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September 30, 2008

Faux village prepares Marines

Afghan nationals paid by Pentagon simulate village life for troops

TWENTYNINE PALMS -- Marine Capt. Mike Hoffman sat on the floor of a shack with an Afghan mullah and village elders and accepted a meager meal as he sought their help in the fight against the Taliban.


Published: Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It was loud and confusing as he tried to listen to them debate what the town needed most -- water, electricity, a police station.

"I want to hear everything you have to say. But I can only understand one of you at a time," Hoffman said through a translator.

Hoffman would later learn from culture and language instructors that he had made a serious error by seeming to dishonor the elders by quieting the debate. That could make villagers refuse to aid his troops -- or even aid Taliban insurgents.

But this was not Afghanistan. And on this day there would be no retaliation. This was just practice.

Mojave preview

The training taking place this month in the Mojave Desert at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center aims to give troops deploying to Afghanistan a preview of not only the terrain but also the culture and customs. Helping out with the training are native Afghans under contract with the military.

"When the Marines first come here, they don't know anything," said Ahmed Mansur, one of the Afghan trainers. "They don't know how to talk to the village elder. They don't know they can't search the mosque. They don't know you can never talk to a woman."

The program follows President Bush's promise to take a larger, more visible role in the war in Afghanistan. In his Sept. 9 speech, Bush outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of forces there and said even more would be sent soon.

Change in plans

The Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division was preparing to go to Iraq this fall when it was ordered to instead replace a battalion due to return home from Afghanistan.

As a result, the Marines spent the better part of September immersed in Afghan combat and culture training scenarios at Twentynine Palms.

The quick shift did not hinder troops because of similarities in combat between the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, said Col. David Odom, the battalion commander. Still, there were enough differences to make some Afghan training essential.

The program takes a page from the Marine Corps' Iraqi program, which features towns filled with role players who replicate Iraqi life.

Maj. Matt Good, the operations officer for urban warfare training at the base, said events occurring in Afghanistan -- from car bombings to Taliban attacks on outposts -- are put immediately into the combat training scenarios.

"The lessons have been learned in blood," he said.

Useful, too, is the American experience with Afghan villagers, many of whom have either had no previous contact with coalition troops or have been made promises by troops that never came to fruition.

So the training exposes Marines to everything from drinking tea with village elders to learning how to search people.

"If we don't have street credibility, we are much less effective," Good said.

The village, known as Doab, isn't modeled on any specific place.

But it includes what Marines might find in a typical village in southern Afghanistan, such as a mosque and farm houses and bullet-riddled, burnt-out cars that litter the streets.

Plenty of mistakes

At one point in the training, Hoffman walked through the village surrounded by his men, but without his rifle. It was something he would have done in an Iraqi village to show townspeople he felt secure. But in Afghanistan, trainers told him, it makes him a target for insurgents.

"You're going to see mistakes here. We need to make mistakes so we can learn from them," said Hoffman, 31, of Naperville, Ill.

During a recent scenario, Marines learned never to speak to Afghan women and to direct all questions to husbands. They learned to ask the permission of the village elder to enter the town and search it.

They also learned using the Afghan police and army to approach villagers with requests met much less resistance than doing it themselves.

Mansur, 27, of Tracy, Calif., portrayed an Afghan farmer during the exercises. Mansur served in the Afghan army before moving to the United States in 2001.

Many other role players refused to be identified or photographed, citing fears of Taliban retribution against relatives back in Afghanistan. But Mansur said many were like him and believe they are helping prevent possible misunderstandings that could be fatal.

"We have to teach them so they don't get killed or kill somebody they shouldn't," he said.

September 29, 2008

4th Tanks Marine extends to deploy

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — Civilian life can wait. At least that was how Sgt. Jonathan J. Gray felt when he found out his unit needed him.


9/29/2008 By Lance Cpl. Paul Torres, Regimental Combat Team 5

“I was getting close to the end of my six-year contract when I found out that my platoon was shorthanded,” said Gray, 28, from Hemet, Calif., who is the acting platoon sergeant and tank commander with 1st Platoon, Company A, 4th Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5. “They said they could use me, so I volunteered to stick around for the deployment.”

This will be Gray’s second deployment to Iraq with 4th Tank Bn. During this deployment and the previous one, his leadership skills and quick thinking have proven to be beneficial to his fellow Marines.

“When we deployed last year to Fallujah during a quick-reaction-force mission, we had a post that was taking fire from a junk yard of old trucks about a kilometer west of us,” said Sgt. Steve L. Farrier, 25, from San Diego, who is a gunner with Company A. “Gray was in the lead vehicle, and when we turned a corner there was an insurgent who sprayed AK-47 fire. The rounds hit all over the vehicle, including the turret, and the gunner would have been hit if Gray hadn’t pulled him down.”

This deployment, Gray and his fellow Marines have spent most of the time in their tanks as a support element to infantry units wherever they are needed.

“We basically go out for a month or more at a time and live in the tanks out in the desert,” said Gray. “We have cleared grid squares in the desert, helped clear out cities and towns and patrolled the Syrian border.”

For these long missions, it is important to keep a positive attitude, and Gray is often able to lighten the mood whether he means to or not.

“I have never really seen him get mad, except for one time he was trying to close the overhead tank commander’s hatch because it was raining,” said Farrier. “The handle on the hatch was broken, so he was trying to close it with a (multi-tool). When the (multi-tool) broke, he wound up punching himself in the head and almost knocked himself unconscious.”

“That was the hardest I have ever been hit,” said Gray as Marines around him started laughing. “Seriously, I was seeing stars.”

After this deployment is over, Gray is planning on finishing up his school at Montana University so he can become a high-school history teacher.

“I love history,” said Gray. “The Roman era and the beginning of the republic are my favorites. I think we learn a lot about ourselves through history, just about how the world came to be where it is today. Plus, I always enjoyed teaching Marines. I remember being in high school and having a good teacher, and I think that is something I can do.”

Call it ‘Camp Luh-jern’

Group wants everyone to say it exactly the way the general did

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Sep 29, 2008 8:31:14 EDT

Lt. Gen. John Archer Lejeune is one of the Corps’ all-time heroes, a legendary leatherneck who became the first Marine to lead an Army division, and who later ushered in a new era of amphibious warfare.

To continue reading:


September 28, 2008

Marine father, soldier son reunite in Iraq

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — In a line of Marines from Team Tank, Regimental Combat Team 1 firing a combat-marksmanship program shoot here, one man stood out in his gray digital battle dress uniform.


9/28/2008 By Sgt. Trent M. Lowry, Regimental Combat Team 5

Army Sgt. Shane M. White, 22, an information systems specialist with 4th Psychological Operations Group, based in Fallujah, Iraq, was participating in the CMP shoot with the Marines at the invitation of their company first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Joseph C. Gray, who also happens to be White’s father.

The soldier and his Marine dad reunited for three days while both are deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was the first time in more than a year the two service members, and family members, have seen each other.

“The last time I saw my son was last September, for one day, at his wedding,” said Gray, who has been in Iraq since April, his second deployment here.

“It’s hard trying to find time for us to take leave at the same time,” explained White, here on his first deployment.

Gray has been a Marine for more than 18 years and is currently stationed with Alpha Company, 1st Tank Battalion, at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. While deployed, Alpha Co. goes by the moniker Team Tank. White is in his third year as a soldier, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Though the news that White had joined the Army came as a surprise to Gray and his wife Gina, it wasn’t as much for his choice of service, but his decision to leave his studies at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, Fla.

“I’ve never pressured him to be a Marine,” Gray said. “Did I want him to be a Marine? Not as much as I wanted him to be happy.”

What makes White happy is working with computers, and though he considered the Marines, he said the only service that would guarantee a military occupational specialty in the computer field was the Army. Though his field of study in college was in the information systems field and he enjoyed the experience, White was compelled to postpone his scholarly pursuits.

“There has been someone in my family at least three generations back who has enlisted in an armed service,” White said. “I grew up thinking I would enlist at some point, and I was just ready.”

The two men’s units prepared for deployments at different times, which has made it difficult for father and son to see each other. According to Gray, the two have seen each other about four days in the past four years.

White’s unit learned of the brief window of opportunity he had to see his father – since Team Tank is always on the move – and graciously allowed the soldier a short break from his duties to fly to Al Asad. Gray served as the event planner for this visit, taking his son out to the CMP shoot, and then the next day, letting him fire a round from a tank’s main gun.

“We don’t get a lot of exposure to weapons,” White said, referring to his computer MOS with the Army. “We don’t get combat-arms missions; (we are) combat support.”

“Which is how his mom prefers it,” Gray added.

Both Gray and White have made favorable impressions with their units. Gray, serving with Alpha Co. since June 2007, leads with the mindset that mission accomplishment and troop welfare are interdependent.

“If you’re really in tune with the Marines and the issues they’re dealing with, you can keep the morale high,” said Gray, originally from Ripley, Ohio. “These Marines are doing the most proficient, professional and tactically patient job of any Marines I’ve worked with.”

“He cares a lot about the Marines and takes a personal interest in their welfare and well-being,” said Capt. Peter L. Schnurr, company commander, Team Tank, from Voorhees, N.J. “Most are around the same age as (White), so I think that directly relates to how he cares about the troops in the company.”

Team Tank operates in austere conditions and is based in Fallujah, but is never in a forward-operating base or combat outpost for more than a few weeks at a time. Their mission, to help rid the country of foreign fighters from organizations like Al Qaeda in Iraq by sweeping in remote areas outside of populated areas, calls for the nomadic unit to often live out of their vehicles.

“By him keeping the troops spirits up, it makes my job easier, especially during the operations we’ve been doing this deployment,” Schnurr said. “He directly impacts our ability to stay out in the field for weeks at a time and still do what the (commanding general) wants us to do.”

White’s accomplishments have impacted his unit in similarly significant ways.

“Recently White developed and created a website on the SIPR (secure network) to disseminate programs and products,” said Army Staff Sgt. Edward L. Fourquet, 27, communications section non-commissioned officer-in-charge with 4th Psychological Operations Group. “His effort eliminated the previous method and saved the unit more than $4 million of satellite equipment and airtime.”

Fourquet noted that White has earned numerous Soldier of the Month awards from various command levels and has been consistently promoted of the soldiers in his grade.

“He performs way above his maturity and age level and excels compared to his peers,” Fourquet said. “White’s an excellent soldier and phenomenal NCO.”

Gray said that his son hasn’t just made an impression on the Army, but has also inspired other young people.

“He’s had a huge impact on all (his siblings’) lives as a big brother,” said Gray. “They all admire him immensely.”

According to Gray, despite his popularity at home, White rarely hears a “hoo-ah,” the Army’s motivational cry. His younger siblings – Skylinn, 18, Richard, 13, and Emma, 11 – prefer the “ooh rah” of their father’s service. Emma also tells White his hair is too long.

The two service members have now gone their separate ways, planning to rejoin as a family in California after the new year. But this short visit was something that father and son will always remember.

“This visit has been memorable, and we’re hoping that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, in that neither one of us returns to Iraq (at the same time),” Gray said. “There’s enough stress on his mother to have both of us here at the same time.”

September 27, 2008

Harley club's parade to aid toy collection

Hundreds of motorcycles will roar through Channahon and Joliet to get toys to poor children.


September 27, 2008

The Joliet Harley Owners' Group will take to the roads for an Oct. 5 parade and to work in conjunction with the U.S. Marine Corps for the Toys for Tots program.

Besides 200 to 300 motorcycles, fire engines and police cars also will be parading, said Jack Tezak, who chairs the club with his wife, Judy Tezak.

The parade steps off from Sara's Place at 3501 Channahon Road at noon. From there it will go along U.S. 6 to Houbolt Road, then to Jefferson Street where it turns east to Springfield Avenue, then over to Glenwood Avenue down to Raynor Avenue, over to Ingalls Avenue, back up to 129th Infantry Drive and ending at the Knights of Columbus hall, "Where we supply lunch to all the guys and ladies," Jack Tezak said.

Toys will also be turned in there for the Toys for Tots program.

Wal-Mart is donating $1,000 worth of toys, which will be selected by the store's employees, Tezak said.

Others are invited to donate toys or money, and to watch the parade, he said.

September 26, 2008

Benefit planned for injured Orland marine

Family, friend to come together for Corporal Kaspar

Sometimes, some good can result from a grim situation. Such is the case trusted for by the Kaspar family in the "Coming Together for Corporal Kaspar Foundation," to financially help U.S.M.C. Corporal Sean Kaspar of Orland Park and his family with the many months of therapy and rehabilitation he faces from injuries suffered in active duty.


by Barbara McNellis
September 26, 2008

The Kaspar family stated that Cpl. Kaspar was injured this past June when a rocket propelled grenade was fired at the convoy he and others were travelling in. Kaspar suffered many wounds, including the severing of major nerves near his hip and ankle, and one to his forearm. Additionally, he has endured recurring infections to his wounds, and recently a piece of shrapnel was discovered lodged in his left eye.

Currently, Kaspar is hospitalized at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Calif., where he has undergone many operations and faces much rehabilitation. To date he has lost feeling in his right leg, yet through all he has undergone, his mother, Lynn Kaspar, said, "His spirits are good, and he has a strong support base. He's a fighter."

A benefit to help defray the financial cost is being held in his honor from 1-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Kerry Piper in Willowbrook, Ill. The "Coming Together for Corporal Kaspar Benefit" will include food, three hours of open bar, raffle prizes, a silent auction, and live entertainment. The Kaspar family said that donations can be made to the Founders Bank, 6825 W. 111th Street, Worth, IL. Also, raffle prizes and auction items are being sought for the event.

The older brother of Kaspar, Eric, said that Sean is a Corporal with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, Fox Company, based out of 29 Palms, Calif. Kaspar is the youngest of three sons and is a 2005 graduate of St. Laurence High School in Burbank. Prior to deciding on becoming a Marine, Sean was contemplating careers in law enforcement and fire service.

Of importance is the mention that Kaspar will be receiving the "Purple Heart" medal for his actions in combat.

"He is our hero, and he has sacrificed so much for his country," noted Lynn.

"Sean's service has given us a new appreciation for the freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of this great country," said Eric.

"Sean is still uncertain as to whether or not he will make a career as a Marine, but I know he is giving the decision a great deal of thought," he added.

3/8 strike new Afghanistan-specific Mojave Viper

Marines with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, a Camp Lejeune, N.C., -based battalion, are in the final stages of the month long pre-deployment training exercise known as Mojave Viper, which is usually intended for units deploying to Iraq, but has been modified to prepare the battalion for their upcoming tour in Afghanistan.


9/26/2008 By Lance Cpl. Corey A. Blodgett, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

Once in country, the battalion will take over for 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, who deployed in April, and will perform combat operations and support the Afghan military and security forces, according to Lt. Col. David Odom, 3/8’s battalion commander, from Emerald Isle, S.C.

The battalion arrived at the Combat Center the last week of August and immediately began the conventional combined-arms training and stability and support operations training upon arrival, Odom said.

“This training is the capstone event, if you will, for infantry battalions that are getting ready to deploy to Iraq, or in our case, Afghanistan,” he explained. “And it is our opportunity to deploy from our home station to conduct combined-arms training on the desert floor with trainers, evaluators and the entire infrastructure to give us some final assessment and some validation to the battalion prior to going on deployment.”

Although this Mojave Viper is geared to prepare these Marines for Afghanistan, the training has pretty much the same core elements as previous exercises tailored for units deploying to Iraq, with some minor tweaks, according to Gunnery Sgt. Danny Watts, an instructor and evaluator with Tactical Training Exercise Control Group.

“In Afghanistan, you don’t have as much of your patrolling operations inside dense cities as in Iraq, so we’ve been pushing them into more of the mountainous terrain we have out here, which is exactly what they’ll see and have to traverse in Afghanistan,” said the Billow, Miss., native.

Mojave Viper also recently added Afghan role players into training scenarios serving as community members, street vendors, and National Police and National Army to interact with and challenge the Marines with the most realistic training available, Watts said.

Throughout Mojave Viper, dozens of instructors and evaluators, known as Coyotes, teach classes, give demonstrations and follow the Marines during scenarios to serve as a kind of referee and give their expert opinions on the Marines’ performances, Watt explained.

“Our job is to watch the scenarios and make sure they’re played out correctly and as realistically as possible,” he said. “The Coyotes make any changes that need to be done on the spot to the training and help the Marines any way we can.”

Odom said since arriving at Camp Wilson, the main operating base for Marines at Mojave Viper, the battalion has been pushed from day one, starting from fire-team all the way to battalion level training.

“It has been the progressive crawl, walk and run approach, but once we got everyone settled in, we immediately went out to the ranges where we were able to do basic combined-arms integration at the fire team, squad and platoon levels,” he said. “We eventually progressed into the deliberate assault course, where the battalion’s headquarters commanded and controlled a mechanized task force, utilizing combined-arms from aviation, artillery and then the striking power of the battalion for that decisive affect.”

