project to be stopped as early as May 2010, but the U.S. military went ahead with building it anyway.

The timing means the request was issued shortly after Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, then a two-star general, took over as the ranking U.S. commander in Helmand province. Nevertheless, the Air Force’s 772nd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron issued a task order for construction the February to AMEC Earth and Environment Inc., a British company, SIGAR found.

“According to an official at Camp Leatherneck, the building can accommodate approximately 1,200 to 1,500 staff, and includes a war room, briefing theater, and offices for senior military officials, including a three star general,” Sopko’s letter said. “However, even under the best case scenario, only 450 people may be able to use the building today, which would result in excessive operation and maintenance costs because the cooling systems would be underutilized.”

I’ve made three reporting trips to Afghanistan since May 2010, including two last year. The building popped up in between the first two assignments, a monstrosity that is a short walk from the current plywood headquarters buildings used by Marine commanders at Leatherneck, currently led by Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller. I asked about the plan for the building several times last year while on base, and was told it would serve as home to a regimental headquarters and other organizations. It seemed to be overkill, but giving the building boom at Camp Leatherneck over the last couple years, not out of the realm of possibilities.

The scope of the building, laid out by SIGAR, seems overly ambitious even for when U.S. operations in Afghanistan were at their peak in 2011, however. For example, there may be a home for a three-star general in the facility, but the Marine operations in the region have never been led by anyone with more than two stars.

The building’s existence stands as a concrete example of what happens when not enough questions are raised up the chain of command, especially at the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. While workers built a headquarters building that would stand out virtually anywhere, President Obama and others signed off on a decision that now has a fraction of the troops in Helmand province than there were in 2010 and 2011.

As SIGAR put it, the new headquarters is a “White Elephant” without a home. Investigations are now underway to determine what happened behind the scenes.

Chow hall cutbacks in Afghanistan spark anger for some Marines

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The chow hall at Combat Outpost Taghaz, photographed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, last October. (Photo by Dan Lamothe)

Check out this photograph above. It shows the modest chow hall at Combat Outpost Taghaz, a small combat outpost in Afghanistan where I lived with Marines for about a week last fall while gathering information for a couple of stories. The adviser team shared the base with a platoon from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, which provided overwatch security in the region.

I bring this up after reading today that some service members at Camp Leatherneck, the Marine Corps’ largest base in Afghanistan, are angry that commanders have apparently decided to dump the midnight ration service and 24-hour sandwich bar in its chow halls. It plans to replace them with prepackaged Meals, Ready to Eat, Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, a Marine spokesman, told NBC News.

The decision won’t be popular at Leatherneck with everyone. NBC News quotes an email one Marine wrote his wife as an example.

“This boils my skin,” the email said. “One of my entire shifts will go 6.5 hours without a meal. If we need to cut back on money I could come with 100 other places. “Instead, we will target the biggest contributor to morale. I must be losing my mind. What is our senior leadership thinking? I just got back from flying my ass off and in a few days, I will not have a meal to replenish me after being away for over 9 hours.”

That’s one side of the debate. The other side will come from Marines living on small bases with chow halls like the one pictured above. In many of those locations, Marines have never had three hot meals per day. In some, they’ve had just one. There also is no ice cream, salad bar, refrigerated soda and other creature comforts on a lot of those smaller bases. Instead, there’s usually one dutiful lance corporal or corporal, doing the best he can to put together a decent meal each night for his fellow Marines on base.

As someone who has bounced around all over Helmand province in the last few years, I can understand some disappointment with meal services being cut back at Leatherneck. In particular, for those working overnight, having a sandwich readily available was certainly a sweet deal.

The outrage expressed in some corners here seems a bit over the top, though. Seriously, “I will not have a meal to replenish me”? Infantrymen all over Afghanistan have been hanging in there just fine with MREs in off hours for years. For the time being, there’s also the massive PX store on Leatherneck, which is stocked with snacks of all kind and probably can offer some relief.

No one is going to starve anytime soon.

Accountability issues raised in Camp Bastion attack

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Marines kneel beside a battlefield cross to pay final respects to Sgt. Bradley Atwell on Sept. 20. He died in the Sept. 14 attack on Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. (Cpl. Mark Garcia / Marine Corps)

Two Marines died and six AV-8B Harrier planes were destroyed last fall after 15 insurgents attacked Camp Bastion. It marked one of the most brazen and high-profile security incidents on a major forward operating base in 11 years of war in Afghanistan.

Immediately afterward, the majority of the news coverage focused on the heroism displayed that Sept. 14 night in squashing the attack. That certainly deserved attention. As I outlined from Camp Bastion last fall, hundreds of Marines and other coalition forces scrambled to root out well-trained enemy that, after breaching the wire, not only destroyed aircraft, but also opened fire on unarmed personnel and civilians riding in a bus. The results of the attack could have been much worse, as a variety of senior Marine officers have pointed out.

