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April 30, 2009

DoD Defines New GI Bill Transfer Rules

New GI Bill Transfer Rules Give Members More Control

Servicemembers nearing the end of their careers will find it easier than first thought to transfer new Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to their spouse or children, under Department of Defense regulations.


Tom Philpott | April 30, 2009

And servicemembers who elect to transfer GI Bill benefits will be allowed to modify or revoke that decision at any time, thus keeping control of a benefit with an average start value estimated at $75,000 to $90,000.

Bob Clark, assistant director of accession policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, discussed the transferability feature of the new GI Bill in some depth during an April 29 phone interview.

The details should comfort many long-serving careerists – including enlisted members facing high-year tenure rules or officers facing mandatory retirement – who worried about being denied transferability because they might not meet a requirement in law to serve four additional years.

Clark said the four-year requirement will be relaxed, and for some waived entirely, for individuals near to retirement. The regulation on transferability isn't final yet because it hasn't been signed.

"We're awaiting a general counsel opinion on the [need for] publishing them in the Federal Register," Clark said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs administers all veterans' education benefits. Defense officials are only responsible for transferability policy because of the potential impact on recruiting and retention. Officials decided to confirm policy details before they officially are set because VA will begin to accept Post-9/11 GI Bill application on Friday May 1.

Here then are the transferability details, as explained by Clark:

ELIGIBILITY – Only members on active duty or in the Selected Reserve on or after Aug. 1, 2009, can transfer new GI Bill benefits, and only spouse or to children or to any combination thereof. Immediate family status will be confirmed through the Defense Eligibility Enrollment Reporting System.

Unused benefits, up to the full 36 months, can be transferred. "You can give 36 months to one child or one month to 36 children," Clark quipped.

To transfer benefits, members must have served a minimum of six years and commit to serving four more from date benefit transfer is approved. However, exceptions – one permanent and five temporary -- will be allowed to the four-year added service requirement.

PERMANENT EXCEPTION: If a servicemember who already has served at least 10 years is barred by service policy or statute from serving an additional four years, because of high-year tenure rules or mandatory retirement rules, they still will be allowed to transfer GI bill benefits if they agree to serve the maximum amount of time allowed by that policy or law.

TEMPORARY EXCEPTIONS: Defense officials will allow five other waivers to the four-year requirement of additional service for categories of members nearing retirement eligibility or with retirement orders in hand.

These exceptions are to recognize, said Clark, "that we have a senior force out there who, had they had this opportunity many years ago, they probably would have selected transferability for their family members."

Granting these exceptions also help force managers, he said. Without them, the services would see thousands of retirement-eligible servicemembers trying to stay four years longer to qualify for GI Bill transferability. That could have "a very negative impact on our force profiles," Clark said.

"So we said, ‘Let's look at a way that we can phase this group out.' We developed five rules. All will sunset in 2013."

1) Members retirement eligible by Aug. 1, 2009, may transfer GI Bill benefits to an immediate family member and face no additional service requirement. "Retirement eligible" means completion of 20 years of active service or 20 qualifying years of reserve service.

2) Members with approved orders to retire on or after Aug. 1, 2009, but before July 1, 2010, will not have to serve added time to transfer benefits. This is to avoid forcing the services and members to change set retirement dates in the next year or so. Retirements set for after July 1, 2010, officials decided, could be changed with little difficulty.

3) Members who first become retirement eligible on or after Aug. 1, 2009, but before Aug. 1, 2010, will be required to serve one additional year from the date that transfer of GI Bill benefits is approved.

4) Members who become retirement eligible on or after Aug. 1, 2010, but before Aug. 1, 2011, will have to serve two additional years from the date that benefit transfer is approved.

5) Members who become retirement eligible on or after Aug. 1, 2011, but before Aug. 1, 2012, will have to serve three additional years after benefit transfer is approved.

SUSTAINED ELIGIBILITY – After transfer of benefits, spouse eligibility will not be affected by divorce, and children will stay eligible even if they marry. But the member retains ownership of the benefit and can modify or revoke transfer at any time without explanation. Also, the GI Bill benefit cannot be treated by judges as property to be shared in a divorce.

LIMITS ON USE – A spouse can use GI Bill benefits like the member. The monthly living stipend, set to match local Basic Allowance for Housing rate, won't be paid if the member is on active duty. If the member has left active duty, the spouse will be paid the living allowance. Children get the allowance whenever they use GI Bill benefits.

Also, the spouse has 15 years to use benefits after the member leaves service. Children can use only until age 26. They can start using transferred GI Bill benefits after graduating from high school or at age 18.

A spouse can use transferred benefits immediately. A child can't use GI Bill benefits until the member has served at least 10 years.