The unique quality and amount of training in the Afghanistan-centered Mojave Viper is exactly what an infantry battalion preparing for a tour needs, Odom explained.

“Simply put, I think the training is right where it needs to be for a unit about to head out to Afghanistan,” he said.

With all he has observed so far, Odom said that he is confident about how his Marines will perform once in theater.

“They’re doing magnificent, every day I see them, they’re learning, they’re focused, they’re ready and they’re taking care of each other,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that they’re absolutely ready to accomplish their mission of assisting and helping the Afghan populace.”

3/8’s next step after completing Mojave Viper is to return home to North Carolina and finalize administrative and logistical details prior to their deployment in the coming weeks.

3/8 attacks MOUT town during Afghan preparation

More than 200 Marines with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines’ Company K, set out from Camp Wilson to Range 215 here Sept. 18 to conduct a week’s worth of urban warfare training.


9/26/2008 By Lance Cpl. Corey A. Blodgett, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

The training is part of their month long Afghanistan-based Mojave Viper, which fulfills the battalion’s pre-deployment requirements for their upcoming tour.

The Marines set up in forward-operating bases, which they lived in and operated out of during the week long UWT, surrounding the range’s mock Afghan village, Sara Kowt — complete with homes, market area and two mosques.

The training kicked off with classes given by Mojave Viper instructors from Tactical Training Exercise Control Group, known as Coyotes. The classes refresh the Marines on basics of military operations on urban terrain, such as clearing rooms, hallways and stairs, urban movements and reactions to small-arms fire.

“The purpose of all this training is a fine tuning, it’s our final phase of training, our last check in the box before we head to Afghanistan,” said 1st Lt. Adam Felde, the Weapons Platoon commander with Company K. “Our Marines have seen this stuff before and we have to just stick to the basic skills. Some of these things can become very complex, but we just have to make it as simple as possible, allowing the Marines to establish or just re-affirm the standard operating procedures we’ve been working on.”

Once the classes were finished, the Marines moved onto the practical application portions of the training that rely heavily on realism, utilizing aspects such as firing weapons with blanks, simulated IED explosions and actual Afghan role player interactions.

During the main portion of the training, platoons had to patrol a hostile area of the town with each squad receiving their own Afghan interpreter and Afghan National Army soldier to accompany them on their route. They talked and interacted with community members, elders and Afghan National Police and reacted to hostile fire by Taliban forces.

Cpl. Joseph Budrow, a squad leader with Weapons Platoon said having actual Afghans play their roles during the training makes all the difference in the world in preparing the Marines for their tour.

“It’s just outstanding,” said Budrow, who has deployed to Iraq three times. “It makes our intent for this range exactly what our intent will be in country, which is to get information from the local populace and treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve. And from there hopefully establish a relationship with them to where they feel trustworthy enough to give us information so we can do our jobs and get rid of the bad guys that are causing them harm.”

The Marines also had to conduct a first responder drill, in which each squad goes through a scenario of being the first ones on the scene of a mock explosion that causes several realistic and highly graphic casualties.

“The first responder class was really good, realistic training,” Felde said. “We had Marines wounded, one with his legs completely blown off, and a few civilian casualties as well. At that point we focused on the squad taking tactical control – establishing security, talking to higher command, calling in the casualty evacuation and our senior corpsman took control of the situation. The Marines performed amazingly, despite the intense circumstances.”

Capt. Sven Gosnell, the Company K commander, said that even though they most likely won’t be using these skills as much as they would in the urban density of Iraq, they are still just as important to have.

“It’s important that we maintain these key skill sets even for Afghanistan,” he said. “We may be fighting through a desert or mountainous environment and then have to go straight into a village and have to be able to provide security and civil affairs operations. So it is very important to bring all this training together.”

Gosnell said his Marines will have no problem utilizing all the skills they’ve honed and handling any objective thrown at them.

“They’ve preformed excellently,” he explained. “I have no doubt in their capabilities, from the individual Marine’s to the collective skills in the platoon and squad level. The Marines have been refining those skills and they are phenomenal.”

September 25, 2008

Reserve Marines settle in at Korean Village

CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq — Reserve Marines from 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, headquartered in Garden City, N.Y., arrived here in late September to support RCT-5’s security and stability mission in western al-Anbar province.


9/25/2008 By Capt. Paul Greenberg, Regimental Combat Team 5

“We’re here primarily to conduct counter-insurgency operations with joint and Coalition forces in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said Maj. Timothy Murphy, the battalion’s intelligence officer.

Maj. Byron Duke, the battalion executive officer, emphasized that the Marines will also mentor and provide operational overwatch for Iraqi Security Forces as they assume more responsibility for the area’s security.

Korean Village was first utilized as a forward observation base by the Marines in 2004 to monitor the Syrian and Jordanian borders with Iraq, both less than a hundred miles from the base.

According to Maj. Christopher Donnelly, the RCT-5 historian, American troops gave Korean Village its moniker because the camp was the site of an area inhabited by Korean laborers who built the main supply route leading from Baghdad to western al-Anbar Province during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

The name stuck, and Coalition forces still use the base as a launching pad for operations to intercept criminal elements crossing over the border and heading east toward Baghdad and other population centers.

The battalion will share the area of operations with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, RCT-5, an active-duty Marine unit based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The reserve battalion’s current deployment is their second overseas in support of the Global War on Terror. Their expected tour of duty here is seven months.

September 24, 2008

Capt. awarded third-highest medal for valor

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — It was just another day in Iraq for Capt. John Roussos and the men of Company B, 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division.


9/24/2008 By Lance Cpl. Jo Jones, 2nd Marine Division

While ensuring that insurgents were not using the wadi systems (dry river beds) as an avenue of approach into Al Anbar Province, Roussos and his men went out to an area about 60 miles from the Saudi Arabian border.

“We were assigned a big mission to do reconnaissance and gather information in an area where there were no coalition forces,” said Roussos, former platoon commander for Bravo 3.

Roussos and his men set out to recon the area on March 7, 2008, during Operation Ghadaf. They could not have known that their actions later that day would earn Roussos the Silver Star Medal, which he would receive at a ceremony Friday, Sept. 12 at Ellis Field, Courthouse Bay, here.

“(Roussos) knowingly and willingly exposed himself to enemy fire with the intent of drawing fire away from his machine gunner and driver, and risked his life for his men,” said Maj. Fred Courtney, former Bravo Company commander and current executive officer for 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.

Roussos, a Princeton, N.J., native, and a graduate of Norwich University, a military academy in Northfield, Vt., said he did what any officer would have done in his situation, and credits his men for saving his life.

“It was a miracle that none of us got hurt,” said Roussos. “We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my guys.”

Roussos matter-of-factly recalled the actions of that day.

“We set up a company patrol base in the middle of the desert for Bravo 2, Bravo 3 and the company headquarters element,” said Roussos “Bravo 1 was conducting Aero Scout Missions, in the same area.”

From the air, Bravo 1 spotted a suspicious vehicle, a white pick-up truck, moving west across the desert. Despite the warnings and attempts to stop the vehicle, the truck took off, zig-zagging across the desert. Bravo 3, the lead element for the company, was immediately tasked with chasing the vehicle. Roussos, along with then Cpl. Jonathan Roig, the driver, and Sgt. Joshua Garrett, the gunner, was in the lead vehicle, an M-148 up-armored humvee. After chasing the truck for several kilometers across rough terrain, the Marines got within 200 meters of the pick-up, and the suspicious vehicle finally came to a halt.

“I was turned at an angle, talking to my interpreter, and just as I faced the front, we saw one of the guys from the white truck raise his hands into the air,” said Roussos. “We thought he was surrendering.”

The man’s intentions were quite the opposite. Instead of surrendering, he removed a tarp from the back of the truck, revealing an insurgent lying in the prone position, holding a soviet-made medium machine gun, containing approximately 400 rounds of armor-piercing ammunition pointed straight at the humvee. Seconds later, rounds were pouring down upon the Marines. The Marines immediately returned fire. Soon after, the white pick-up truck burst into flames.

“At this point, the (humvee) was creeping forward. My machine gunner went dry, and my communications supervisor couldn’t get out,” said Roussos.

This difficult situation, however, did not discourage the men of Company B from fighting. Roussos got out of the humvee, rushed approximately 20 feet in front of the damaged vehicle, and started shooting at the insurgents, performing speed reloads while closing with the enemy. This allowed his gunner to reload his weapon and get back in the fight.

“Sgt. Roig, my driver, remained composed and continued pushing toward the enemy,” said Roussos. “Once I got out, he tried to keep the truck going to cover me.” For his heroic actions that day, Roig later received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the combat distinguishing device.

“Sgt. Garrett, my gunner, was composed and calm the whole time,” continued Roussos. “Rounds were impacting inside the turret and ricocheting around him. The turret was annihilated, but by the grace of God, he didn’t get hit. He remembered his training, reloaded his weapon, made sure his rounds were on target, and to not hit me—that is a testament to the training we have done.” Garrett later received the Bronze Star Medal with the combat distinguishing device for his actions that day.

When the dust cleared, these Recon Marines had killed five enemy insurgents, as well as recovered an RPG launcher, hand grenades, several magazines, sniper rifles, and ammunition. Although significant, Roussos emphasized this was just step one of the entire mission.

“This was only the first day of Operation Ghadaf,” said Roussos. “After that, we were really aggressive with the area. We had approximately 15 days to cover roughly 3,000 miles.”

Courtney said Roussos’ quick, decisive actions exemplified the combat mindset training Recon Marines demand.

“(Roussos) exemplifies what you think a Marine should be,” said Courtney. “He’s charismatic, extremely knowledgeable and dedicated to the Marines and his job. He has fierce determination when it comes to mission accomplishment, and won’t let anything stand in his way.”

In a time where decisiveness or hesitation meant the difference between life and death, Roussos chose the former. He was consequently awarded the Silver Star Medal, and in the words of his citation, “reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

Decency, Toughness ... and No Shortcuts

The Iraq war has faded as an item of interest to the national press because the violence has plummeted, while a consensus has formed that the American military learned from experience and now knows what it’s doing. In 2006, we were losing the war; today, the military trajectory is encouraging, and U.S. forces are slowly withdrawing. During my 15th trip to Iraq in August, for the first time I didn’t hear a shot fired. In several cities, I walked into markets with only a few American soldiers, and was immediately surrounded by Iraqis eager to talk about the economy, security, politics, whatever.


The Atlantic September 24, 2008
By Bing West

Normality? Nowhere close. Concrete barriers (designed to restrict the flesh-ripping radius of suicide bombers) were still in place, enclosing neighborhoods in Baghdad and a dozen other cities. Car bombings and criminal kidnappings persisted, as did battles against disparate al-Qaeda cells and Shiite insurgent gangs incited by Iran. Still, Iraq was not engulfed in civil war. The Sunni resistance had largely collapsed.

A sure sign that the war in Iraq has turned around has been the rush to take credit. Victory has a thousand fathers. This would seem a harmless parlor game, were Afghanistan not looming. Military success in Iraq is sure to lead to lessons to be applied in Afghanistan. Let’s make sure we pick the right lessons.

What did cause the turnaround since 2006? Three competing explanations have popped up. Some have claimed that covert operations, involving the use of top-secret technical devices, are what drove the insurgency’s leaders from Iraq. Others attribute the turnaround to Bush’s decision in January 2007 to add 30,000 more troops. And still others suggest that it is the brilliance of General Petraeus, who took command in Iraq in February of 2007, that we have to thank for the improvements.

There is some truth to each of the three explanations. But all fall wide of the mark. The foremost reason for the turnaround is that the Sunni population switched from attacking American (and Iraqi Army) soldiers to aligning with them against al-Qaeda. What prompted that switch was the behavior of the American soldiers contrasted with that of the al-Qaeda fighters.

Beginning in 2003, the Sunnis had welcomed or at least accepted al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The rate of infiltration from Syria, primarily into western Anbar Province, was about 100 to 200 a month in 2003 through late 2005. This small minority proselytized among the dozens of local resistance cells, many of whom were initially Baathist-led. AQI recruited the weak-minded and especially the criminal elements. Waving the banner of jihad, AQI killed Americans and Shiites. They then began to expand the range of their targets, going after all foreigners associated with the fledgling Iraqi government (truck drivers from Jordan, aid workers, etc.), then Sunnis who worked for the government, then Sunnis suspected of betraying al-Qaeda members, then Sunnis who objected, and so on.

In 2003-2004, the Americans were the robo-cop outsiders, tough in battle but not understanding of the environment. Battles like Fallujah alienated the Sunni population. Americans won every battle, but al-Qaeda always returned after the Americans left.

By 2005, AQI had solidified its hold over the Sunnis, based on terror rather than religious or tribal solidarity. At the same time, the Americans were learning to act with restraint, while still prevailing in every test of strength. The U.S. military also finally convinced the State Department to allow colonels and generals to meet with the resistance. The American message to the Sunni resistance leaders was simple: Why are you fighting us? We bring you contracts and protection. We act as a buffer and an ombudsman with the Baghdad government. You Sunnis have it backwards. You roll over for the AQI who are killing you, and you ignore or abet attacks against us, when we are looking out for your best interests. Well, one day we will be gone and you will have al-Qaeda as your undisputed masters. Drive out AQI while we are still here to help.

That message eventually got through. In late 2005, a dozen prominent sheiks in the Ramadi area tried to organize against AQI. Their movement was blasted apart by suicide murderers and assassins. The basic operational approach of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Anbar was to deploy in company outposts in the villages and cities and daily conduct hundreds of foot patrols. This was called a “clear and hold” strategy. But Al-Qaeda hadn’t been cleared; its covert cells controlled the population in Anbar.

By mid 2006, it seemed that Iraq was lost. Shiite death squads, backed by the Iraqi police, were killing and driving Sunnis from Baghdad. AQI was blowing up Shiite markets inside Baghdad and had a stranglehold grip over the population in Anbar, Diyala, and the belt of farms south of Baghdad.

Yet the turnaround had begun. There were always two distinct fronts in the war. The western front was Anbar, the linkage to Syria and stronghold of the insurgency, home to a million Sunnis with a tradition of rebellion. Through 2006, Anbar accounted for 40% of American casualties. The eastern front was Baghdad and the belt of farmlands encircling it, home to about five million Shiites and three million Sunnis. It too accounted for about 40% of American casualties. On the western front, the American units patrolled from many small outposts; on the eastern front, American units patrolled from a few large bases.

By the fall of 2006, the Marines had placed at least one solid security leader in each city in Anbar. Some were local police chiefs with links to the tribes; others were Iraqi battalion commanders. Then, in September, a brave and charismatic sheik, Abu Risha Sattar, initiated the Awakening, a movement demanding that the tribes turn against the AQI.

The Awakening would not have started if the Americans had remained robo-cops, operating from bases apart from the population. Instead, the Americans on the western front were out among the people. Sattar knew the American leaders by name. The Americans parked a tank on his front lawn to protect him. I asked Sattar, later assassinated by AQI, if the turnaround in Anbar could not have come years earlier, and saved much grief. He thought for a moment, then said no.

“We Sunnis had to convince ourselves,” he said. He was the most remarkable leader I saw in Iraq.

The basic cause of the turnaround was the decency and strength of the American troops whom the Sunnis came to know on the streets. Tens of thousands of daily contacts preceded the Awakening. The turnaround came from the bottom up. The Sunnis came to hate AQI, but would not have rebelled if they did not have another side to turn to. It is incorrect to say AQI “overplayed its hand,” as if war were poker. The Americans at the squad level had shown for two years that they were both stronger and more decent than AQI.

An additional contributor to the turnaround was the long drawn-out decision by President Bush to change military commanders and send 30,000 more troops into Iraq. The process of reappraising the confused U.S. strategy in Iraq began in the summer of 2006, when Baghdad was falling apart, and did not conclude until January of 2007. Bush himself was passive and indecisive. But he was well served, as was the nation, by the quiet, unassuming National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who skillfully orchestrated the president’s course of action. Hadley used his NSC staff, especially J.D. Crouch, Meghan O’Sullivan and William Luti, to pull an end run around the sluggish Pentagon. Odierno played a hand in this, as did retired Army General Jack Keane and military historian Fred Kagan. The key was Hadley.

The initiative of the NSC staff forced a long-overdue adjustment to strategy. In essence, the approach used for years in Anbar on the western front—American company and platoon outposts in Sunni villages and cities—was to be employed on the eastern front as well. As important, the president’s decision to implement the surge changed the dynamic and the atmosphere in Iraq—showing that he was determined to stay the course and increasing the size of the commitment for his remaining two years in office.

