Mabus: ‘The heroics of this unit cannot be overstated’

Sgt. Zack Tharp, a reconnaissance Marine with Company A, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, provides cover while Marines in the background prepare to destroy confiscated drugs Oct. 6, 2009, at the Salaam Bazaar in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Marines raided the bazaar alongside U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.<br>Courtesy of the Defense Department
Sgt. Zack Tharp, a reconnaissance Marine with Company A, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan, provides cover while Marines in the background prepare to destroy confiscated drugs Oct. 6, 2009, at the Salaam Bazaar in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The Marines raided the bazaar alongside U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

When the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan was activated in early 2009, its new commander knew the unit would face challenges in Afghanistan but he also knew that the Marines and sailors could have tremendous impact.

“Very few [people] have the opportunity to actually go out and make history,” then-Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson said at the time.

The 2nd MEB seized that opportunity — making history in towns and villages across southwestern Afghanistan. In September 2012, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus presented the unit with the Presidential Unit Citation to honor its efforts.

“The skill, the professionalism, the devotion, the heroics of this unit cannot be overstated, and neither can their accomplishments,” Mabus said at the award ceremony in North Carolina. “New Marines coming up through the ranks now have another great example of how to wear the eagle, globe and anchor, how to be a Marine. Second MEB, you got the job done.”

The unit was the largest presence of Marines in that country at the time and, according to the award citation, mounted “the most holistic counterinsurgency campaign since the coalition presence in Afghanistan began in 2001.”

The brigade — eventually comprising about 28,000 Marines and sailors — had its share of growing pains. Camp Leatherneck wasn’t equipped for that many Marines when they arrived, and much of the Marine Corps’ gear was still in Iraq at the time. It took more than a month to get the trucks, generators, command post tents, radios and other equipment they needed.

“I spent May and June in a big circus tent with 125 of my closest friends,” said Lt. Col. E.J. Healey, who was in charge of the detachment from the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion. “There wasn’t enough water for people to be able to take showers.”

In early July, the Marines launched Operation Khanjar — a large-scale airborne assault in several locations, designed to catch the Taliban by surprise.

For 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, that meant Nawa in Ghazni province.

A small British force had maintained a very limited presence in the district center before the Marines arrived, but the area was essentially a sanctuary and pass-through for the enemy, said Maj. Matt Danner, who was commander of 1/5’s weapons company and the battalion’s fire support coordinator.

Danner said the Marines stayed in a bombed-out building before creating and moving to a fire base. The less-than-cushy living conditions weren’t a problem, he said.

“The more austere the environment, the better,” he said. “Nobody joins the Corps hoping to deploy and have four choices of ice cream … though I could have done with fewer mice.”

The Marines of 1/5 were engaged in several battles in June and July, and while things calmed down a bit later, that just meant the Marines assumed additional battlespace.

By winter, Danner said, he could see the change in the district center, where the previously abandoned bazaar became a bustling area — complete with a popcorn machine.

Throughout 1/5’s part of the deployment, Danner said there were heroes everywhere — though not all of them can be honored with individual medals.

“You don’t get a Silver Star for building a school, or convincing people to go and vote,” or helping create an agricultural framework, he said, but those things are all key to the mission too.

For Operation Khanjar, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment flew into different parts of the Nawa District and the “Snake’s head” area of Garmsir — so named because from above, the green, cultivated areas look like a bulbous head on a long, thin body. Parts of the battalion had been in contact “for weeks” by the time that operation kicked off in July, said 2/8’s former commander, Col. Christian Cabaniss.

Still, Operation Khanjar forced the Taliban “to react to us instead of us reacting to them.”

Cabaniss remembers one company telling him it was 126 degrees in the shade and they were in a “running gunfight” the entire day.

Once the area was more secure, the Marines started partnering with the Afghan security forces and handing over much of the security duties to them, Cabaniss said. The Marines also tried to determine which infrastructure projects the locals wanted.

“They didn’t want us to throw money at them,” Cabaniss said.

The Marines in the district centers were exposed to the most danger, but also made the most impact on the local people, he said.

