Story by Staff Sgt. John Jackson
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – The final elements of Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan loaded onto aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline in Afghanistan, and departed Helmand province for the final time Oct. 27.
The Marine Corps completed operations in the region during the early afternoon when the final eight Regional Command (Southwest) helicopters landed at the command’s intermediate staging base at Kandahar Airfield, ending more than five years of continuous Marine Corps operations in Helmand province.
“It’s an historic day for the Marine Corps, but more importantly, it’s an historic day for the Afghan National Security Forces,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel D. Yoo, commanding general, Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan. “The security of Helmand is up to the ANSF, and I am confident in their abilities to continue to succeed.”
ANSF in Helmand
Afghan National Security Forces in Helmand province were virtually nonexistent just six years ago. Colonel Anthony Henderson, the MEB-A operations officer, first arrived in Helmand as a battalion commander during 2008, and says he has seen monumental changes in the ANSF’s capacity and capability.
“The ANSF were not an existing force in 2008,” Henderson said. “There were police organizations in the district centers that were very weak and lacked capability, and there was almost no Afghan National Army presence here in any form beyond a battalion or brigade size. When I came back here, the size of the 215th Corps and the capabilities of the Corps were a dramatic change.”
The ANA’s 215th Corps and the Afghan National Police will continue to provide security for the province, something they have been doing with very minimal support from International Security Assistance Forces throughout the past two years.
During May 2014, the Marine Corps’ last brigade-level advisor team left Sangin, a once insurgent stronghold. Since then, the Marine Corps provided no ground support to the ANSF. The ANSF held control of all district centers and maintained freedom of movement between them, coordinating between various pillars to successfully accomplish their mission.
“I think from a security perspective they are ready,” said Col. Morgan Mann, the security force assistance director for MEB-A. “They have proven that throughout the last year. They have done it alone out in the battlespace. They have proven time and again, especially during this past fighting season. They did it completely on their own on the ground, and I think that is a testament to their readiness and their ability and confidence to go on next year.”
While the Army and police have proven they are capable of taking the fight to the enemies of Afghanistan, sustaining the successes they have made during the past five years will be determined in the months and years to come.
“If they continue to follow what they have developed, they will be trained well enough,” Henderson said. “They will be able to continue to overmatch the insurgents they encounter. They will overmatch them tactically, as an ANA soldier against a given insurgent, and overmatch them operationally through battalion and brigade operations against insurgent district operations.”
Upon the departure of the Marine Corps and their coalition counterparts from the United Kingdom, the Marine Corps transferred Camp Leatherneck, an expansive Marine Corps forward operating base located in central Helmand province, to their Afghan counterparts.
Approximately 6,500 acres were transferred back to Afghan control, giving the ANA a large base that includes a nearly 11,500-foot-long runway, providing them with the continued ability to coordinate ground and air operations in Helmand province.
“I think we left as little as we could and as much as the ANA could handle,” said Col. Doug Patterson, the MEB-A logistics officer. “We could have probably taken down a few more buildings and things like that, but the Afghans were our hosts and they wanted that capability. So we left it for them, giving them the opportunity to operate that camp, which will allow them to further their operations in the future.”
Months prior to leaving Helmand province, the Marine Corps worked diligently to get their equipment out of Afghanistan and leave the base responsibly. During the final 45 days in Helmand province, 191 C-17 equivalents of gear were flown out of the province and the outer perimeter of the base was reduced. To help ensure their ANSF partners could sustain what was being transferred, Marines conducted an 8-week course encompassing everything from generator maintenance to airfield operations.
“It was definitely a daunting task, but the ability for everybody to coordinate and work together toward a common goal was just outstanding,” Patterson said. “Just to see the individual Marine and how hard they worked on a day-in, day-out basis was wonderful to see.”
Marine Corps legacy in Helmand
The day prior to the Marines’ and British service members’ final departure from Helmand province, the RC(SW) command held an End of Operations ceremony. During the ceremony, the Marine Corps cased the RC(SW) battle colors for the final time and lowered the NATO, U.K. and U.S. flags, leaving only Afghanistan’s flag waving outside the headquarters building.
“People ask what we did here and whether it was worth it,” said Sgt. Maj. Doug Berry Jr., the MEB-A sergeant major. “We were successful. We are leaving here knowing that everything we worked for was accomplished. We met our objectives. Those who have come here and did not go home, or went home different, should know that we finished for them. The families should be proud of that. The United States flag coming down the way it did was significant. It was more than just a ceremony. It was a good day for the United States and a damn good day for the United States Marine Corps.”
During the Marine Corps’ approximate five years of combat operations in Helmand province, more than 350 Marines were killed on the battlefield and thousands went home wounded.
“The Marine Corps teaches so much about our magnificent performances and our success of winning in combat throughout our history,” Berry said. “When you become a Marine and get an opportunity to go forward deployed, you automatically want to go. With that comes a side that we are prepared for. Those Marines who died did so doing something that they wanted to do, and that is honorable. It is truly honorable because they raised their right hand and said they wanted to serve and support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The fact that they have passed serving their country in combat is part of what we do.
“We knew what our mission was here. We had to finish our mission here in Afghanistan and we did that. And we represented everyone who has ever been here, those past and present, those who were changed here and wounded in action, and those who died on the battlefield. What we did in RC(SW) was finish. We finished what had to do, what we were charged with doing, and we did it with courage, we did it with honor.”