Another key factor contributing to the turnaround were the operational decisions made by the new Corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen Raymond Odierno, and the overall commander, General David Petraeus. Beginning in early 2004, throughout the eastern front, U.S. soldiers had pulled back to bases, rolling out for mounted patrols that left the neighborhoods unprotected most of the time. The rationale for this was twofold. First, there was the theory that Americans were irritants in an Arab society, their presence being a cause of the fighting they were trying to prevent. Second, U.S. forces were only to clear neighborhoods, which would then be handed over to Iraqi forces to hold.

The strategy under General George Casey, Petraeus’s predecessor as top commander in Iraq, had been to hand an ongoing war over to the nascent Iraqi army, while the U.S. exited as fast as possible. Although this strategy was at odds with the Bush vision of victory, it went unchallenged by the White House from 2004 until late 2006, when Baghdad was falling apart. Having put up with two successive Shiite-controlled governments that were corrupt and sectarian, Casey in December of 2006 requested two more U.S. brigades to control Baghdad. But he wanted Maliki and the Iraqi government to get into the fight, and they hadn’t done so.

Ordered by Casey in December of 2006 to design a “decisive operation” to stabilize Baghdad, Odierno introduced the “Gap Strategy.” In the absence of competent Iraqi government forces, Odierno concluded that Shiite militia gangs and the AQI were filling the gap of providing security in local areas. Odierno decided to deploy U.S. soldiers in the neighborhoods to fill that gap instead, displacing the AQI and militias. He also deployed U.S. units into the farmland belt around Baghdad to take away AQI’s lair where they prepared the suicide bombers.

Petraeus took command from Casey in February of 2007 and issued his famous dictum, “don’t commute to work.” He and Odierno made it clear that the operational concept was to clear neighborhoods and then have U.S. forces hold them, instead of simply handing the security responsibilities off to Iraqi forces. By then, the Sunni attitude across Iraq had changed, so the atmosphere was conducive to this approach. Had Petraeus and Odierno encountered the sullen resistance prevalent in Sunni communities in 2004—when the Sunnis did not want to be protected by the infidel invaders who had given power to the Shiites—they could not have protected an unwilling population from AQI.

American soldiers began stationing themselves in the neighborhoods instead of on large bases. Inside Baghdad, sixty-seven Joint Security Stations—equivalent to police precinct stations—were staffed by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and police. In Sunni areas, once the population saw the Americans weren’t leaving and were listening to their complaints about corrupt police and Shiite death squads, they joined the Awakening movement. Petraeus approved payment of $300 per month per man for neighborhood watches called “Sons of Iraq.” Eventually they numbered 100,000 across Iraq—many former members of the resistance—and with the American and Iraqi soldiers, they drove out Al-Qaeda.

Yet another contributor to the turnaround was the gradual disintegration of the Mahdi Army, or Jesh al Mahdi (JAM), originally led by the Moqtada Sadr. Petraeus had not deployed U.S. soldiers during the surge into the Mahdi bastions of Sadr City and Shulah in Baghdad, because killings and suicide bombings by al-Qaeda were the primary accelerant of the violence, providing the Shiite death squads with their rationale and emotional zeal. Destroying al-Qaeda was the primary U.S. goal. Dealing with most of Sadr’s militia was left to the Iraqi government. U.S. soldiers referred to “good JAM,” and “bad JAM.” The latter were ‘rogue’ groups who employed Iranian-supplied roadside bombs to kill Americans.

In 2006, Prime Minister Maliki had resisted Casey’s demands that Special Operations Forces be permitted to raid “bad JAM” headquarters in Sadr City and elsewhere. But when Petraeus took over in 2007, conditions had so deteriorated that Maliki had to relent, even though Sadr’s bloc in the National Assembly had voted for Maliki. Covert operations—Special Forces raids in the middle of the night—against “bad JAM” gained momentum.

In August of 2007, Sadr’s militia in Karbala killed dozens of Shiite pilgrims in a shoot-out with rivals. Maliki rushed to the city with reinforcements for the Iraqi army and arrested a top Sadr supporter. When Shiite opinion swung sharply against Sadr, he declared a “ceasefire,” grandly announcing that his followers would cease attacks against the American occupiers. It was an empty gesture. Most members of the JAM weren’t attacking Americans in first place.

Then, in April of 2008, Maliki—without consulting with the Americans—rushed to Basra to attack the JAM. The Iraqi army wasn’t ready for urban combat and the attack started to fall apart. Petraeus sent in intelligence assets and air controllers. JAM reacted by launching Iranian-provided missiles from Sadr City against the homes of Iraqi officials in the Green Zone. This solidified Iraqi political support for Maliki, while JAM fighters foolish enough to venture outside with weapons showed up on American sensors and were cut down.

The JAM militia as a fighting force fell apart. Several hundred leaders fled to Iran, where they were trained in terror tactics by Hizbollah operatives. JAM, though, had lost control of Basra and of Sadr City.

By the fall of 2008, violence in Iraq had diminished sharply. Al-Qaeda, clinging to a last lair around Mosul, continued to mount suicide bombings. But it had lost control of the Sunni population. Sadr was hiding in Iran. The Americans were gradually withdrawing. An overconfident Maliki was resisting American entreaties that he incorporate at least 20,000 Sons of Iraq into the government security forces. Although stability had not yet arrived, there was no doubt the military situation had markedly improved.

This brings us back to the debate over the causes of this turnaround. Bob Woodward, for one, has come forward with his own theory in his new book, The War Within, published earlier this month. Perhaps because much of the book is old news, at the end of the book he abruptly holds forth on why the situation in Iraq has improved. (How this turnaround relates to his research about quarrels in the White House in late 2006 is not explained). Woodward never spent much time, if any, in Iraq and did not embed with any of the units. Yet he wrapped up a devilishly complicated war in a few paragraphs that were unrelated to the preceding hundreds of pages.

In just one paragraph, Woodward cites four reasons for the turnaround: the surge of troops, the ceasefire by Sadr, the Awakening of the Sunnis in Anbar, and covert operations using top-secret technologies, which he likens to the Manhattan Project. It was the latter that received headlines. He asserted that U.S. Special Operations Forces had developed an extraordinary technical and operational method for hunting down insurgent leaders, spurring those leaders to flee the country. While he agreed with an interviewer that the breakthrough was on a par with the invention of the tank or the airplane, he said he felt morally obligated not to describe it.

In a letter to The Washington Post, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley countered that it was in fact the President’s decision to add 30,000 troops that had “enabled” the other three factors cited by Woodward. Sadr had called a ceasefire, Hadley argued, because he could not prevail in the face of the surge; covert operations had improved because the surge had improved the “security context”; and the Sunnis found “the confidence to continue to stand up to al-Qaeda” because of the presence of the additional U.S. troops.

William Kristol, the conservative New York Times columnist, offered yet another explanation—that it was primarily General David Petraeus’s brilliant counterinsurgency strategy that had resulted in the improvement.

Each explanation mixes truth with exaggeration. The problem with such simplified accounts of what led to the improvement in Iraq is that they create false hope for a quick fix in Afghanistan. Woodward’s belief in a Manhattan Project-type development has the least credibility. Had there been a silver bullet, we would have used it long ago to kill Osama bin Laden. Moreover, even if the U.S. did possess secret methods for finding senior insurgent leaders, if other factors had not also been in play, the insurgency’s lost leaders would have simply been replaced by others, and the tide would not have turned.

As for Hadley’s and Kristol’s theories as to why things turned around, they do hold merit. Bush sent a message of resolve and provided desperately needed boots on the ground, and when those troops arrived, Odierno and Petraeus knew how to deploy them to best effect.

The crucial enabler, though, was the change in Sunni attitude. This was caused by the combination of decency and toughness by tens of thousands of American grunts who had been out on the streets for years. That may sound like fluff, but it was the daily grind of the grunts—listening to complaints, arguing with Iraqi and American officials for resources, checking on suspect activity, conducting vehicle searches, uncovering arms caches, arguing with sheiks, absorbing sniper fire without blasting away—that gradually won over the Sunnis. Yes, the Sunni tribes had come to hate the al-Qaeda organization they had welcomed years earlier. But without trusting and aligning with the Americans, the tribes could not drive out al-Qaeda. On February 3, 2007, I was standing in Ramadi next to General James Mattis—the Marine’s most experienced battlefield commander—when he congratulated a group of soldiers and marines on having won in Anbar. The next day, Mattis flew to Baghdad, where Petraeus was assuming command.

It helped that in mid-2007 the surge brought to Anbar another 2,000 marines (with whom I traveled in the Lake Thar Thar area.) But the tide of war had already turned before they arrived. The surge was the beneficiary, not the cause of the Sunni Awakening on the western front.

However, without the additional surge troops and the Petraeus/Odierno strategy of placing U.S. soldiers in the midst of Baghdad neighborhoods, recruiting Sunni neighborhood watches and partnering with Iraqi battalions, the eastern front would have collapsed. Petraeus turned the Anbar movement into a national movement by employing the Sons of Iraq on a local basis, neighborhood by neighborhood, village by village.

But the critical precondition was the Sunni willingness to align with the Americans against al-Qaeda, due to the decent behavior of tens of thousands of American troops in 2005-2006, contrasted with the savage behavior of al-Qaeda. General Casey, who now personifies a failed strategy, was mistaken in trying to hand off the war too quickly to the Iraqis. But he deserves credit for having changed the U.S. Army’s focus from offensive operations to counterinsurgency beginning in 2005.

What, then, should one conclude about the military turnaround in Iraq as we look toward Afghanistan? First, there is no quick technical solution. Because the Taiban and al-Qaeda are supported by the tribes, no covert operation or super-secret device will separate them out. Second, a presidential decision to surge more troops will not enable a series of events that cascade to victory. In Iraq, the essential precondition for a successful surge was the shift in attitude of the Sunnis. They had grown to hate al-Qaeda and, with U.S. units beside them, were willing to fight. Since the Pashtun tribe is on both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and the U.S. is only on one side with a Taliban/Al-Qaeda sanctuary on the other, the model of a “Pashtun Awakening” does not apply.

Third, counterinsurgencies are bottom-up endeavors dependent upon the behavior and aggressiveness of squads and platoons. A general like Petraeus, no matter how brilliant, can only set the mission. He cannot maneuver an army, as Grant did in the Civil War and Patton in World War II. Fourth, the military strategy in Iraq rattled down the wrong track for the same reasons as the current meltdown in the financial sector. Those at the top were out of touch and overconfident, and the fiduciary responsibility for risk assessment was foregone. In the Iraqi case, the president’s critical decision to surge more troops was made outside military institutions. After making that decision, President Bush frequently bypassed the chain of command to call General Petraeus directly. While that was understandable, it undermined the principle of dispassionate risk assessment. It is discomfiting that in the Afghanistan case, after seven years of fighting, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has just called for a comprehensive strategic review, saying he is not confident we are winning. Currently, it is not clear whether assessing risk rests with the Central Command, NATO, the Chairman, or the Secretary of Defense. And finally, if stability requires placing American advisers and/or platoons in villages until Afghan soldiers and police acquire competence, get set for a long war.

In sum, the lessons from Iraq offer no short cuts.

F. J. "Bing" West, who served as a marine in Vietnam and as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, is the author of The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq (2008) and The Village and No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah.

September 23, 2008

Dillow's Iraq: Marines aren't paid to be pacifists

Haditha, Iraq – Marines aren't paid to be pacifists. So perhaps it's not surprising that some Marines here are actually a little disappointed that the situation isn't more "kinetic" – that is, that they aren't seeing more action.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

That may be difficult for civilians to understand. From the civilian point of view, the fact that the violence level in Iraq is at its lowest point in years – U.S. combat casualties currently are a tiny fraction of what they were two or three years ago – is a blessing.

After all, who in his right mind would want to be in combat? Certainly I'm not disappointed that, in contrast to my previous trips here, so far this time I haven't yet heard a single shot fired in anger.

But that's why we are civilians and they are Marines. For Marines who are warriors by both training and temperament, particularly the younger ones who have yet to earn the coveted "Combat Action Ribbon," the lack of someone to fight can sometimes be frustrating.

PFC Greg Otis, 19, a Humvee "up-gunner" with Weapons Co., 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines from Twentynine Palms, puts it this way:

"I was kind of hoping it would be different, more action," says Otis, who is on his first tour in Iraq – and who so far has seen no combat. "I've got a buddy (another Marine) who's in Afghanistan and he says they're seeing (enemy contact) almost every day. He kinda rubs my face in it."

Again, it's difficult for the civilian mind to grasp. But you have to remember that virtually all of the younger Marines here, the PFCs and lance corporals and corporals, enlisted after the war in Iraq began more than five years ago. They knew when they joined up that they'd be heading for the war zone. For many, particularly the infantrymen, the "grunts," that was the reason they enlisted in the first place, to test themselves in battle.

And even some of those who have seen combat, and therefore probably ought to know better, say they'd prefer more "excitement."

. "I wasn't prepared for this," says Cpl. Matthew Habermann, 23, of Soldotna, Alaska, with 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines from Camp Pendleton, who earned his "CAR" in combat in Ramadi in his last tour but has seen no action this tour. "It's kind of boring."

True, some older, perhaps wiser souls understand the true price of combat. Navy corpsman Derek Correa, 25, of Biloxi, Miss., now based near Qaim, whose job it is to treat injured or wounded 2/11 Marines, says he's pleased with things as they are.

"I expected a little more (enemy) contact," "Doc" Correa says. "But I'm happy I don't get to do my job" treating wounded Marines – because so far there haven't been any in his unit.

Of course, the Marines pride themselves on being adaptable. If their mission is to support Iraqi security forces and help build up the local infrastructure and economy, as opposed to fighting, that's what they'll do.

"I'm an infantry officer, but my job now is to work with Iraqi security forces and help promote the rule of law," says Lt. Chris Parks, 26, of Birmingham, Alabama, who served as an enlisted infantryman at the start of the war in 2003 and is now a platoon commander with 3/7's "I" Co. – "Psycho Ico!" -- in Haditha. "I'm glad we're in an area where it's more likely we'll all come home."

And to those young hard-chargers who think they'd rather be in combat, here or elsewhere, Lt. Parks offers this age-old bit of military wisdom about wishes coming true.

"My old platoon commander used to say, if you get into combat, pretty soon you'll be saying, 'I wish I was where I was when I was wishing I was here.' "

Still, many Marines are torn between the visceral desire for action and the sensible desire that they don't get into a fight – and that they and their buddies all come home safely.

Capt. Zachary Webb, 29, who grew up in Orange and now flies Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft out of Al Asad air base, sums it up like this:

"There are two lines of thought," the captain says. "One, is it good that Marines are accomplishing their mission without a lot of (enemy) contact? Yes. Two, are we Marines who would like to see more action?"


Like I said. Marines aren't paid to be pacifists.

VA to increase benefits for mild brain trauma

WASHINGTON — The government plans to substantially increase disability benefits for veterans with mild traumatic brain injuries, acknowledging for the first time that veterans suffering from this less severe version of the Iraq war's signature wound will struggle to make a living.


September 23, 2008
By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY

"We're saying it's real," said Tom Pamperin, a deputy director for the Department of Veteran Affairs, about the significance of the change to benefits in the regulation the VA plans to publish today.

Up to 320,000 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered traumatic brain injury, a RAND Corp. study estimated this year. The vast majority of the cases are mild and came from exposure to an explosion, often from a roadside bomb. Most veterans with mild cases recover, Pamperin said, but some are left with permanent problems.

Compensation could reach $600 a month, the VA said. Currently, veterans with symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light, ringing in the ears and irritability and insomnia collect $117.

After it takes effect in 30 days, the new regulation will benefit between 3,500 and 5,000 veterans a year, the department said. It estimated the changes would cost an extra $120 million through 2017.

FIND MORE STORIES IN: Afghanistan | Virginia | Iraq | Century | Institute of Medicine | Rand Corp | Disabled | Veterans Affairs Committee | Sen. Daniel Akaka | Department of Veteran Affairs | D-Hawaii
More than 1.6 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. About half of those are now veterans, and slightly less than half of those veterans have sought health care from the VA, records show. In the past year, the department has screened 190,000 of these veterans for brain injury. About 20% showed signs of a brain injury, but only about 5% were confirmed as suffering the wound.

The regulation modifies a 1961 rating schedule for mild brain trauma and brings compensation for this ailment into the 21st Century, said Lonnie Bristow, chairman of an Institute of Medicine committee that studied veterans' benefits.

The old regulation failed to recognize that wounds such as brain injuries from blasts — which do not show up on scans — are only understood by what patients say they are suffering, Bristow said.

"VA has been assessing their injuries based on outdated science," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Veterans groups, such as the Disabled American Veterans, applauded the change. However, they said the estimated numbers of traumatic brain injury cases may prove low, because the science around blast damage to the brain is still new.

Veterans who have suffered the most severe brain injuries will not receive much, if any, extra money because existing regulations provided adequate compensation in serious cases, Pamperin said. Consolidating all brain injury standards into one regulation, he said, will make it easier for veterans to get extra benefits to pay for special circumstances such as being housebound by the injury.