"We hope to start to accept requests for transfers in June," said Clark. "But the earliest date transfer would be approved is Aug. 1."

Education key to combating H1N1 virus

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — As defense officials monitor the H1N1 flu situation, Marine Corps Base Quantico Operations Division passed around its containment plan for pandemic influenza.


By Yvonne Carlock ,
Marine Corps Base Quantico

According to the assistant chief of staff for operations, Pete Streng, base officials have invested time and resources into preparing for a pandemic, to include hosting or participating in a number of training and planning events over the last couple of years.

“We’re fairly well connected with the right people in the surrounding communities,” said Streng, describing the base’s relationship with county and state offices responsible for monitoring progress of the disease.

“The most important step the base is taking is getting people smart about preventive measures like covering their mouths when sneezing and coughing, staying home when they’re sick, and washing hands,” he stressed.

If there are any confirmed cases of the virus in the local area, Streng said the base would consider implementing social distancing strategies like canceling events or meetings and closing schools.

According to Gary Gerstner, assistant superintendent for Quantico Dependent Schools, information about the schools’ communication plan and measures they can take to reduce the spread will be sent home this week.

Operations Division is taking a measured step by step approach, pushing information to the Crisis Management Team and Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Working Group, as well as to division heads. Streng said this type of information is best passed through the chain of command to ensure the appropriate message is relayed to civilian and military staff members.

“The Mass Notification System is reserved for passing information that requires immediate action,” explained Streng.

Streng said his staff, along with other installations in the area, is continuing to monitor messages and instructions from higher headquarters and taking the necessary precautions to educate and safeguard military and civilian personnel, as well as family members.

A Young Marine’s Dream Job

FIREBASE VIMOTO, Afghanistan — Three stone houses and a cluster of sandbagged bunkers cling to a slope above the Korangal Valley, forming an oval perimeter roughly 75 yards long. The oval is reinforced with timber and ringed with concertina wire


Photos - Embedded at Firebase Vimoto

Published: April 30, 2009

An Afghan flag flutters atop a tower where Afghan soldiers look out, ducking when rifle shots snap by.

This is Firebase Vimoto, named for Pfc. Timothy R. Vimoto, an American soldier killed in the valley two years ago. If all goes according to the Pentagon’s plan, this tiny perimeter — home to an Afghan platoon and two Marine Corps infantrymen — contains the future of Afghanistan. The Obama administration hopes that eventually the Afghan soldiers within will become self-sufficient, allowing the fight against the Taliban to be shifted to local hands.

For now this vulnerable little land claim — in the hostile village of Babeyal and supported by a network of American infantry positions nearby — offers something else: a fine-grained glimpse inside the Afghan war, and the remarkably young men often at the front of it.

There are nearly 30 Afghan soldiers here. Their senior mentor, Cpl. Sean P. Conroy, of Carmel, N.Y., is 25 years old. His assistant, Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Murray, of Fort Myers, Fla., is 21.

On the ground, far from the generals in Kabul and the policy makers in Washington, the hour-by-hour conduct of the war rests in part in the deeds of men this young, who have been given latitude to lead as their training and instincts guide them.

Each day they organize and walk Afghan Army patrols in the valley below, some of the most dangerous acreage in the world. Each night they participate in radio meetings with the American posts along the ridges, exchanging plans and intelligence, and plotting the counterinsurgency effort in the ancient villages below.

In Corporal Conroy’s war, two Marines train Afghans in weapons, tactics, first aid, hygiene and leadership. They keep the firebase supplied with ammunition, water, batteries and food. They defecate in a rusting barrel and urinate in a tube that slopes off a roof and drains into the air. Fly strips surround them. They have no running water; their sleeping bunker stinks of filthy clothes and sweat.

The corporal has tied a flea collar through his belt loops; he needs it like a dog. He served two tours in Iraq. His four-year enlistment ended last month, but he extended for nine months when promised he would be assigned to a combat outpost in Afghanistan.

He hopes to attend college later. For now, he represents a class of Marine and soldier that has quietly populated the ranks since 2003. He enlisted not to pick up job skills or to travel the world at government expense. He enlisted to fight. “We’re the new generation,” he said. “I’ll tell you what — there are a lot of young Marines who’ve seen more combat than all of the guys up top who joined in the ’90s.”

He is supremely cocky, but unpretentious. When he met two journalists from The New York Times he asked what news agency they represented. Hearing the answer, he replied with one extended syllable: “Boooooo.” He prefers a good tabloid, he said.

He does not hide that he likes his life here: the senior man in an isolated post, surrounded by the Taliban, waking to a new patrol every day and drilling what he calls the Alamo Plan, to be executed if the firebase is overrun.