There are a number of questions that still haven’t been answered by U.S. military officials, however. A Washington Post story published over the weekend addresses several, suggesting that it was easy for the Taliban to breach the wire because a number of watchtowers were unmanned and patrols around the base had been cut back the month before as part of the drawdown in U.S. forces across Afghanistan.

The story, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, reports:

– The British, as overseers of Camp Bastion, had responsibility for guarding the base. Instead of placing their own soldiers in the towers, they delegated the duty to soldiers from the Pacific island of Tonga. Before the attack, several Marine officers raised concerns about Tongans falling asleep while on post, the story adds.

– The tower closest to where the insurgents breached the wire was unmanned on the night of the attack. Other towers were manned that night, but the Tongan soldiers couldn’t see the area observed from the vacant tower in question.

– Maj. Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, the top commander in Helmand province at the time, approved reducing the size of the Marine force that patrolled outside camps Leatherneck and Bastion from 325 personnel to 100 one month prior to the attack. Gurganus, the head of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), told the Post that the decision was based on the threat assessment at the time, adding that the Taliban caught a “lucky break.” The decision was made as U.S. forces across the country were required to cut numbers.

– Military officials told the Post the reduction in patrols around the base allowed insurgents to conduct reconnaissance on the airfield before the attack, identifying times during which guard towers were unoccupied and drawing maps of where planes were parked. The maps were shown by the Taliban in a video after the attack that bragged about the destruction they caused.

– The Marine Corps does not plan to release its review of what happened. NATO also intends to keep the results confidential, in part because they don’t want to embarrass the British, military officials told the Post.

During a breakfast in Washington with journalists last week, Gurganus and British Brig. Gen. Stuart Skeates, the deputy commander for I MEF (Fwd.), were asked about the September attack on Bastion and a previous March 2012 incident in which an Afghan interpreter attempted to run them down while they waited for a plane with then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to arrive. Were there security failures, and could anything have been done in between the two incidents to improve safety?

Skeates said the two incidents were completely unrelated, and it would be an error to assume every single security incident could have been prevented after the rundown attempt.

“The environment out there is extremely dynamic. It is extremely complex,” he said. “There is a significant Afghan and third-country national population that works at Bastion and Leatherneck every single day, and the simple business of going about running a camp like that, and running all of our bases across the whole southwest presents some very complex security challenges.”

Skeates added that the incident shows things can go wrong and the enemy “gets a vote.”

“If you’re talking about accountability, there’s really only one group to be held accountable for that attack in September, and that’s the 15 insurgents who attacked the camp,” Skeates said. “And, 14 of those were killed, and one of those is in prison.”

Gurganus said he agreed with Skeates, and added that it is almost impossible to defend against every scenario.

“You do your best to cover all the bases, but you concentrate primarily on what your primary threats are, and what is most likely even while you’re guarding against what is the most dangerous,” Gurganus said.

“In terms of changes that were made… that’s a change that we do on an almost daily basis. Anytime the threat changes, we change security postures. We add, we move, we shift, we put additional things up, we take additional things down when we need them in other ways,” he said. “We constantly reviewed and constantly shifted and changed our security posture, always looking to improve but always looking to look different so we didn’t set particular patterns.”

I’ve reached out to I MEF (Fwd.) and Marine Corps Forces Central Command to comment on some of the questions raised. If more becomes available, we’ll share it then.

Marines post ‘Port-a-crapper’ rules for Afghanistan

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Posters like this have been hung in some of the port-a-johns at Camp Bastion, where Marine aviation units work from in Afghanistan. (Colin Kelly/ Staff)

COMBAT OUTPOST PASERLAY, Afghanistan – It’s a relatively quiet day here on this outpost in Trek Nawa, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious conversation to which we can all relate.

Deployed U.S. service members in Afghanistan put up with a lot. Not only is there the threat of improvised explosive devices, small-arms ambushes and indirect fire attacks, there’s the lousy food, hostile weather and lack of plumbing.

That, of course, leads to a subject we’ve probably written about too frequently on this blog: poop humor. Yes, you may remember previous blog entries about farting in Afghanistan and learning to use a “wag bag,” a plastic pouch in which human waste is disposed when there’s no plumbing.

Photographer Colin Kelly spotted the poster depicted above at Camp Bastion, the British base in Helmand province that is home to thousands of deployed Marines in aviation units. Clearly, a frustrated Marine leader somewhere decided the best way to crack down on messy port-a-johns was to post some rules of the road. And if you’re going to lay the law of the lavatory down, a little sarcasm and blunt talk never hurt.

The “Port-a-Crapper Etiquette/Disease Prevention Flier of Excellence,” as this poster is known, does all of that and more. It even warns about the dangers of inserting a SEAL team without a plan afterward. Good advice, no?

In all seriousness, we shared this poster because it’s important to keep a sense of humor in a war zone. Going to work for months on end with danger present and loved ones far away is difficult, and it is best handled with a little humility and cheerfulness.