September 22, 2008

Marines deploy with blast measuring helmets

By Dan Lamothe - [email protected]
Posted : September 22, 2008

The Corps has launched a new effort to track brain injuries, supplying two battalions with sensor systems that record how the impact of a combat blast or other violent incident affects the brain.

To continue reading:


September 19, 2008

Bush urged to review denied Medal of Honor

Sergeant covered a grenade with his body to save comrades in Iraq

SAN DIEGO - A California congressional delegation asked President Bush on Friday to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to a Marine who was chosen to receive only the second-highest medal the Navy can bestow for valor.


By Chelsea J. Carter, AP Military Affairs Writer
Fri., Sept. 19, 2008

The delegation, spearheaded by Rep. Duncan Hunter, sent a letter asking for a review of the case of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who witnesses say covered a grenade with his body to save comrades on Nov. 15, 2004, during fighting in Fallujah, Iraq. Already wounded by gunfire, he died immediately.

A copy of the letter given to The Associated Press was signed by a bipartisan group of five other representatives and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. It urges Bush to award the nation's highest honor, the same medal he gave to Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, who was killed in 2004 after covering a grenade with his helmet.

"Intentionally absorbing a grenade blast to protect one's comrades in arms has been traditionally recognized by awarding the Medal of Honor. The sacrifice of Sergeant Peralta manifests the same devotion to one's comrade's and country as that displayed by Jason Dunham," the letter said.

The White House had no immediate comment Friday.

'We wanted justice'
The bipartisan delegation formed after Peralta's mother said publicly this week that she was told her son would be awarded the Navy Cross, rather than the Medal of Honor, because the nomination was tainted by reports he was accidentally shot by a fellow Marine shortly before an insurgent lobbed the grenade.

"It's difficult as a mother to lose your son, but it's good that people are remembering him. He was a person who gave everything and took nothing," Rosa Peralta said after the AP informed her of the congressional effort.

"I'm very pleased to hear this news; we wanted justice," she said.

Bush singled out the Marine's actions in a 2005 Memorial Day speech, saying Peralta "understood that America faces dangerous enemies, and he knew the sacrifices required to defeat them."

The question of whether to award Peralta the Medal of Honor centers on whether the mortally wounded Marine, who had been shot in the head and upper body during a house-to-house search, could have intentionally reached for the grenade and covered it with his body.

Evidence scrutinized
The initial recommendation that he receive the Medal of Honor went through reviews by the Marine Corps, U.S. Central Command, the Department of the Navy and, ultimately, Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

After all the evidence was scrutinized, officials determined the nomination did not meet the standard necessary to support the Medal of Honor, said Capt. Beci Brenton, spokeswoman for Navy Secretary Donald Winter.

Defense Department officials have said that because there was some contradictory evidence, Gates took the extra step of asking for a review by a panel consisting of a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, a Medal of Honor recipient, a civilian neurosurgeon who is retired from the military and two forensic pathologists who also are military retirees.

The panel recommended against the Medal of Honor, and Gates made the decision this month, officials said.

Peralta, 25, was assigned to Hawaii's 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. He had moved to San Diego from Tijuana as a teenager.

American Red Cross messages keep Marines in touch during hard times

The Combat Center’s American Red Cross Chapter helps keep service members informed when they are stationed away from home in the event of a birth, death or a serious or critical illness in their immediate family.


9/19/2008 By Lance Cpl. Monica C. Erickson , Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

For decades the Red Cross has kept families informed by relaying family emergency messages to the service members. This valuable service offers peace-of-mind when military men and women need it most – when family members back home need them due to medical reasons or natural disasters that impact their families. Although there are certain requirements before a message can be sent however.

The Red Cross can only send messages to service members regarding someone in their immediate family, which includes the service member’s spouse, children, parents, grandparents or grandchildren.

“There are always exceptions to this rule,” said Niki McBain, the Combat Center’s American Red Cross station manager. “We have had a case where we sent a message to a Marine because his cousin died. Normally we wouldn’t do that, but this specific Marine grew up in the same house with his cousin, which made the cousin part of the Marine’s immediate family.”

The American Red Cross also needs to speak to the sender of the message to ensure they want to notify the service member. When the service member is notified they are capable of taking emergency leave to visit their family member in need.

“We have to verify a message before it is sent,” said McBain. “If the message is not verified when sent, it is up to the Marine’s command if they want to send them on emergency leave.”

The only reason an American Red Cross emergency message will not be verified is if it is from a different country that does not have a Red Cross station, continued McBain.

When a family member is injured or ill, the American Red Cross must speak with the hospital or doctor treating the family member to find out the diagnosis, prognosis, life expectancy and the doctor’s recommendation for the service member’s presence before sending a message.

Gunnery Sgt. Randall McMillon, with the Marksmanship Training Unit, had to go home on emergency leave after receiving a Red Cross message stating his parents had fallen ill from old age.

“The Red Cross was very timely getting the message to me,” said McMillon, a Dayton, Tenn., native. “As soon as the message posted I was notified and was able to take emergency leave.”

Messages can also be sent to service members if they are the victim of sexual battery and at risk for a sexually transmitted disease.

“In the case of informing a service member about their blood work and a possible STD, we will leave a message with the duty officer for that specific service member to call us back so it doesn’t become general knowledge,” said McBain.

The organization has also stopped sending health and welfare messages, which were sent to service members if their family was trying to get ahold of them and were unable to for an extended period of time.

“We stopped sending those because of today’s technology,” said McBain, a Jensen Beach, Fla., native. “If a Marine wants to stay in contact with his family, he can

very easily stay in contact with them without our help.”

They also send pre-birth announcements to soon-to-be fathers who are deployed, although the service member must be on a year-long deployment and capable of taking rest and relaxation leave during his deployment.

Cpl. Robert DuBord, a supply noncommissioned officer clerk for Exercise Support Division and a volunteer caseworker for the base’s American Red Cross said

birth messages are the best announcements they send.

“It is always a good feeling when you get to tell a Marine he is a father,” said DuBord, an Escanaba, Mich., native. “It also makes [the wife] happy when you are able to provide a point of contact for the father and get them in contact during the birth.”

Their in-labor messages can only be sent if both the deployed service member and the spouse have the capability to be linked together through video or a phone call.

For more information from Combat Center's American Red Cross Chapter call 830-6685.

Marine battalion ends 'smooth' fifth Iraq tour

(09-19) 04:00 PDT Twentynine Palms, San Bernardino County -- Number five was relatively easy.



John Koopman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

The Marine battalion that has been to Iraq more often than any other returned home this week, and unlike previous trips to that combat zone, not a single leatherneck was lost.

"It was a pretty smooth tour," said Maj. Kevin Norton, second-in-command of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. "I think a lot of these Marines would rather have gone to Afghanistan."

The battalion was among the units of the 1st Marine Division, based in Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms, that took part in the invasion of Iraq. They were the Marines who helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square, the moment that effectively marked the end of offensive combat operations in the invasion.

They were the first Marines out of Iraq, but they returned the following year, and about once a year since then. Each deployment was rough - the battalion of about 1,000 men lost 21 Marines in the previous four deployments.

On this seven-month tour, there were no fatalities and only a handful of wounded. One Marine was injured badly enough to be sent back to the United States early.

This was made possible by a nearly total reversal of the level of violence in Anbar province, which for a time could not be mentioned in a story without the term "restive" in front of it. But the tribes of Anbar changed their way of thinking in the last year or so, and decided to side with the Americans and fight the foreign jihadists who had brought fear, intimidation and death by beheading to both the Americans and the local Iraqis.

Known as the "Awakening" movement, the decision by the Sunnis of Anbar, aided by money from the Americans, has meant a precipitous drop in violence in that region, which is west of Baghdad and stretches to the Syrian border. It includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, once two of the most dangerous places on Earth.

Control of the province recently was turned over to the Iraqi army.

"That's the thing that blew my mind," said Norton, who was a company commander with the battalion during the invasion, and other tours as well. "The Iraqi army and Iraqi police have taken over local control. We're just providing overwatch."

The battalion has been returning to Twentynine Palms in segments throughout the week. On Thursday, parts of India and Kilo companies flew into March Air Force Base, and then took buses to the base in the Mojave Desert, about an hour from Palm Springs.

On a grassy field, several hundred wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers and siblings gathered to greet their sons. The level of excitement and joy was perfectly symmetrical with the fear and dread they expressed seven months ago when the unit left on the same white buses.

Nearly everyone wore a Marine T-shirt or hat, many with the names and faces of their loved ones on them. There were dozens of American flags and even more welcome home signs for individual Marines. One boy, about 2, wore a shirt that said, "I'm here to pick up my daddy and I will run over you to get to him."

Kayla Osterwyk, 19, came from Spokane, Wash., with her 3-month-old daughter, Emma, who was born while her father was overseas. The new daddy, Lance Cpl. Scott Boogerd, seemed dazed as he walked with his girlfriend and their baby.

"It's hard to believe," was all he could say.

Osterwyk said life has been difficult without Boogerd. She had her family's help, but taking care of an infant alone was rough, she said.

Noel Laur and his wife, Debbie, drove 15 hours from their home in Texas to greet their son, Carter, a Navy medic, who was returning from his first trip to Iraq.

Carter Laur said nothing much happened during the deployment, and he had to use his medic skills only once for a minor combat-related injury.

"I was scared at first," he said. "But it wasn't what I was expecting."

Debbie Laur, like most mothers, couldn't stop hugging and touching her son, as if making sure he was there, alive and in one piece.

Mike and Pam Duhl came down from Redding. Their son, Cpl. Matt Duhl, was returning from his second tour. The Duhls also have a son in the Army who is in Iraq.

Mike Duhl, who was a Marine in Vietnam, said having served in a combat zone is a mixed blessing for him, now that his sons are in the military. He knows what war is like, but he also knows and trusts his sons and their training.

"You watch the news and you see the KIA (killed in action) lists," he said. "Every day you wait to see if that white car is going to pull up in front of your house. It can be tough."

But not this time. This had a happy ending for the Duhl family, too.

September 18, 2008

Marine praised by Bush won't get Medal of Honor

SAN DIEGO - A Marine sergeant singled out by President Bush for throwing his body on a grenade to save his comrades in Iraq will receive the prestigious Navy Cross rather than the nation's highest military award, military officials said.


By CHELSEA J. CARTER, AP Military Affairs Writer
Thu Sep 18, 5:52 AM ET

The family of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was posthumously nominated for the nation's highest military honor, told the North County Times of Escondido, Calif., they were disappointed he was not receiving the Medal of Honor.

"I don't understand why if the president has been talking about him," his mother, Rosa Peralta, told the newspaper, which was the first to report the bestowing of the Navy Cross.

Rosa Peralta said she was informed during a meeting with Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski that a committee could not agree on awarding the Medal of Honor to her son, who Marine Corps officials say was first wounded by friendly fire. She said the general mentioned the friendly fire aspect as part of her son's death during the discussion.

Marine Corps spokesman Mike Alvarez confirmed the meeting, saying only that it was a personal briefing between Natonski and Rosa Peralta to inform her that the secretary of the Navy would award the Navy Cross posthumously for extraordinary heroism.

The Navy Cross is the second highest honor for combat heroism a Marine can receive.

The secretary of the Navy's public affairs office in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return an after-hours telephone call Wednesday seeking comment.

Headquarters Marine Corps spokesman Maj. David Nevers told The Associated Press that the Navy Cross for Peralta "is not bestowed lightly."

Nevers said only 23 sailors and Marines out of the thousands who have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have received the Navy Cross.

"The awarding of a medals of valor is a methodical process and carefully conducted to ensure the sacrifice and service of our Marines and sailors is appropriately honored," he said.

Peralta was shot several times in the face and body during a house-to-house search in Fallujah on Nov. 15, 2004, during some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

According to a report by a Marine combat photographer who witnessed the act, Peralta lay wounded on the floor of a house and grabbed a grenade that had been lobbed by an insurgent. He absorbed the blast with his body, dying instantly.

In 2005, Natonski, then-commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, ordered an investigation to determine the source of a bullet fragment recovered from Peralta's body.

"Following multiple and exhaustive reviews, the evidence supports the finding that Peralta was likely hit by 'friendly fire,'" the Marine Corps said Wednesday in a press release. "This finding had no bearing on the decision to award the Navy Cross medal."

Bush cited Peralta's heroism in a Memorial Day speech in 2005, saying the Marine "understood that America faces dangerous enemies, and he knew the sacrifices required to defeat them."

Peralta, who was assigned to Hawaii's 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, moved to San Diego from Tijuana as a teenager. He was 25.

31st MEU molds unit cohesion during island-wide exercise

OKINAWA, Japan — As the Marine Corps’ only forward deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the Marines and sailors of the 31st MEU concluded MEU Exercise (MEUEX) 08-2 with plenty of success and lessons learned, Sept. 11.


9/18/2008 By Staff Sgt Marc Ayalin with contribution from Lance Cpl. Jason Spinella, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit

The semi-annual exercise took place Sept. 2-11 and involved more than 1,100 personnel from the 31st MEU’s command element and its major subordinate elements. This year’s training placed an emphasis on mission-oriented training focusing on the planning, execution and evaluation of the MEU’s ability to accomplish its core tasks.

According to the 31st MEU Commanding Officer, Col. Paul L. Damren, this is the first opportunity for the MEU to assess strengths and weaknesses in accomplishing core mission essential tasks while integrating all elements of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force.

“The reason that we conduct exercises of this type is to identify important lessons learned that we can apply to improve our tactics, techniques, procedures, and perhaps most importantly, our unit cohesion,” Damren said.

This year’s exercise involved several situational training exercises (STX) that enabled the MEU to execute mission essential tasks in a time-constrained environment. Each mission was planned by members of the MEU’s Battle Staff, in accordance with the MEU’s Rapid Response Planning Process (R2P2) guide. The quality and time invested in the planning process was a key integration goal for the 31st MEU.

“Our Command Element (CE), Battalion Landing Team (BLT), Aviation Combat Element (ACE), and Combat Logistics Element (CLE) are new and have never worked together before,” said Lt. Col. Rodney Legowski, the 31st MEU Operations Officer. “This was our first opportunity to formulate the relations we need to build our team.”

That opportunity began with an airfield seizure at Ie Shima Island, a small island just a few miles off the northwest coast of Okinawa. Utilizing aviation assets from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced) and more than 120 infantrymen from Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force worked intensely to seize the small airfield from a group of approximately 30 notional insurgents. The airfield seizure incorporated close-air support and swift ground movement to overcome the enemy positioned in bunkers and in an airfield control tower. With many ground assault exercises scheduled for the MEU, this scenario provided a brief welcoming to MEU operations.

“This was a really good preparation exercise for the entire squad as we get ready to go out on this fall deployment,” said Lance Cpl. Jake Reed, a machine gunner with Weapons Platoon, Company K, BLT 3/1. “It’s the first time we’ve done this kind of operation with the 31st MEU and I look forward to the next few months.”

Another highlight of the exercise was honing and preparing MEU personnel to execute a noncombatant evacuation operation. With the 24th MEU’s role in evacuating American citizens in Beirut in July of 2006, the realism of conducting a NEO is altogether prevalent in today’s uncertain security environment. During MEUEX 08-2, members of Combat Logistics Battalion 31 set up an Evacuation Control Center (ECC) to process and evacuate noncombatants. Though the NEO scenario provided theoretical situations, the MEU’s rotary-wing assets were integrated in transporting the evacuees to safe havens. The NEO also implemented non-lethal weapons capabilities as BLT 3/1 Marines provided security at the ECC sites. There, role-playing protestors antagonized the security elements prompting them to conduct crowd control measures.

For the ECC team members, the NEO exercise provided an opportunity to gain more ground towards conducting an actual evacuation.

“It was a good experience builder,” said 1st Lt. Jamin Bailey, ECC Team Leader, CLB 31. “While there were elements during the training that got our feet wet, the mission was accomplished and executed within our standard operating procedures.”

While the airfield seizure and the NEO were highlights of MEUEX 08-2, the MEU also planned and executed a boat raid, mechanized raid, a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) and humanitarian assistance / disaster relief (HA/DR) mission. While each mission, as a whole, provided a good introduction to MEU integration, there were some planning guidelines that needed fine tuning.

According to Legowski, one of the biggest challenges for the MEU planning staff, as a new team, was refining the standard operating procedures (SOP) while ensuring everyone understood and complied with them. According to Damren, conducting exercises like MEUEX are essential in developing cohesive relationships.

"If we were already perfect, there would be no need to conduct an exercise of this type,” Damren added. “The unique predeployment training cycle that we execute at the 31st MEU requires us to have a very steep learning curve and we do not have the luxury of a six month workup cycle like other Marine Expeditionary Units. Therefore, we must take maximum advantage of every training evolution with particular emphasis on debriefs. If we conduct thorough and very candid debriefs, chances are good that we are not going to make the same mistakes the next time around.”