“This is the sweetest deal ever,” he said one evening between firefights. “There is no other place I could get a job like this — not at this rank.”

He woke the next day before 4 a.m. for a patrol. As he slipped into his ammunition vest, he groused that back home, when conversations drift to the war, the infantry too often is misunderstood. “You know what I don’t like about America?” he said, in the chill beneath lingering stars. “If you do what I do, then they think either you should have PTSD or you are some sort of psychopath.” PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder.

He exhaled cigarette smoke. “This is my job,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

The war in Afghanistan defies generalization. Each province, each valley and each village can be its own universe, presenting its own problems and demanding its own solutions.

In large areas of the countryside, the Americans try the softer touch of local engagement: distributing aid, seeking allies and coaching a nascent government to provide services on its own. Corporal Conroy and Lance Corporal Murray drew a different sort of assignment.

Here there is no Afghan government. The valley long ago sank into an old-school fight. Whether and how the contest for the Korangal can be shifted into something different, through negotiations, force or a counterinsurgency campaign, is not clear.

For now, the villages are eerily empty of men between the ages of 15 and 45. They are in the forests and mountains, from where they stage attacks and disrupt efforts at aid and development. They appear openly only on Fridays, when they gather without weapons at mosques, one of which is 150 yards from the firebase. The Afghan soldiers sometimes visit the mosque to pray at the same time, and the two sides eye each other warily, sharing a sacred space in a lull between fights.

The firefights between the insurgents and the Americans vary widely. Some are a few rifle shots or bursts of machine gun fire. Others are intensive ambushes of foot patrols. Many are attacks on American outposts and firebases. Sometimes all the firebases are struck at once.

In all, Corporal Conroy said, in five months here, he and Lance Corporal Murray have been attacked more than 70 times. He said he respected the insurgents’ courage, but was grateful that most of them lacked an essential skill.

“They are experienced and understand the principles of the ambush,” he said. “But they are not very good shots. If these guys knew how to shoot like even the U.S. Army, we would be taking 50 percent casualties on all of our patrols.”

He looked himself over. “Not a scratch yet,” he said. He balled his left hand into a fist and knocked on a sagging plywood table, warding off the jinx.

How effective the American training mission will be is unclear. The corporal said it would be years before the Afghan Army was ready to operate independently full time. But he said he had seen reason for optimism.

The Afghan captain who worked here until early April was overweight, lazy and rarely left the firebase. He used Afghan infantryman as valets. “I expected to come in and find the soldiers dropping grapes in his mouth,” Corporal Conroy said.

“Or fanning him with a palm branch,” said Lance Corporal Murray.

A new Afghan lieutenant rotated in last week. He is neat and lean, and has shown self-discipline and tactical sense. The Marines celebrated his arrival by buying a chestnut-and-white bull.

The Afghan soldiers bound the animal’s legs and flipped it onto its side. A soldier worked a blade across its throat. These Afghan soldiers eat meat once every two or three weeks. Tonight they would feast.

They were palpably happy. “Let Barack Obama come here and kill a cow for us,” one said. The rest laughed.

Corporal Conroy watched until the jokes subsided. War, like politics, is local. He reminded the Afghans that a platoon looked out for itself, and that he was the senior American on hand. “You don’t need Obama here,” he said. “I bought the cow.”

April 29, 2009

2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment's executive officer killed in motorcycle crash

MCAGCC — The executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center was killed Tuesday night, April 28 when the motorcycle he was riding collided with a vehicle in Yucca Valley.


Staff report
Published: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 6:33 PM CDT

Maj. Gregory Lee Helton, 39, an infantry officer from Tulsa, Okla., was riding his motorcycle on Twentynine Palms Highway at Elk Trail at 9:27 p.m. Tuesday when he collided with a vehicle driven by Desiree Dean, 18, of Yucca Valley.

Helton was taken to Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree, where he was pronounced dead. Dean was not injured in the crash.

In response to a query from The Desert Trail, the Combat Center Public Affairs Office released information about Helton’s military career on Wednesday afternoon.

Helton enlisted in the Marine Corps on June 9, 1987, and was commissioned an officer on May 8, 1993.

He deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Desert Storm.

His personal service awards included the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon, the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Marine Corps Recruiting Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, the Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal, the Kuwait Liberation Medal (Kuwait), the Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia), the Southwest Asia Service Medal, and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal.

A vigil of remembrance and funeral mass for Helton will be held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Chapel on base over the weekend.

April 28, 2009

Defense Secretary Gates visits Marines before Afghanistan deployment

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met with Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, April 23, as thousands of them prepare to deploy to Southern Afghanistan.


