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Marine unit uncases colors, to be among last to deploy to Afghanistan

Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) addresses his Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Wednesday at an activation ceremony for the unit.

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Twelve years after Marines landed in Afghanistan and secured the first base there, one of the men who deployed with the original group is returning to Afghanistan as the commanding general of the last major Marine Corps command to deploy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo on Wednesday helped unfurl the battle colors of I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), the unit he will take to Helmand province early next year.

The unit’s activation ceremony fell on the 30th anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which many refer to as the beginning of the war on terrorism.

Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commanding general of I MEF, noted the anniversary and said that since that day in 1983, the fight and the way the U.S. approaches terrorism has been constantly changing and evolving.

And, he said, while the number of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan will decrease dramatically by the end of 2014, “the war will never end.”

“This war against terrorism will not end,” Toolan said. “What we must do is remain vigilant,” to ensure that the sacrifices made by servicemembers from 1983 to 2013 are not in vain.

“You are making a difference,” Toolan told the Marines. “It’s going to be a tough job.”

The deployment will include the Afghan elections in spring of 2014 and installation of the new government, the transition away from coalition-led regional commands, the disposal or return home of more than a decade’s worth of equipment, and the shuttering of Camp Leatherneck.

“I think we all understand that we’re about to embark on a historic deployment,” Yoo said, and while the “inherent danger of deployment hasn’t changed,” the mission will be different than it has been in the past.

In 2001, the Marines were focused on the Taliban and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Yoo said. Marines began fighting to wrest control of Helmand in 2008, and after years of heavy combat and steep casualties, the mission changed to a focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan forces. Now, Yoo said, the Afghan government is now “standing on its own two feet,” and Afghan forces are leading all combat operations.

“We’ve helped a country re-establish its sovereignty,” he said.

The deployment will be the first for sergeants Mark Kwast and Daniel Sallee.

Kwast said he was excited to be a part of history.

“It’s going to be a lot of work, but it will all be worth it,” Kwast said.

Sallee also said he is looking forward to the yearlong deployment, but knows it will be different than Marine deployments in the past. One of the biggest challenges, he said, will be the retrograde mission: determining what will be left behind, and how to bring the other equipment home.

I MEF (Fwd) will assume command of Regional Command - Southwest in early 2014. Right now, there are roughly 7,000 servicemembers serving in Helmand and Nimroz provinces, under the command of the North Carolina-based II MEF (Fwd).

The numbers will fluctuate during 2014, but I MEF (Fwd)’s subordinate units will include infantry regiments and a combat engineer battalion, a logistics element, aviation units and the headquarters group.

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad

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