This week, the 31st MEU is gearing up to execute their fall deployment throughout the Asia-Pacific region with the USS Essex (LHD 2) Amphibious Ready Group. During the deployment, the Navy and Marine Corps team is scheduled to conduct additional exercises to integrate and hone surface and naval operations. Damren remains optimistic that his Marines and sailors will overcome any challenges during the next deployment cycle.

"The big difference of course with blue/green training is that we will be doing all this aboard ship and I expect our learning curve to remain very steep - adding another degree of challenges to everything that we do,” Damren said. “However, given what I have seen from the Marines and Sailors of the MEU thus far, I would expect us to really excel during blue/green training and into our evaluation exercise.”

September 17, 2008

Congress may abandon vets’ legislation

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Sep 17, 2008 10:06:16 EDT

Congress appears to be on the verge of abandoning major veterans’ issues in a rush to leave town to run for re-election, charges the legislative director of one of the nation’s largest veterans’ organizations.

To continue reading:


3rd Bn., 7th Marines arrive in Iraq

HIT, Iraq — The Marines of Task Force 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 assumed control of an area of operations previously held by 3rd Bn., 4th Marines and will continue to support Operation Iraqi Freedom.


9/17/2008 By Lance Cpl. Sean P. Cummins, Regimental Combat Team 5

The area, which includes the cities of Hit and Haditha, encompasses a large part of the western Euphrates River Valley and varies between lush green palm groves and open-rocky desert terrain. In the patchwork of desert, palm trees, moderately sized cities and small villages, Marines from TF 3rd Bn., 7th Marines spent a week conducting joint security patrols and meeting key Iraqi leaders before Marines of 3rd Bn., 4th Marines left for home.

With the return of provincial Iraqi control to al-Anbar province on Sept. 1, the battalion’s main role will now be to step back and let the Iraqi government work to support its people with essential services while the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Army provide security throughout the area. The battalion will continue to assist the Iraqi Security Forces who now occupy many of the combat outposts that were once home to Marines.

“(3rd Bn., 4th Marines) did a lot of the leg work for us,” said Major Marcus J. Mainz, 34, the battalion’s operations officer from Wichita, Kan. “When they were here, they had around 28 bases and now we’re sitting here with only (several).”

“We’re trying to help the Iraqi people stand on their own and be able to rule themselves with their own security and their own governance (that can) provide their own essential services.”

The atmospheres of the towns and the attitudes of the people have changed dramatically since 3rd Bn., 7th Marines’ last deployment to Iraq in 2007.

“I would have to say it is pretty calm compared to last time,” said Sgt. James E. Castro, 31, an armory custodian with Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd Bn., 7th Marines from Harris, Texas.

“Operational tempo is like eight times slower,” said Lance Cpl. Ryan P. Stunkel, a vehicle commander with Combined Anti-Armor Team Red, Weapons Co., 3rd Bn., 7th Marines from Madison, Ill. “The Iraqis seem to have it under control.”

Despite the lack of a kinetic fight in Iraq, the battalion is still playing a key role in helping Iraq.

“I would say (the battalion’s) role in Iraq is going to be to continue the success that we’ve had so far in winning the war, keeping that balance between us and the [Iraqi] people and eventually having a free and stable Iraq,” said Mainz.

September 16, 2008

3d Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment Prepares for Combat at Mojave Viper

TWENTY NINE PALMS, CA — Marines dash across the Mojave Desert as the sun beats down on the range. Squad leaders shout instructions as Marines move through the course, assaulting a defended position, and then listening intently as range instructors provide feedback and give instruction. This is 3d Battalion, 8th Marines – recently arrived at Twenty Nine Palms, California from their home at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for the Mojave Viper training package.


By LtJg DiPinto, TF 3/8

“Arriving at Twenty Nine Palms was a wakeup,” said Sergeant Hedrick of H & S Company. “Getting 1,000 Marines here from Camp Lejeune took a coordinated effort, but now that we’re here, it’s the real deal.” The Mojave Viper desert training includes multiple live-fire ranges, detainee handling procedures, dealing with IEDs, convoy operations, and much more. First Sergeant Cayer, from H & S Company explained, “We are incredibly excited about the training opportunities out here. The terrain really replicates what we’re likely to see in combat, so this is as good as it gets.”

True to Marine Corps style, the staff of TTECG (Tactical Training Exercise Control Group) at Twenty Nine Palms and the battalion leadership have prepared a training schedule designed to equip the Marines for any eventuality. “We’re taking nothing for granted,” said HM2 Medina, a hospital corpsman assigned to the Battalion Aid Station. “Our focus out here is taking care of Marines and Sailors in the combat environment.”

Despite the intense heat and challenging conditions, it’s clear that the Marines are having fun. PFC Goddard of India Company summed up the sentiment when he exclaimed, “The ranges out here are awesome! Live fire like this isn’t something we can normally do. I’m really looking forward to the DAC (Deliberate Assault Course) and MAC (Mechanized Assault Course) ranges. Some of the terrain is intimidating, but this is the best training we’ve had so far.”

Although almost three weeks remain in the Mojave Viper training, one thing is certain – that 3/8 will be in a combat theater very soon. “I’m not worried about it at all,” said Capt. Krugman of Lima Company. “When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

Kiernan comes home -- on two (new) legs

Petaluma Marine wounded in Iraq greeted by well-wishers upon return to hometown

A young hero came home Monday -- true to plan -- on his own two feet.


Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 5:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 12:03 p.m.

Marine Cpl. Steven Kiernan, 21 of Petaluma, recipient of the Purple Heart, was walking on two gleaming prosthetic legs and using just one cane.

It was his first trip home since losing both legs after he was wounded in an explosion in Fallujah on May 4. He had been deployed to Iraq only three weeks before.

For the past five months, Kiernan has lived at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where his rehabilitation is expected to continue for another year.

What's on his list of things to do on his 10-day visit home?

"Oh man, I just want to relax. See my friends. Go to Cattlemens and In-N-Out, which they don't have on the East Coast. Every time I come home, we go to Pier 39, so I hope we can do that, too," he said.

Kiernan's therapists have described his recovery as unusually fast, and June 19 marked the day he first walked on his new feet.

Since then, he has entered a recumbent bike race in New York City, played in a golf tournament and went camping on horseback. He recently traveled to Puerto Rico, where he became a certified scuba diver.

His first stop in Petaluma on Monday was Raintree Car Wash, the site of a summertime Wounded Warriors benefit and a donation point for a Bank of Marin trust account set up by the car wash's owners, Jan Frym and her husband, Dave Cormier, a former Marine.

The plan was to swing by to thank the couple for what they had done. They handed Kiernan more checks.

"This is totally unnecessary," he said before thanking the couple, exchanging handshakes and hugs.

"These young men, who go off and fight for our freedoms, they make sacrifices for us," Jan Frym said. "In Petaluma, people feel strongly about supporting our military. There were people, coming in day after day to buy things and drop money in the bucket."

Kiernan joined the Marines when he was 17, and his request to wear his dress uniform to his 2005 Petaluma High School graduation launched community debate.

Since being wounded, he has been deluged with offers of money, thanks, handshakes and hugs.

"He received so much mail from home, and he was shocked that so many people cared about him. He doesn't like the attention in one way, but he understands that people really do care," Frym said.

If receiving a big check within minutes of rolling into town felt unusual, his second day might feel downright surreal. A private, invitation-only luncheon will be held in his honor at Camelbak, a Petaluma company that provides hydration equipment to the military and athletes.

Company executives made a special trip to Walter Reed to bring him a box full of goodies and have kept in touch ever since.

"Steven Kiernan really represents a lot to us. He's our son, our brother and our neighbor. We want to honor him because it's just the right thing to do," said Jeremy Galten, director of engineering at Camelbak.

Tats to Keep Some Marines Out of Sight

SAN DIEGO - The Marine Corps is no longer allowing troops who have extra-large tattoos on their arms to serve as recruiters or security guards at U.S. embassies.


September 16, 2008
Associated Press

Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Carl Redding said Monday that the service's top general has extended a regulation on these so-called "sleeve" tattoos on biceps and forearms.

Redding said Gen. James T. Conway noted in his new order that recruiters and embassy guards have "significant impact on public perception" because of their daily dealings with civilians.

Conway had banned the large and often elaborate tattoo designs in April 2007.

Marines who already had the tattoos were exempt from that ban, but Conway's new order restricts their assignments.

DoD announces new Afghanistan rotation

By Bryan Mitchell - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Sep 16, 2008 9:57:26 EDT

Up to 2,000 Marines will deploy to Afghanistan in November to replace the 3,400 leathernecks scheduled to return home in the coming months, the Defense Department announced Monday.

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September 15, 2008

Defense Department Announces New Forces for Afghanistan Mission

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15, 2008 – The Defense Department announced today the deployment of two additional units to Afghanistan, following up on President Bush’s announcement last week that he will beef up the U.S. presence there while reducing it in Iraq.


By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Up to 2,000 Marines assigned to an air-ground task force will deploy to Afghanistan in November, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. The task force will be organized based on specific requirements on the ground, he said, but will include 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and other Marine Corps units. Collectively, the task force will include a headquarters and ground combat, aviation and logistics elements from units across the Marine Corps.

The task force will replace the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, both slated to redeploy in November after a one-month extension of their Afghanistan tour. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered the additional Marine forces to Afghanistan earlier this year over concerns about a possible spring offensive.

In addition, the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, from Fort Drum, N.Y., will deploy about 3,700 soldiers to Afghanistan in January, Whitman said. The soldiers, who initially had been slated to leave for Iraq in November, will now be assigned to increase the capabilities of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The brigade returned from a deployment to Afghanistan in July 2007.

The United States, with 31,000 servicemembers already in Afghanistan, will continue to be the biggest contributor to ISAF, Whitman said. NATO members have promised to commit more troops to ISAF, the alliance’s first and largest ground operation outside Europe, but continue to come up short.

Bush announced during an address at the National Defense University that the United States would continue to reduce its troop strength in Iraq, based on security progress made as part of the new strategy and troop surge there. With the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies regaining strength and creating safe havens in Pakistani tribal areas, Bush said, he would redirect some forces headed for Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The mission of these forces will be to work with Afghan forces to provide security for the Afghan people, protect Afghanistan’s infrastructure and democratic institutions and help ensure access to services like education and health care,” he said.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a weekend interview he remains convinced that victory in Afghanistan is possible, due in part to the U.S. and NATO effort.

“Our troops are doing spectacular work on the ground,” the chairman said on CNN’s “American Morning” program. “They’ve made a difference.”

Mullen said the main goal is providing a level of security in Afghanistan that is sustainable so the other factors to develop the country can take hold as they have in Iraq.

“I’m very concerned, and will remain concerned,” he said of conditions in Afghanistan. “I want to focus on it. I’m optimistic in the long run.”

Petraeus: More than force needed in Afghanistan

By Kim Gamel - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Sep 15, 2008 8:17:19 EDT

BAGHDAD — Gen. David Petraeus said Sunday that experience in Iraq shows it will take political and economic progress as well as military action to tackle increased violence in Afghanistan.

To continue reading:


US to boost military presence in Afghanistan by 1,800

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US military presence in Afghanistan will grow by a maximum of 1,800 troops by the end of January, AFP has calculated, based on figures provided by the Pentagon Monday.


Mon Sep 15, 2:28 PM ET

A Marine Air-Ground Task Force of "up to approximately 2,000 Marines" will be deployed in November, a Department of Defense statement said.

Meanwhile, Marines sent in April -- up to 3,900, according to the Pentagon -- are finishing their deployment in November and leaving Afghanistan.

That means the total US contingent of some 33,000 soldiers -- according to the latest Pentagon figures -- will shrink slightly before it grows with the arrival of reinforcements in early 2009.

In January, a US army combat brigade of some 3,700 soldiers, originally destined for Iraq, will be sent to Afghanistan to serve under the command of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), according to the DoD statement.

In total, 5,700 US soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan and 3,900 will be withdrawn -- a net increase of 1,800, bringing the total US presence close to 35,000.

Some 70,000 foreign soldiers are currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of NATO's ISAF or Washington's Operation Enduring Freedom.

Military leaders on the ground have asked for 10,000 more soldiers to face an upsurge in Taliban violence.

President George W. Bush last week announced he was withdrawing 8,000 soldiers from Iraq and sending more troops to Afghanistan by January, when he leaves the White House.

Marines deliver smiles with mobile Post Exchange

HADITHA, Iraq — — HADITHA, Iraq – Marines from the Haditha Dam Forward Logistics Element, Combat Logistics Battalion 2, 1st Marine Logistics Group delivered a Mobile Post Exchange to the Marines and Sailors of 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Sept. 15 during their stops at Combat Outpost Haqlaniyah.


9/15/2008 By Cpl. Sean P. McGinty , 1st Marine Logistics Group

“It’s a great help for us when this convoy gets here,” said Lance Cpl. Jason R. Michael, 23, a rifleman with 3/7 at COP Haqlaniyah, from Gadsden, Ala. “We don’t have a PX out here and we can’t always get the creature comforts we need.”

The combat outposts where Marines are stationed in Haqlaniyah and Haditha are remote and goods are scarce. The camp’s population usually consists of infantrymen and interpreters who rarely make it to larger bases to purchase goods at a PX.

So the FLE Marines load up their wares and double-time to the outposts in order to give those Marines what they need.

“This is my main mission,” said Sgt. Christopher D. Smith, 24, a morale, welfare, and recreation specialist at the dam, from Pittsburgh. “The Marines (at al Asad) can come to the PX anytime they want, but the guys at the (combat outposts) don’t get that.”

Smith says that he takes the mission very personally. Not only is his military occupational specialty geared towards providing other Marines with the morale they need, but he said it also provides enjoyment for him.

“I really enjoy seeing how the Marines act before and after they get into the store,” he said. “I see how happy they get and it makes me happy to do my job.”

Smith originally deployed to Iraq in February with CLB-6, 1st MLG, who CLB-2 replaced in early September. He enjoys his job so much, that he volunteered to stay another 7 months with CLB-2.

Other Marines joined the convoy to the outposts to provide their services also. The Haditha Dam disbursing agent, Sgt. Adrian G. Campos, 22, from Houston, went along to make sure the Marines were able to get money to buy what they needed. Pvt. Ben R. Magiera, 20, a postal clerk with the FLE team from Oceanside, Calif., came along to ensure the Marines received their mail.

“The major thing is the morale,” Smith said, smiling. “Morale is one of the most important things out here, and an easy way to bump up morale is for us to get out to the Marines.”

September 14, 2008

Let's roll: Motor-T keeps vehicles rolling in Anbar

CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq — Seven Marines have become the foundation of vehicle maintenance for a battalion and other units in western al-Anbar province.


9/14/2008 By Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson, Regimental Combat Team 5

The seven mechanics with Motor Transportation Platoon, Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 have supported more than 350 vehicles from the battalion and other units in the area since the beginning of their deployment.

“Our mission is to ensure more reliable vehicles and to take care of every discrepancy on them,” said Gunnery Sgt. Stephen G. Gogulsky, the maintenance chief for Motor-T Platoon. “Without the knowledge that we have in our platoon, we wouldn’t be in the shape we are today.”

The mechanics have been working strenuous days, responding to more than 500 work orders for vehicles all over the province. Every day, the Marines operate on the vehicles with malfunctions, which range from blown radiators to cracked rear seals.

“I take pride in what I do because it feels good to support the Marines,” said Lance Cpl. Larry J. Howard, a mechanic from Lexington, Ky., with Motor-T. “It gets tiresome, but it’s rewarding because I know that everybody is in a (vehicle) that is safer because of our maintenance.”

In addition to maintaining 2nd LAR Bn.’s vehicles, the seven Marines also assist other units, such as Police Transition Teams and Civil Affairs. It’s been a long, hard-working deployment for the mechanics, but according to them, it has been worth it.

“It feels good to fix something and know whatever was wrong with the vehicle is (good) now,” said Cpl. Stephen A. Miller, 21, a mechanic from Grand Forks, N.D., with Motor-T. “I’ve learned a lot like replacing springs and fixing axles, and I look to use the lessons in the future.”

“I have the best mechanics I’ve worked with in the last 18 years of my career,” said Gogulsky, 39, from Somerset County, N.J. “They have a sense of self-accomplishment because each unit who comes through our area utilizes us for our skill.”

Light armored recon trains with mortars in Anbar

AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq — The sound of thunder echoed through the desert as mortars impacted the ground here Sept. 14.


9/14/2008 By Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson, Regimental Combat Team 5

Marines with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5, engaged in a mortar shoot to maintain weapons proficiency.

“The battalion decided to shoot to establish good target trajectory points and (to practice) standard operating procedures for future (operations),” said Lance Cpl. Robert C. Lenfesty, 22, a gunner with Delta Company, 2nd LAR Bn. “Once we get back to the States, we’ll be splitting up into independent companies and these skills (will be) needed.”

