Marines in Helmand help Georgians become fighting force

Left to right, U.S. Marine Cpl. Parker Fletcher, interpreter Temur Okruashvili and Georgian Army mechanic Gocha Ushveridze work together to repair an MRAP in the Georgian vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Leatherneck. Six American mechanics and six Georgian mechanics work together in the shop.<br>Jennifer Hlad/Stars and Stripes
Left to right, U.S. Marine Cpl. Parker Fletcher, interpreter Temur Okruashvili and Georgian Army mechanic Gocha Ushveridze work together to repair an MRAP in the Georgian vehicle maintenance shop at Camp Leatherneck. Six American mechanics and six Georgian mechanics work together in the shop.

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — As dozens of Marines across Helmand province advise and assist Afghan forces, a small group of Marines is focused on a different group: a Georgian light infantry battalion.

The Georgian Liaison Team — about 90 Marines from different East Coast-based units — teaches, advises, mentors and participates in operations with the 750 soldiers of the 31st Georgian Light Infantry Battalion. The battalion is part of the task force charged with security of the sprawling Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion complex.

This is the 11th rotation of Georgian troops in Afghanistan and the third tour in Helmand province for the 31st Georgian Light Infantry Battalion.

During those rotations, Georgian troops spent their deployments engaged in combat operations out of forward operating bases in northern Helmand province, these troops are running patrols, manning guard towers and sending out quick reaction forces around Camp Leatherneck, with the help of their Marine advisers.

Staff Sgt. Robert Plemmons, who came to the Georgian Liaison Team from II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C., works with Georgian company-level staff. He said the Georgians plan the missions with the Marines’ advice and support, then the Marines go out with the Georgian troops, assisting at “friction points” wherever necessary.

Those friction points might be a location where an IED was spotted, the search area of a vehicle check point, a shura or any other situation when there is the potential for something to go wrong, said Capt. Jonathan Lucas, who joined the Georgian Liaison Team from the training instructor group of Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group in Virginia Beach, Va.

The Marines also act as liaison for air support, explosive ordnance disposal and other supporting units, Plemmons said.

“We play the middle man a lot,” he said.

Plemmons has served as an adviser for Iraqi, Afghan and Jordanian forces, as well as the forces of several African countries, he said. But in each of those cases, the advising was done in the troops’ home country. Advising the Georgians in Afghanistan means dealing with the usual cultural differences — in a war zone, Plemmons said.

Georgian forces first deployed to Afghanistan in 2004, when one company serving under a German unit provided security for the elections of now-President Hamid Karzai, said Irakli Gurgenidze, chief of public affairs for the Georgian unit. The first Georgian battalion came to Helmand province under Regional Command-Southwest in 2010, and by last year had two 750-man battalions in the province, in Now Zad and Musa Qala, Gurgenidze said.

In a few months, another battalion will replace the 31st Battalion in RC-Southwest, and a second battalion of Georgian rangers will go to Kandahar to serve under RC-South, Gurgenidze said.

“It is in our interest to have as many troops here as possible,” so they can gain combat experience, Gurgenidze said.

As of mid-January, Georgia was contributing more troops to the Afghanistan effort than any other non-NATO nation and was fifth behind the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Italy for total troops in the country, despite having a population of slightly less than 5 million.

A republic the size of West Virginia in the troubled Caucasus mountains, Georgia tangled with neighboring Russia over two separatist regions in 2008. Some Russian troops remain in those regions, which are on Georgian soil.

Georgia is seeking full membership in NATO — which Russia opposes — and has pledged troops and financial support for Afghan national security forces after 2014.

To help lower some of the cultural barriers, a portion of the Marine team formed in January 2013 to learn advisory skills and the Georgian language, before some traveled to Georgia in May to train with the battalion, Lucas said.

The Marines and Georgian troops then traveled to Germany in August for a battalion training exercise at Hohenfels. They deployed to Afghanistan at the end of September, Lucas said.

Cpl. Parker Fletcher came from 2nd Maintenance Battalion at Camp Lejeune and joined the Georgian battalion as the maintenance shop chief when it arrived in Afghanistan. The maintenance shop has six U.S. Marine and six Georgian mechanics, and intermingling was difficult at first, Fletcher said. But now, the mechanics work together very well, get things done quickly and have a lot of fun in the maintenance bay when they’re not working, he said.

“We teach each other a lot,” Fletcher said. “It’s definitely a lot easier now.”

Sgt. Angel Jacquez, who came from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, at Camp Lejeune, said working with the Georgians through the training period and the deployment has taught him patience.

Coming from an offensive mindset and moving into an advisory role was a challenge, he said.

“I’m not here to take the fight to the enemy. I’m advising them on how to take the fight to the enemy,” Jacquez said.

Despite the initial difficulties, Jacquez said he has really enjoyed working with the unit.

“The Georgians are really loyal, very friendly, humble people — really good people to be around,” he said. “I have the same relationship with the Georgians that I’d have with my Marines.”

Lucas said the Georgian soldiers have a lot of experience and can do many things without any assistance from the Marines.

And that might be the biggest challenge for the Marines: “We’re not in charge,” he said.

Twitter: @jhlad

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