They were “heroic beyond belief, risking their lives, putting their own safety at risk, to make sure the locals weren’t hurt,” he said. “Counterinsurgency isn’t theoretical at the rifleman’s level.”

Some of the companies didn’t even have access to cold water for several months, Cabaniss said. The water was so warm that he would put a coffee packet in it, shake it and drink it.

“The Marine Corps put them in some arduous terrain, in a horrific environment… and these young men, to me, who are our next generation, did far more than I could have expected.”

In February 2010, the Marines launched operation Moshtarak to reclaim Marjah, an agricultural hub in Helmand province.

“Even before we deployed, there was talk about going into Marjah,” said Lt. Col. Jordan Walzer, who was in charge of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion Detachment with the MEB. “Marines started calling it the ‘next Fallujah.’ It was a sobering prospect, but we were able to use that to focus ourselves during our pre-deployment work-ups.”

Nearly 5,000 Marines and sailors, along with 2,000 Afghan national security forces and U.S. Army soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade and the 82nd Airborne Division, worked together for the assault on what Nicholson called “the last enemy sanctuary in the Marine area of operations.”

Healey said the operation was a “game changer.” He said he saw the “indisputable progress” even more when he deployed to the same area in 2011, in the reduced number of enemy attacks, the development of district governance, the governing community councils, the number of children being able to go to school and the establishment and training of Afghan police and army forces.

All told, “the brigade tangibly improved the geopolitical landscape of southwestern Afghanistan,” according to the award citation.

Some of the success came from the Marines really understanding the mission, commanders said.

“Gunshots and explosions and jets overhead is what we’re trying to avoid,” Danner said. “And everybody got it.”

Walzer told the story of a gunnery sergeant who was “about as wide as he is tall, [mixed martial arts] fighter, former [Marine Special Operations] guy, shaved head, covered in tattoos — with the personality to match. Not a guy you want to square up with in a back alley, but definitely the guy you want next to you in a firefight.”

Walzer saw the gunnery sergeant’s Marines “shoving handfuls of hay into a pen full of goats” at a compound that looked like it had been deserted during the night. Then he heard the gunnery sergeant say, “If we can’t find someone to feed these animals each day, we’ll have to swing by and take care of them ourselves. If we scared these people off, there’s no way we’re letting them come home to dying animals.’

“The Gunny got it,” Walzer said. “And so did his Marines. You can be vigilant without losing sight of the prize — the people. Small acts like these established our rapport with the village elders and, in the end, the payoffs were significant. Wars like these are won or lost at the squad or platoon level.”

The brigade lost more than 350 Marines and sailors, including Lance Cpl. Donald Hogan, of 1/5, who was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously for saving his fellow Marines from the IED that killed him. Sgt. Daniel Angus, of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Division, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for his bravery.

The Marines said the presidential unit citation is a unique honor, one that honors all those killed and wounded during the deployment.

“This was a pivotal time and place in history,” Walzer said. “We were proud to serve with and be a part of this extraordinary team known as MEB-A.

“The brothers we lost will never be forgotten. Their courage and their sacrifice will always be remembered and honored. I was privileged to serve with some of the greatest young men I’ll ever know.”

Danner said the award is also a validation for all the men who did difficult and important work but may not have been awarded individual medals.

“It’s a nice thing to have this in what I’m afraid is turning into sort of a youth soccer-type mentality in our awards system,” he said. “This one still means something. … it’s a pretty strong validation of what we accomplished.”

Cabaniss said his Marines had a lot to live up to — 2/8 had landed on Saipan and Tarawa in World War II.

“They lived up to their core values of honor, courage and commitment …,” he said. “They did everything their nation asked of them and more.”

Healey is one of several Marines who received the citation for the second time; the first was for I Marine Expeditionary Force’s efforts at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.

“I definitely believe that anyone who was part of the MEB in that experience is incredibly proud of what they did,” Healey said.

The environment was “incredibly austere,” and expeditionary, he said, “where only the Marine Corps could do that. … To have been a part of that is incredibly rewarding.”


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Stars and Stripes - Heroes 2013