During the shoot, weapons platoons from each company took turns firing more than 30 high-explosive and illumination rounds from mounted and dismounted positions. The Marines from separate companies were able to work together to establish unit cohesion.

“Being able to see how the rest of the companies worked and getting back together with them as a battalion was good,” said Cpl. Thomas R. Ryhal, 24, an assistant gunner from Newcastle, Penn., with Delta Co. “It was rewarding to fire in succession and work together as a battalion.”

The Marines fired for approximately eight hours to ensure each company had established their standard operating procedures for mortarmen. As their deployment in Iraq comes to a conclusion, the battalion is already preparing for the next possible combat tour.

“It’s good to get back into the rhythm of mortars because during this deployment, we only shot illumination rounds for scouts on the ground,” said Lenfesty, 22, from Seattle. “The shoot was a good refresher on tactics if the battalion re-deploys and we are needed.”

‘Wiener dog’ helps Iraq War veteran adjust

Scott MacKenzie is sleeping better these days.


‘Wiener dog’ helps Iraq War veteran adjust

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The retired 23-year-old Marine corporal attributes his peace of mind to a 2-year-old dachshund he calls Itchy, after the dachshund in the movie “All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.”

Tom Flynn, vice president of Dachshund Rescue of North America, delivered the dog, formerly named TJ, to MacKenzie at his parents’ home in Canton a week ago. MacKenzie was injured by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Iraq almost two years ago. His jaw was fractured and he has hearing loss, shrapnel wounds and a traumatic brain injury. He retired from the military in August with 90 percent disability.

Flynn, also a Cobb County animal control officer, can’t imagine better therapy. He said the dog and MacKenzie are a perfect fit.

“He is a shy dog, but he went straight to Scott with his tail wagging,” Flynn said. “The look on Scott’s face was magic.”

Offers of dachshunds poured in after an Aug. 10 AJC article about MacKenzie, who said he would like a “little wiener dog” after leaving the Marines. MacKenzie chose a rescue dog in need of a home.

“I feel like I am always on call and don’t sleep a whole lot,” MacKenzie said. “Now Itchy is on watch with me and I know he will alert me if something is wrong.”

The dog follows him around the house on pre-dawn rounds. Having the dog by his side while everyone else is sleeping is comforting, he says.

The dachshund wears a leather collar that has military spec dog tags. Soon Itchy will have a “wiener dog” blouse made from the cammies MacKenzie wore in Iraq.

“Everyone deserves a second chance — just like me,” MacKenzie said. “It is a true relief and blessing to have him.”

September 13, 2008

Parents gather at Shiawassee County picnic to share thoughts about their sons and daughters in the military

SHIAWASSEE COUNTY, Michigan-- Their bond is strong yet before Saturday many did not know what one another looked like or even what their last names were.


by David Harris | The Flint Journal
Saturday September 13, 2008, 8:00 PM

For the first time, parents who post on the online forum marineparents.com found out what the person behind the screen name actually looked like at a picnic in Byron.

Cindy McCormick of Byron hosted a potluck on Saturday at her home for parents from throughout Michigan who have children in the Marines. About 60 people were expected to attend the event.

The idea came about after parents talked on their message board about finally getting together in person. McCormick's place was chosen because of its central location; attendees were expected to come from Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and even Ohio.

They brought a dish to pass, their son or daughter's picture and stories about the Marines.

The Web site is for parents who have children in the military to post updates and feelings about their sons and daughters.

"There's great camaraderie," McCormick said. "Just being able to meet some people online who you have never seen before is special."

Her son, Steven McCormick, 20, is stationed in California and has not been deployed overseas yet. She said associating with fellow Marine parents through the Web site helped when her son was in boot camp.

The parents discussed what their sons were doing and how they were and help each other through hard times, McCormick said.

"Anytime someone is going through the same thing you are, it helps you," McCormick said. "There is an extreme amount of worry if your child is in the military."

Mike Williams, 55, was expected to come to the picnic from Findlay, Ohio. His son, Jesse, made two tours to Iraq, the last in 2005.

Mike Williams uses humor on the site to help people through hard times.

"I'll be glad to be as outrageous as they allow me," he said Friday.

Williams said he helps fellow parents who are going through the same thing he was when his son was deployed.

"They know that I've been up all night in full-blown tears," he said.

Enid Benedict of Grand Blanc did not attend the picnic, but is a frequent poster on the Web site and a friend of McCormick's.

She said the Web site and picnic are important because they provide support to parents.

"It brings parents together," said Benedict, whose son, Orlando, 20, returned from Iraq last month.

"It allows many of them to meet each other for the first time. We do not know practically any of them, just know them through online."

September 12, 2008

22nd MEU steps off as one team

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit grew in numbers and capabilities Friday as the Aviation Combat Element, Ground Combat Element and Logistics Combat Element were officially attached to the unit. Marines and sailors celebrated the day with an immense formation run consisting of more than 1,200 Marines and sailors from the MEU.


22nd MEU steps off as one team
9/12/2008 By Sgt. Matt Epright, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit

"What we just accomplished was the first of many successful evolutions as a MEU," said 22nd MEU Commanding Officer, Col. Gareth Brandl. "Other than just putting information out in an e-mail, that says 'welcome to the 22nd MEU,' and calling it another day, we wanted to do something physical that really gets the Marines out and shows them how large this organization is and what they're a part of."

As the North Carolina sun crept up in the sky, a sea of 22nd MEU Marines and sailors took to Julian C. Smith Road aboard Camp Lejeune. The formation filled both lanes of the road and the roar of voices sliced through the early morning fog.

The run wasn't a spur-of-the-moment event. Several weeks of coordination and planning was required to ensure maximum participation in the early morning run.

"It was really motivating and it gave me a lot of confidence in my command to know that they can organize something so large, so well," said Lance Cpl. Derrico Grier, an operations clerk with the MEU. "Seeing this gives me confidence in our upcoming deployment."

Some Marines like Sgt. Steven Ruddle, a platoon sergeant with Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, were struck by the symbolism of several units stepping off together as a single entity.

"A lot of times, as individual units, you get individualized; you don't accomplish that overall mission," said Ruddle, "The run allowed us to come together as one unit and realize that there are no individuals here, we're all trying to go out and accomplish that overall mission."

The 22nd MEU now consists of its Ground Combat Element, BLT 3/2; Aviation Combat Element, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 (Reinforced); Logistics Combat Element, Combat Logistics Battalion 22; and its Command Element.

The run kicked off a six-month training cycle for the MEU and subsequent six-month deployment. For more information about the 22nd MEU, visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.

Counter, human intel MOS opens to female Marines

CAMP HANSEN, OKINAWA, Japan — The counterintelligence and human intelligence military occupational specialty has opened to female Marines.


9/12/2008 By Lance Cpl. Stefanie C. Pupkiewicz, III Marine Expeditionary Force

The MOS was formerly closed to females because CI/HUMINT specialists were embedded directly with combat units, but changes in warfare and strategy have made the exclusion of females obsolete.

"There is no real reason to keep them out," said the Okinawa CI recruiting officer in charge. "We can work it so they don't have to do that combat mission."

The opening of the MOS has been talked about and coordinated for a year. It was only last month that the field opened officially, said the recruiter.

The field will support a nine percent female workforce, according to the OIC.

CI specialists interrogate detainees and suspected terrorists and secure evidence within conflict areas so it can be used later in court, he said.

Females will have most of the responsibilities as male CI specialists except males will embed with infantry units, the CI recruiter said.

Marines can enter the field from any MOS if they meet the requirements, he said.

Marines interested in becoming a CI specialist must be 21 years old by the end of the CI school and be a corporal, sergeant or staff sergeant. A staff sergeant cannot have completed more than two tours of duty.

Marines need to have a level of maturity to be in counterintelligence because they deal with highly classified material and play a vital role in the war theater, the CI recruiter said.

Personality is a large part of working in counterintelligence, he added. Applicants need to be personable and able to speak easily to people. They also need to be accepting of other cultural views because they will be dealing with people from different cultures.

Other requirements include U.S. citizenship and a minimum general technical score of 110 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, said the CI recruiter.

After the requirements are met and a preliminary background screening is completed, the Marine will go before a formal board to determine the Marine's suitability for the MOS.

Typically, the Marine will receive orders and familiarize themselves with their unit before attending a 17-week school, said the recruiter.

After school, specialists can expect to attach to teams heading to Iraq and Afghanistan as there is no real substitute for the operational experience, said the CI recruiting OIC.

September 10, 2008

Marines Assault Taliban Stronghold

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines along with coalition forces carried out an assault on a Taliban-held compound in Now Zad, Afghanistan.


September 10, 2008
Marine Corps News|by Cpl. James M. Mercure

The accomplishments of the assault, was the seizure of enemy ordnance and weapons, materials used to make IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and the destruction of several enemy vehicles, buildings and fighting positions.

The Marines and sailors of Company F, Task Force 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and coalition forces are exploiting the enemy any way they can.

“Our overall mission here is to degrade the enemies’ ability to operate in Now Zad,” said Capt. Ross Schellhaas, Company F commander and Meridian, Idaho native. “During this assault, we pushed far beyond our objective. We found and took several of the enemies’ weapons, which takes away their ability to use them against us.”

“Whenever we get to an assault position, we’re already receiving fire and the Marines go right to the sound of the guns – no hesitation,” Capt. Schellhaas explained.

During the assault, Company F Marines had the additional support of the task force’s Combined Anti-Armor Team, which supported the operation with additional heavy firepower.

“Our main goal was to help Company F clear their objective by killing as many enemy fighters as possible,” said Maj. Urbano Cruz, Weapons Company commander and Palm Beach, Fla., native. “The thing that CAAT brings to the fight is a sizable force. We’re the big guns of the battalion, and the Taliban see that and think twice before attacking.”

To combat the IED threat, TF 2/7’s Combat Engineer Platoon are called forward and breach the enemy’s walls with explosives so the Fox Company Marines can move forward to their objective.

“We can always get the Marines through the door, or through the wall,” said Sgt. David J. Lang, a combat engineer squad leader and Port Orchard, Wash., native. “The infantry guys will always have a way in or a way out with us around.”

“In the few months we’ve been out here, the combat engineers have found approximately 120 possible IEDs while out on missions,” Lang said.

Company F Marines and sailors are relentless in their pursuit of ridding the area of its threatening Taliban presence. As TF 27 continues to conduct counterinsurgency operations throughout the Helmand and Farah provinces, Company F is certainly making a name for itself by dominating the enemy with superior firepower and maneuver.

“After months of sustained combat, it’s a testament to the Marines’ strength, endurance and character that they keep doing the little things right,” said 1st Lt. Arthur E. Karell, 3rd Platoon commander and Arlington, Va., native.

September 9, 2008

Bush Announces Iraq Troop Cut

FORT LESLEY J. MCNAIR, D.C., Sept. 9, 2008 – The United States will continue to reduce its troop strength in Iraq, but will increase its footprint in Afghanistan, President Bush said here today.


By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

The president accepted the recommendations of military leaders to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq by 8,000 through January. If security conditions continue to improve in the country, further reductions will be possible, Bush said at the National Defense University.

Bush also announced plans to deploy a Marine battalion to train Afghan National Army troops in November and to send an Army brigade to Afghanistan in January.

Bush said security progress in Iraq is responsible for the reduction. The progress is an outgrowth of the success of the surge, launched Jan. 10, 2007, that fed five U.S. Army brigades, a Marine expeditionary unit and two Marine battalions into Iraq through June 2007. Bush called the reductions the “return on success” strategy. That strategy calls for reducing American combat forces in Iraq as conditions on the ground continue to improve.

“The reduced levels of violence in Iraq have now been sustained for several months,” Bush said. “While the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, [Army] Gen. [David H.] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan C.] Crocker report that there now appears to be a ‘degree of durability’ to the gains we have made.

“Over the next several months, we will bring home about 3,400 combat support forces – including aviation personnel, explosive ordnance teams, combat and construction engineers, military police and logistical support forces,” Bush continued. “By November, we will bring home a Marine battalion that is now serving in Anbar province. And in February 2009, another Army combat brigade will come home.

“This amounts to about 8,000 additional American troops returning home without replacement,” the president said. “And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, General Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.”

An example of the progress occurred last week in Ramadi, when coalition forces turned over control of Anbar province to elected Iraqi leaders.

“Iraqi forces are now leading security operations across Anbar, with American troops in an overwatch role,” Bush said. “With this transfer of responsibility, the people of Anbar took charge of their own security and their own destiny. It was a moment of pride for all Iraqis – and a moment of success in the war on terror.”

In 2006, Anbar was the most dangerous place in Iraq. Al-Qaida terrorists were in control of almost every major population center, and the province was a safe haven allowing the terror group to plan, train, re-fit and finance terror operations in other parts of the country. “A military intelligence report concluded that the province was lost – and Anbar was held up as proof of America’s failure in Iraq,” Bush said.

But al-Qaida’s campaign of brutality and murder to intimidate the people backfired. The surge brought in 4,000 more Marines that proved the U.S. commitment to Iraq. “Together, local tribes, Iraqi troops and American forces systematically dismantled al-Qaida control across the province,” Bush said.

Attacks in the province have dropped by more than 90 percent, and casualties are down dramatically. The government is up and running, and American provincial reconstruction teams are helping local leaders create jobs and economic opportunity, Bush said.

“And as security has improved, reconciliation is taking place across the province,” he said. “Today, Anbar is no longer lost to al-Qaida. It has been reclaimed by the Iraqi people.”

The security progress in Anbar has been mirrored all over Iraq, with Iraqi security forces in the lead. Iraqi soldiers and police have cooperated and launched operations against extremist groups in Basra, Baghdad, Amarah, Mosul and Diyala province. “All of these operations are Iraqi-led, with American forces playing a supporting role,” Bush said.

Violence in Iraq is down to its lowest point since the spring of 2004, and civilian deaths are down. Sectarian killings are down, suicide bombings are down, and normal life is returning to communities across the country, Bush said. The Iraqi government is making political progress and has passed several major pieces of legislation.

The progress has allowed the United States to pull out the surge units, reduce tour lengths for Army troops from 15 months to a year and shift forces once slated for duty in Iraq to Afghanistan, the president said.

The people of Afghanistan will benefit most from the security progress in Iraq, Bush said. The Taliban and its al-Qaida allies have regained strength and are using the tribal areas of Pakistan as safe havens. American troops who were scheduled to deploy to Iraq will deploy to Afghanistan beginning in November. This will make the “quiet surge” of NATO forces into Afghanistan a bit louder, the president said.

Additional troops have deployed to Afghanistan from the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Australia, Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic. The United States increased its presence in Afghanistan by 3,500. The number of trained Afghan army and police forces has increased from less than 67,000 to nearly 144,000.

“These troop increases have made a difference, yet huge challenges in Afghanistan remain,” Bush said. “As we learned in Iraq, the best way to restore the confidence of the people is to restore basic security – and that requires more troops.”

More American units will deploy to Afghanistan in the coming months, the president said.

“In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead deploy to Afghanistan,” Bush said. “It will be followed in January by an Army combat brigade. The mission of these forces will be to work with Afghan forces to provide security for the Afghan people, protect Afghanistan’s infrastructure and democratic institutions and help ensure access to services like education and health care.”

Even as reinforcements arrive in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies will work to double the size of the Afghan National Army over the next five years, Bush said.

“The Taliban and al-Qaida will not be allowed to return to power,” Bush said. “The terrorists will suffer the same fate in Afghanistan that they are now suffering in Iraq. They will be defeated.”

Terrorists also are operating in Pakistan and must be dealt with, Bush said. “These extremists are increasingly using Pakistan as a base from which to destabilize Afghanistan’s young democracy,” he said. “And in the past year, the Taliban, al-Qaida and other extremist groups operating in these remote regions have stepped up their attacks against the Pakistani government itself, hoping to stop that country’s democratic progress as well.”

These groups threaten Pakistan’s government, and defeating these terrorist and extremists is also Pakistan’s responsibility, “because every nation has an obligation to govern its own territory and make certain that it does not become a safe haven for terror,” Bush said.

The United States and its allies will continue to work with Pakistani officials to defeat the extremists, Bush said.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all theaters in the same overall struggle, the president noted.

“In all three places, extremists are using violence and terror in an attempt to impose their ideology on whole populations,” Bush said. “And in all three places, America is standing with brave elected leaders, determined reformers, and millions of ordinary citizens who seek a future of liberty, justice and tolerance.”

Military progress is being made, the president said, but defeating the enemy will require victory in the ideological battle. “We must show the people of the broader Middle East a better alternative to a life of violence and despair, and that alternative is freedom,” he said.

Much remains to be done, Bush said, and he acknowledged that tough times are ahead.

“Yet, we can have confidence in the outcome,” he said. “With faith in the power of freedom, we will transform nations that once harbored our enemies into strong and capable allies in the war on terror. With faith in the power of freedom, we will prove that the future of the Middle East belongs not to terror, but to liberty. And with faith in the power of freedom, we will leave behind a safer and more peaceful world for our children and grandchildren.”

MARCENT commander praises TF 2/7 for making history in Afghanistan

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Lieutenant Gen. Samuel T. Helland is keeping a watchful eye on his Marines, particularly those currently fighting in the war against terrorism.


9/9/2008 By Cpl. Ray Lewis, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines

The three-star general who is dual-hatted as the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command and commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, has made a second trip to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province to visit Task Force 2d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, part of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix.

A reinforced infantry battalion of approximately 1,000 Marines and sailors, 2/7 deployed from the Marine Air Ground Combat Training Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., to Afghanistan in early April to support Operation Enduring Freedom. The battalion, now considered a task force, is supported by various attachments to include soldiers, airmen, National Guardsmen and civilian contractors who specialize in police operations. The Marine unit is currently conducting full spectrum and counterinsurgency operations with a focus on police mentoring of the Afghan National Police.

“Some people live history, some people read about it, but you just made history,” said Lt. Gen. Helland, who praised TF 2/7 for fighting to make Afghanistan a better place. “Nobody’s done what you’ve done. Nobody has gone out at the platoon level, in an open environment with the ‘bad guys’ right outside the gate and have been successful.”

During this visit, Lt. Gen. Helland convoyed to Forward Operating Base Delaram -- one of the unit’s most austere locations. Upon reaching the FOB, he met with the Marines of Company G, Combined Anti-Armor Team 2, Weapons Company and 3rd Civil Affairs Group.

“He dispelled a lot of rumors, discussed motorcycle safety, encouraged pursuing further education and looking out for each other in combat as well as in garrison,” said Lance Cpl. Robert J. Perez, a mortarman assigned to CAAT-2 and Virgin Islands native.

The VIP visits play an important role in keeping the troops’ spirits high, Gunnery Sgt. Ivan Collazosanchez said.

“It keeps the Marines morale up and lets them know that the VIPs really do take interest in what goes on in their lives,” said Collazosanchez, who is assigned to CAAT-2 and a Puerto Rico native. “We’ve had quite a few VIP visits, and that’s been pretty much the talk of the Marines. They’re like, ‘Hey, they really do care about what’s going on out here.’”

Lieutenant Gen. Helland then returned to the headquarters camp at Camp Barber to speak to service members there. Before hosting a town hall meeting at the flagpole, he highlighted his visit by combat meritoriously promoting Cpls. Ray Alvarado of Fillmore, Calif., and Ramiro Novoa of Coachella, Calif., to their current ranks.

“You need to be proud of yourselves, you really do,” Lt. Gen. Helland said. “It’s great to be proud to be a Marine, but even prouder to be in 2/7 when you go home.”

Marines plan next moves after Anbar success

By Bryan Mitchell - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Sep 9, 2008 19:44:48 EDT

With the Corps’ mission in Iraq’s Anbar province all but stamped with the seal of success, Commandant Gen. James Conway is again positioning his service to take on a larger role in fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, where about 3,500 Marines have fought throughout much of 2008.

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September 8, 2008

Communication enables Marines to conduct successful Afghanistan operations

HELMAND PROVINCE, CAMP BARBER, Afghanistan — “Eighty ones, we are receiving small arms fire. Request air support!” the radioman shouts.


9/8/2008 By Cpl. James M. Mercure, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines

This life-saving call for fire support wouldn’t happen without the Communications Platoon of Task Force 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, part of Combined Joint Task Force Phoenix.

“We were providing security for a fire support team and they started to get hit with small arms and R.P.G. (rocket propelled grenade) fire,” said Sgt. Dan R. Coon, a TF 2/7 ground sensor operator and Thousand Oaks, Calif., native. “Without comm, we wouldn’t have been able to coordinate an air strike to destroy the Taliban building where the rounds were coming from.”

The Communications Platoon keeps the front lines connected through various means, but the primary source of communicating around the headquarters camp and within areas surrounding the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) is through the use of hand-held radios similar to walkie-talkies.

“By issuing radios to the commanders on down to the squad leaders, the Marines are able to maintain constant contact with higher headquarters and other adjacent teams,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew R. Henry, radio chief and Toledo, Ohio native. “Radios are the main source of communication for the battalion.”

Due to the high operational capacity and different networks used for communication, TF 2/7 communicators have one of the largest and most complex data networks run by a battalion in the Marine Corps. Maintaining communications on such a grand scale is essential to linking the commanders with their Marines, as TF 2/7 continues its mission of conducting counterinsurgency operations with an emphasis on police training and mentoring.

“We maintain five data networks for the Marines and other services to maintain communication throughout this area of responsibility, as opposed to other bases that only have two,” explained Master Sgt. Adam D. Bethard, communications chief and Assumption, Ill., native. “The ‘comm’ we’re dealing with out here is as complex as the communications of an entire division.”

The challenges of producing and monitoring the enormous system has been a daily test for the Marines.

“When we arrived here, we had to build the entire data infrastructure from the ground up,” said Lt. Darrell G. Mounger II, communications officer and McKinney, Texas native. “It’s not like we fell in on an existing system. So it was an incredible challenge to get it up and running. It took 10 Marines about three weeks to get fully operational.”

Afghanistan’s rugged terrain is a major factor when delivering communication to the FOBs austere locations. Luckily, the Marines here have help from above.

“We have the ability to use various forms of communication methods to overcome that obstacle and get ‘comm’ out to even the most remote FOBs,” Mounger said.

The Marines also use a high-tech computer system to help track and troubleshoot friction points when problems occur.

“Bad weather, such as sandstorms, can affect communications. Trucks can also run over land lines, severing them. Luckily, we have a state-of-the-art monitoring system and very proficient Marines to go out to the FOBs and fix any problems that may arise,” said Sgt. Donald O. Critchlow, assistant data chief and Falls Church, Va., native.

Keeping the commanders connected with the Marines at the tip of the fighting spear is simply another day on the job for the communicators who work in shifts, 24 hours a day.

“If communications breaks down you could have problems with medical evacuations, stranded patrols, an inability to coordinate with other units and other problems making the mission next to impossible,” Bethard said. "We know how important it is to keep constant communication. This is why we take our job so seriously.”

2-star sees slow win in Afghanistan

By Robert Burns - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Sep 8, 2008 12:33:38 EDT

WASHINGTON — U.S.-led forces are achieving a “slow win” in Afghanistan, but the less-than-decisive approach must be accelerated soon, a key American commander there said Friday.

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Marines turn Afghan town over to British, Afghans

KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Marines who took back a key town in southern Afghanistan from Taliban militants in an operation earlier this year turned over responsibility for the area to British and Afghan forces on Monday.


By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer
Mon Sep 8, 9:21 AM ET

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is pulling out of Garmser in the southern province of Helmand and beginning to head back to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

The unit launched the operation in the Taliban-held area in late April and killed more than 400 militants during 35 days of fighting, according to Helmand's governor. The Marines suffered three hostile deaths, two from a roadside bomb and one from gunfire.

Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the unit, said his forces had accomplished their goal.

"We are not going to solve all the problems with 2,500 Marines for seven or eight months, but what we can do is eat this elephant one bite at time, and we took a big bite and we did some great things in Garmser, and for the people there it will be a lasting, lasting success," Petronzio said.

The unit's original mission was to clear a road through the Taliban-occupied area so troops could travel south. But the Marines were met with such fierce Taliban resistance that commanders decided to keep them in Garmser for their entire deployment.

U.S. commanders said they believed the militants defended Garmser with such intensity because it is a key transportation route for fighters, weapons and drugs. Garmser was filled with opium poppies this spring when the Marines arrived, but the forces did not touch the illegal crops.

The British military is responsible for Helmand province, but its 7,500 soldiers, along with 2,500 Canadian troops in neighboring Kandahar, haven't had enough manpower to tame Afghanistan's south.

The Marines' mission in the south could be a precursor to future American operations in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, two of the country's most violent regions.

The Garmser operation allowed the Afghan government to move back into Garmser for the first time in years. The relative peace allowed a civic center and a medical clinic to open.

"It's really starting to turn around, to show positive growth," Petronzio said. "I think it's a great success story of what a Marine unit can do, of what the coalition effort can do."

Petronzio said only one Afghan civilian was killed by his forces during the nearly five months his Marines were in Garmser.

September 7, 2008

Marines witnesses change

ANAH, Iraq — A steady change has been happening throughout western al-Anbar province, Iraq. According to Marines with Alpha Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5, it has been a noticeable and welcome change in there area of operations.


9/7/2008 By Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson, Regimental Combat Team 5

“Traditionally, our area was the place known for insurgents to traffic freely to transport weapons, facilitate foreign fighters and smuggle oil pipelines,” said 1st Lt. James R. Armstrong, a platoon commander with Alpha Co. “Since (Alpha Co.) assumed this area of operations, all the traffic has been trucks importing and exporting goods to help Iraq get on it’s feet.”

In the beginning of 2nd LAR Bn.’s deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, they assumed control of a large portion of western al-Anbar province. Alpha Co. has since passed over highway responsibilities to the Iraqi Highway Patrol, allowing the Marines to focus on the open desert. The company has also turned over a part of their battle space to 3rd Battalion, 29th Iraqi Army Brigade.

“We’ve been assisting the IHP with security by using the abilities of the light armored vehicle in the desert,” said Armstrong, 24, from Johnson City, Tenn. “(We) accomplish more that way. They focus on the highways and engage with the people while we focus on less patrolled areas.”

The western al-Anbar province has changed for the better says Marines of Alpha Co. The caches found have lowered, the oil smuggling has decreased and the people have felt safer because of it.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment knowing that (Coalition forces) and the IHP have made a difference for the people. You could physically see it,” said Cpl. Christopher J. Swist, 23, a scout team leader with Alpha Co. from West Melbourne, Fla. “The people welcome you and we’re watching the country change for the better even though it’s a small amount at a time.”

Now that the company has been focusing on the desert, smuggling and other insurgent activity is increasingly being extinguished.

“It’s been nice to see the change in front of your eyes,” said Lance Cpl. Chad Williams, 21, a scout with Alpha Co. from Stanley, N.C.

September 6, 2008

U.S. needs more troops in Afghanistan, commander says

But with Petraeus set to recommend slowing the drawdown in Iraq, more forces are unlikely to be available soon to deal with rising bloodshed.

WASHINGTON -- A top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Friday that he needed thousands of additional troops to combat violence along the border with Pakistan, a requirement that appears to be at odds with recommendations from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus on future troop levels in Iraq.


By Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
September 6, 2008

Because of strains on the military, plans to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan depend on reducing the force in Iraq. Petraeus' plan, which President Bush is expected to approve Tuesday in an appearance at the National Defense University, would slow the reduction of combat troops in Iraq, freeing up only one full Army combat brigade for redeployment to Afghanistan. That move would not happen until early next year.

In addition to the combat brigade of about 3,500 to 4,000 troops, U.S. officials also plan to withdraw about 2,000 non-combat support personnel from Iraq and transfer about 1,300 Marines from Iraq's Anbar province to western Afghanistan.

Some in the Pentagon had been pushing for a faster and larger reduction of combat forces from Iraq and a more aggressive troop buildup in Afghanistan. They preferred withdrawing as many as three combat brigades so that additional forces could be sent to Afghanistan before the end of the year.

Pressure from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan for more troops has become the central point in a public debate among senior U.S. military officers and a source of tension among Pentagon planners, who are at odds over how quickly to shift forces from an increasingly stable Iraq to an increasingly violent Afghanistan.

Army Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, who took command of American-controlled eastern Afghanistan in April, said that coalition forces were at no risk of losing in Afghanistan without additional brigades. But he said that continuing with the current level of about 34,000 U.S. troops for an extended period would result in a "slow win."

"It's not the way that I think the Afghans, the international community and the American people would like to see us conduct this war," Schloesser said in a video conference with reporters at the Pentagon. "It will take longer, the way we are doing it right now. . . . I'd like to speed that up."

Petraeus, reluctant to risk hard-won security gains in Iraq, had wanted to maintain troop levels there at 15 brigades through next June, according to a Pentagon official who described the internal deliberations on condition of anonymity.

But under a compromise with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first brigade to redeploy from Iraq to Afghanistan -- the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 10th Mountain Division -- will deploy in February.

U.S. officials say that insurgents and extremist groups use Pakistan's tribal areas as a base from which to attack foreign forces across the border in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. targets Islamic militants in the tribal areas with airstrikes by unmanned Predator drones, and this week U.S. commandos conducted a raid into Pakistan, angering the government.

Schloesser said that recent Pakistani military action in the lawless tribal regions has begun to stem some of the bloodshed associated with cross-border attacks.

Still, violence overall in eastern Afghanistan is up 20% to 30% in the first eight months of the year compared with last year, he said.

In July, nine Americans were killed in a coordinated insurgent assault on an isolated outpost in northeastern Afghanistan.

"I think they're going to decrease the level of activities just because of the tough winter weather that we normally have here in this part of Afghanistan," Schloesser said.

"But I do believe that the level of significant activities, maybe violence, will be higher than any previous winter since 2002."

Schloesser said he intended to launch a "winter offensive" in the coming months to prevent extremist groups from regrouping when fighting resumes next spring. But an offensive could be difficult without additional forces, he said.

U.S. commanders in eastern Afghanistan have "very low numbers of troops," Schloesser said. They are able to attack enemy positions, but not hold captured territory and begin the rebuilding necessary to win in a counterinsurgency effort.

"We're not losing this war, and we won't lose if those troops don't show up in the next several months," he said. "If we're going to try to do this in a more timely way and be as effective as I want to be . . . then we're going to need them, you know, within the winter time-frame."

A senior military official close to the process said that the Army combat brigade, Marine units and support personnel represent a withdrawal of 7,000 to 8,000 troops from Iraq by February.

"Eight thousand is a pretty significant cut," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the recommendations have not been made public.

But whether those withdrawals will provide adequate help in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the two most troubled regions of the country, remains in question.

The 1,300 Marines -- a battalion and helicopter unit -- would be the only combat troops to shift from Iraq this year. However, a senior military official said the Marines were likely to be sent to western Afghanistan in November, not the more turbulent east or south.

They would replace the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, based in Twenty-Nine Palms. Officials are not planning to replace another Marine contingent in the country's most troubled area, Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.

In sum, the Marine shifts actually represent an overall decline of about 2,000 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan. The arrival there in February of the brigade from the Army's 10th Mountain Division would then amount to a net increase in combat troops.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said his top priority for Afghanistan would be military trainers for Afghan security forces, suggesting a portion of those troops may be assigned to noncombat missions.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush had received the military's recommendation on troop levels during a meeting Wednesday evening with Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who presented Petraeus' plan.

"The question on the president's mind has been: How do we make sure that we cement those gains [in Iraq] and not jeopardize those gains, and be able to continue the process of return on success?" she said.

Lighter body armor issued for Afghanistan

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Sep 6, 2008 7:23:09 EDT

The Corps has introduced a new alternative to the body armor Marines wear in combat.

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September 5, 2008

3d Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment Prepares for Combat at Mojave Viper

TWENTY NINE PALMS, CA — Marines dash across the Mojave Desert as the sun beats down on the range. Squad leaders shout instructions as Marines move through the course, assaulting a defended position, and then listening intently as range instructors provide feedback and give instruction. This is 3d Battalion, 8th Marines – recently arrived at Twenty Nine Palms, California from their home at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, for the Mojave Viper training package.


By LtJg DiPinto, TF 3/8

“Arriving at Twenty Nine Palms was a wakeup,” said Sergeant Hedrick of H & S Company. “Getting 1,000 Marines here from Camp Lejeune took a coordinated effort, but now that we’re here, it’s the real deal.” The Mojave Viper desert training includes multiple live-fire ranges, detainee handling procedures, dealing with IEDs, convoy operations, and much more. First Sergeant Cayer, from H & S Company explained, “We are incredibly excited about the training opportunities out here. The terrain really replicates what we’re likely to see in combat, so this is as good as it gets.”

True to Marine Corps style, the staff of TTECG (Tactical Training Exercise Control Group) at Twenty Nine Palms and the battalion leadership have prepared a training schedule designed to equip the Marines for any eventuality. “We’re taking nothing for granted,” said HM2 Medina, a hospital corpsman assigned to the Battalion Aid Station. “Our focus out here is taking care of Marines and Sailors in the combat environment.”

Despite the intense heat and challenging conditions, it’s clear that the Marines are having fun. PFC Goddard of India Company summed up the sentiment when he exclaimed, “The ranges out here are awesome! Live fire like this isn’t something we can normally do. I’m really looking forward to the DAC (Deliberate Assault Course) and MAC (Mechanized Assault Course) ranges. Some of the terrain is intimidating, but this is the best training we’ve had so far.”

Although almost three weeks remain in the Mojave Viper training, one thing is certain – that 3/8 will be in a combat theater very soon. “I’m not worried about it at all,” said Capt. Krugman of Lima Company. “When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

General: US forces to up Afghan winter ops

By Jason Straziuso - The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Sep 5, 2008 8:37:21 EDT

FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALAGUSH, Afghanistan — American troops in Afghanistan will step up offensive operations this winter because insurgents are increasingly staying in the country to prepare for spring attacks, a U.S. commander told The Associated Press.

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Deadlines Approach for Absentee Voting

SCHINNEN, Netherlands, Sept. 5, 2008 – With the Democratic and Republican national conventions now behind us, the 2008 presidential campaign enters the home stretch as Americans look toward Election Day, Nov. 4.


By Sarah J. Schmidt
Special to American Forces Press Service

Ron Holland (left) of the U.S. Army Garrison Schinnen, Netherlands, Voting Assistance Office, helps Mike Rhodes complete his voter registration card in time to meet absentee voter deadlines. U.S. Army photo by Sarah J. Schmidt
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Americans stationed overseas have just a few more weeks to complete voter registration in time to receive a ballot for the election. Federal Voter Assistance Program officials recommend that overseas personnel register no later than January of an election year, but voters may register up to 45 days before the election.

“That means overseas personnel have until mid-September to register, if they haven’t already,” Ron Holland, the voting assistance officer here, said. “But that’s cutting it really close.”

Holland advised against putting registration off until the deadline draws closer. “Otherwise, there’s no way to guarantee you’ll receive a ballot on time,” he warned.

Once registered, most states also require a voter to request a ballot for the presidential election as a separate transaction, though this usually is done at the same time as filing the initial voter registration form. Additional deadlines for requesting ballots also apply in most states.

California, for example, sets a deadline of Oct. 28 for absentee voters to request ballots for the Nov. 4 election, but the completed ballots must be received in the county registrar’s office by the close of business on Election Day to be counted.

If overseas voters wait until the deadline, then there’s little assurance their ballot will return in the mail by Election Day, Holland pointed out. “This is why it’s better to act sooner, rather than later,” he said.

Most absentee voters who already have registered should receive their absentee ballots in the mail soon, Holland said, as most states begin mailing ballots 30 to 45 days before an election.

Army Capt. Richard Clark, voting assistance officer at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base, noted that Oct. 12 to 18 is Absentee Voter’s Week.

“This is the last ‘safe’ week to send in your absentee ballots in order for them to arrive on time,” he said. “When you receive that ballot, don’t just lay it aside on your desk and forget about it. The clock is ticking. Fill it out, seal it and get it back in the mail so it’ll arrive in your home state in time to be counted.”

Voters who haven’t received their ballot two weeks before the election should contact their installation voting assistance officer, Clark added.

Holland stressed that every vote counts.

“Don’t forget that absentee ballots played a significant role in past elections,” he said. “If you don’t vote, then you’re allowing others to make decisions without any input from you.”

The Federal Voting Assistance Program recently updated its Web site, www.fvap.gov, to provide online voter registration for servicemembers and their families, but all states are not yet participating in this online method. Voting assistance officers at all military installations can tell voters which states allow online registration. Citizens of participating states can register online and receive a ballot, but still must meet all registration deadlines and use regular mail to send in the completed ballot.

To use the free service, go to the FVAP site and look under the column on the right side of the page titled “Quick Links.” Scroll to the bottom of that column and click on "Use our new automated tool to register/request a ballot." You will then be prompted to provide your name and e-mail address.

Once you complete these fields, a user ID and password are sent to the prospective registrant’s e-mail account. The voter then logs in at the same screen and make a registration request. The whole process takes about 10 minutes.

FVAP officials said they are working with the Justice Department to encourage use of these online tools by all states. Voters from states not yet participating must complete the paper version of the registration application and send it via regular mail.

Bush to announce US troop levels in Iraq next week

WASHINGTON - President Bush will announce his decision on future troops levels in Iraq next week and is expected to largely follow the recommendations of military leaders to reduce the number by up to 8,000 by mid-January.


By LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press Writer
Fri Sep 5, 1:15 PM ET

The closely held plan forwarded by top Pentagon advisers calls for keeping 15 combat brigades in Iraq until the end of the year, according to senior defense officials. It would also send a small Marine contingent to Afghanistan in November to replace one of two units slated to head home then.

Bush is scheduled to make remarks Tuesday at the National Defense University in Washington. White House press secretary Dana Perino says he has been talking with his national security team and will be consulting with members of Congress about Iraq.

Under the Pentagon recommendations, one combat brigade — numbering between 3,500 to 4,000 troops — will leave Iraq after the first of the year and will not be replaced. In addition, at least one Marine battalion will leave and not be replaced, as well as a few thousand support forces, defense officials said.

Those forces could include military police officers and other support troops that went to Iraq over the past year to support the large military buildup ordered by Bush in early 2007 to quell the growing violence.

The new plan being reviewed by Bush may disappoint some Congress members and others who expected a larger, faster reduction of troops in Iraq, considering the significant downturn in violence. According to defense officials, violence has plunged by about 80 percent since last year's peak.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, delivered his recommendations to military leaders about two weeks ago. He had initially argued to maintain the current force levels in Iraq — about 146,000 troops, including 15 combat brigades and thousands of support forces — through June, according to defense officials.

Officials discussed details of the plan on condition of anonymity because Bush has not yet made a final decision.

"The question on the president's mind has been, 'How do we make sure that we cement those gains and not jeopardize those gains and be able to continue the process of return on success?'" said Perino.

If Bush adopts the recommendations, it would be left to the next president to execute further troop reductions in Iraq and a greater buildup in Afghanistan. Several more combat brigades are scheduled to leave Iraq during the first half of next year, and decisions must be made on whether or not to replace them.

Commanders have repeatedly asked for more troops in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence.

Bush's term ends in January. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has advocated pulling all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of the new president taking office. GOP nominee John McCain has said he would rely on the advice of U.S. military commanders to determine the timing and pace of troop reductions. Both candidates have said more troops are needed in Afghanistan.

September 4, 2008

Survey: Marines struggling with finances

By Bryan Mitchell - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Sep 4, 2008 9:13:02 EDT

Half of all Marines are struggling with their personal finances, according to a new survey conducted by the Corps’ inspector general’s office, a trend that worries some officials who fear that the jittery economy is further undermining readiness for a force already stressed by steady combat deployments.

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An Act of Defiance

KARMAH, Iraq – In an act of defiance toward al-Qaida in Iraq, Karmah sheikhs and Marines with Task Force 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, recently held their first meeting since a suicide vest attack killed 20 local leaders and key tribal figures and three Marines, June 26, 2008.


Story by 1st Lt. Andrew W. Duncan
Posted on 09.04.2008 at 08:10AM
Regimental Combat Team 1

Lt. Col. Andrew R. Milburn, commanding officer, Task Force 1/3, and key staff of the battalion attended the meeting, Aug. 20, 2008, to offer assistance to the Iraqis and build on the accomplishments of the unit they replaced.

Task Force 1/3 replaced Task Force 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, in late July, beginning a seven-month deployment to the greater Karmah area.

The meeting was a gesture of unity between the Iraqi government and coalition forces, and a sign of defiance against those who still oppose the government of Iraq.

Approximately 50 people were expected to attend the event at the Iraqi army base, but the presence of over 200 forced them to change the venue of the meeting to tents.

“The meeting involved passionate and sometimes heated discussions of security issues in the wake of the attack which had killed close relatives of many in the room,” said Milburn.

The meeting also provided an open forum for Iraqis to voice concerns to the sheikhs and Marines.

Some Iraqis voiced concerns about upcoming Iraqi elections and about relatives who have been detained, but overall the mood of Iraqis was strongly pro-coalition.

“The Marines have been our friends; we know that we can trust them” said the mayor of Karmah, whose predecessor was one of the Iraqis killed in the suicide attack.

Other issues and concerns addressed by the Sheikhs included upcoming nation-wide detainee releases, the impending dissolution of the Sons of Iraq, and concern over an eventual Marine withdrawal.

The meeting, with such a large turnout, showed the Iraqis willingness to form a stable government and work closely with coalition forces despite AQI’s attempts to obstruct their efforts.

September 3, 2008

SC Military Preparing for Hanna

Military installations across the Carolinas are making preparations for tropical weather approaching the Southeast.


Associated Press
Published: September 3, 2008

Marines at Parris Island and soldiers at the Army’s Fort Jackson basic training facility in Columbia are moving their recruit graduation ceremonies up a day because of Tropical Storm Hanna. Several thousand family members are expected to attend the ceremonies.

At the Charleston Air Force Base, the Air Force Ball has been rescheduled from Saturday to Sept. 27.

A Marine spokesman says an installation in Georgia is ready to take Parris Island’s remaining 7,000 recruits.

In North Carolina, nearly 80 F-15E Strike Eagles and three aerial tankers from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, and four C-130 transport planes from Pope Air Force Base are being sent to Ohio to ride out the storm.

September 1, 2008

Fort Lewis Soldiers Get Help Readjusting To Home

FORT LEWIS, Wash. -- Home for at least two months, soldiers with a combat brigade still are in the fight.


September 1, 2008

They've stopped fighting in Iraq and begun grappling with the memories and trauma of their 14-month deployment.

In turn, the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), is arming soldiers and families with information like never before so combat-related stress doesn't destroy relationships or lead to alcoholism or suicide.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has taken a heavy toll on soldiers, many of whom have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three or four times. The Army now requires soldiers to undergo psychological screening before and after a deployment to identify problems, and has hired more counselors to treat them.

The leadership of an infantry battalion took another step. The officers invited a PTSD expert to speak to the soldiers and the families of the entire brigade after its return. Dr. Bridget Cantrell, of Bellingham, has co-written two books on PTSD and other challenges military families face in reuniting after a deployment.

Her presentations to the brigade end Tuesday and offer more than useful information. They convey a strong message that soldiers no longer need to struggle alone. Soldiers often hide their problems so as not to look weak before their unit, according to one study cited by Cantrell.

"We are not in individual foxholes fighting our own fight," Lt. Col. Mark Landes, commander of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said after one of Cantrell's presentations. His senior enlisted soldier read Cantrell's book in Iraq and passed it on to Landes. They were so impressed with her work, they scheduled her visit while they still were deployed.

Landes said now is a critical time for the soldiers. The euphoria and celebration of the reunion has worn off. They might have trouble adjusting to the routine of life at home. Nightmares and flashbacks could surface.

The battalion has encountered some problems within its ranks, he said afterward.

There have been an increase in the number of speeding tickets, marital fights and incidents of misbehavior in the barracks.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur when people experience a traumatic event.

Risking your life or watching someone die in combat can cause the disorder in service members.

They can relive the horrors, isolate themselves from family and friends, or be in a state of hyper-arousal where they can't sleep and are quick to anger.

"Their anxiety level gets so high they think they're going to explode," Cantrell said.

Dealing with those issues isn't the only challenge for reunited families. The deployment has pushed the soldier and his or her spouse beyond their limits. Their assumptions about life and their relationship might change and can create friction, Cantrell said.

These "intimate strangers," as she described them, must reinvent their relationship with open communication and empathy for their partner, she added.

Sara Alvarado, 26, of University Place, knows the feeling. She compared re-establishing the household after the return of her husband, a staff sergeant who has deployed three times, to "full-fledged trains going full speed playing chicken."

She recalled waking her husband from a nap on his first day back home on leave from Iraq while he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. He sprang from the bed and put her in a headlock.

"They didn't talk about it (PTSD) as much back then as they do now," said Alvarado, an Army veteran, "and that was back in '03."

Some soldiers at the presentation grumbled about just how much the Army is talking about the subject, although they said the information is good. One soldier said in passing that it was the fourth briefing he's attended on the topic.

Cantrell, who has a private clinical practice, said she's visited military installations during the past year to talk about PTSD.

"I've seen a real transformation in the last four and a half years ... in the acceptance that this is normal," she said.

Landes said the Army didn't have a solid understanding of the problems at the onset of the war, but that is changing.

"I think we're adding to our knowledge base," he said. "Every time, we're doing it better."

Marines Stay Focused on Afghan Mission

WASHINGTON – U.S. Marines in Afghanistan face daunting challenges in legitimizing the Afghan police and turning them into an effective counter-terrorist force, but perseverance and focus have served them well, a Marine officer said.


September 01, 2008
American Forces Press Service|by SN William Selby

“Probably the biggest challenge has been the size of our area of operations,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. Richard D. Hall, commander of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, said during a call with online journalists and military bloggers. “And to answer how we’ve overcome that challenge, I summed it up in one word: Marines.”

Hall’s unit has responsibility for recruiting, training and mentoring the Afghan National Police and turning them into a credible force that the Afghan populace views as honest and capable.

“We want them to become a more proficient, respectable and legitimate force, which is really an extension of the government on the district level,” Hall said. Significant progress has been made on the training mission, but full recognition by Afghan citizens will take time, he added.

On a more specific level, Hall said, the Marines face difficulties recruiting the right blend of people to keep the force geographically balanced.

“We can’t always have the right amount of recruits out of each district, so we have to recruit from other districts,” Hall said. “When they go through the training and come back, those ANP have an expectation that they are going to go back to the district they came from, and sometimes we cannot do that.”

Fielding an appropriate number of coalition and Afghan forces to counter terrorists across a massive territory remains another challenge, Hall explained.

He added that more forces will be coming to extend security zones, as well as to assume control of other districts, which will restrict the enemy’s movement.

Still, he noted, “The solution isn’t going to be so much the numbers of people that you bring in here. … It is the effect on the people that we have in the context of doing our mission, which is, I call it, turning four into 40.

“The bottom line is, we want to give these people liberty,” he continued. “To create conditions where they can take responsibility of their own affairs and provide for their own future.”

U.S. says 220 Taliban killed in Afghanistan's south

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops killed more than 220 suspected Taliban militants in strikes in southern Afghanistan last week, the U.S. military said on Monday, the biggest insurgent toll reported in recent weeks.


By Sayed Salahuddin
Mon Sep 1, 9:12 AM ET

But several residents and a lawmaker said scores of civilians had died in the operation in the Sangin district of Helmand province, the latest allegation of civilian deaths as fighting intensifies across the nation this summer.

"There is basically no Taliban (killed). The Taliban fire and then escape and then these people (foreign troops) come and bombard. Three hundred people have been killed and wounded," said lawmaker Dad Mohammad Khan, who is also a former provincial intelligence chief.

Several residents rang a Reuters reporter to say that more than 70 civilians were killed in air strikes by foreign forces in Sangin.

U.S. military spokesman Nathan Perry said he was not aware of any civilian deaths.

"The operation is mostly wrapped up. The troops killed more than 220 militants," he said.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst level this year, the bloodiest period since the Taliban's ouster in 2001

On Monday, a suicide bomber hit a convoy of NATO forces in the northern city of Kunduz but caused no major casualties, a provincial official said. One passerby was wounded.

The four-day operation in Helmand was launched after militants attacked a military convoy carrying equipment for a power-supply dam in the Kajaki area.

"Afghan National Security Forces and coalition forces were attacked repeatedly with small arms and heavy-weapons fire during multiple engagements," the U.S. military said in a statement.

"The soldiers responded with small-arms fire, heavy-weapons and close air support, eliminating the militant threats."

There were no military casualties in the fighting in the area between Sangin and Kajaki districts, Perry said.

The Taliban were not immediately available for comment, making it difficult to assess how big a blow the deaths of the 220 fighters would be. In the past they have accused foreign forces of making exaggerated claims.


On Monday, hundreds of protesters blocked a road in Kabul accusing U.S.-led troops of killing three members of a family, including two children, in a raid earlier in the day.

NATO and U.S. military officials could not be reached for comment on the allegation, the latest in a string of incidents that have angered Afghans and caused a split between the Afghan government and foreign troops.

Residents said U.S.-led troops carried out a pre-dawn raid in Hud Kheil area in the eastern quarter of Kabul, killing a man identified by neighbors as Noorullah and two of his sons.

"They threw hand grenades on one house and killed three family members," Sulaiman, a resident, said. Noorullah's wife was wounded, he said.

Local television showed footage of bodies and a damaged house.

"Are these two children al Qaeda?" an angry resident asked as the bodies were taken for burial.

Several U.S. and NATO military bases are located in the area. Three people were taken away by the troops, residents said.

President Hamid Karzai last week ordered a review of foreign troops in Afghanistan after his administration said 96 civilians were killed in a coalition air raid in western Herat.

The U.S. military said it had targeted militants and that an investigation was being carried out.

More than 500 civilians have been killed during operations by foreign and Afghan forces against the militants so far this year, according to the Afghan government and some aid groups.