Cpl. Aaron Rooks
April 28, 2009

The brigade, nicknamed Task Force Leatherneck, will provide about 8,000 Marines and sailors later this spring to bolster the current forces already fighting an on-going insurgency.

Gates had the opportunity to see a few of the Marines and sailors who will soon deploy, speak with them and witness the culmination of some of their training evolutions, which included combat training, medical care and roadside bomb awareness.

After observing a combat exercise conducted at the Military Operations in Urban Terrain facility, where Marines with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, engaged in simulated firefights, Gates spoke to the Marines and wished them good luck on their upcoming deployment.

“What you are doing is important,” Gates said. “We need you over there. You know the mission, you know the challenge.”

Gates was able to witness a portion of the training and events that have transpired in pre-deployment preparation since news of the brigade’s mission came. In just a short amount of time, Marines have conducted training across a wide spectrum, touching on the many topics they could face in Afghanistan.

“If you name it, we’ve done it,” said Staff Sgt. Matthew Benack, an infantryman with Company D, 2nd LAR, who participated in the day’s exercise. “The cultural awareness training, the improvised explosive device training, our concentrations on small unit combat leadership with the culmination of today’s large-scale attack; it’s all equally important.”

Benack explained that the training ties together because the combat training gives Marines the abilities to perform counterinsurgency operations, while the cultural awareness training enables Marines to gain the trust of Afghanistan’s people.

Sgt. Maj. Ernest Hoopii, brigade sergeant major, said the unit’s mission in Afghanistan is to join NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Regional Command (South) to suppress insurgency and further build up Afghan National Security Forces. Hoopii said the end goal will be to transition control to the Afghans so they can continue to prosper.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, brigade commanding general, said, during his March 9 assumption of command ceremony, that his Marines are aware of the challenges in Afghanistan. He said his Marines will spend “a hell of a lot of time and a hell of a lot of effort,” building up Afghan security forces such as soldiers, police and border patrol.

Just as Marines in Iraq’s Anbar province have achieved similar goals, Gates said he’s confident in the Marines’ abilities to bring those same successes to Southern Afghanistan.

Iraqi soldiers and Marine ‘Dragoons’ sweep and clear the deserts of Al Anbar province

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – Sand blows in small funnels across a narrow, deserted Iraqi highway. Minus the roadway itself and distant high-tension wires, there is not a single identifiable feature, only silence and the blowing sand. That is until the silence of the barren, unforgiving desert landscape gives way to the distant hum of vehicle engines.


Lance Cpl. Jason Hernandez
April 28, 2009

The roar of 250-horsepower Detroit 6V53T engines powering two Marine light armored vehicles may have made the sound, but the first vehicles to emerge from the swirling dust and sand were two Iraqi Army tactical vehicles. Within minutes, these Iraqi vehicles are joined by LAVs and a small convoy of other tactical vehicles.

This was no ordinary Sunday drive. Instead, operating under the bright Iraqi sun and a cloudless blue sky, soldiers from the 7th Iraqi Army Division and members of Company D, 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, were busy sweeping and clearing Iraq’s vast western desert.

The mission was the latest undertaken by the 7th IA Division, who are now in the lead of securing their sector of the Al Anbar province. In doing so, and as forces from Multi National Force - West step further back from frontline combat and counterinsurgency duties, the Iraqis are increasingly demonstrating they can secure and safeguard their own country.

Though the Marines of Company D, nicknamed the ‘Dragoons,’ made their presence known during the two-day mission, the entire operation was planned, organized and set in motion by the Iraqis.

“Our role on this [mission] is simply support, nothing more,” yelled 1st Sgt. Larry Buenafe from the turret of his command variant LAV. The senior enlisted Marine from Company D was covered from head to toe in the dust constantly boiling up from the road and ground. “The Iraqis are the ones who got the ball rolling on this one.”

When they weren’t busy clearing roadways, the Iraqi troops searched the open desert and swept through a long-abandoned compound that had once been used by the Saddam Hussein regime. While the searches were underway, other Iraqi soldiers and the Marines stood nearby providing security or chatting and trading military rations for loafs of fresh bread.

The Iraqi Army, a fighting force of seasoned, yet still learning, professionals is seeking to restore order and the rule of law to every corner of Iraq. This operation and its results are but another chapter in a new Iraqi history.

After securing and clearing the former regime compound, the units moved out across the open Iraqi desert. As they moved in an orderly manner across the soft desert sands, Capt. Andrew J. Kressin, the Company D commanding officer, used the featureless landscape to teach an Iraqi Army colonel the fundamentals of map reading.

By the end of the operation, the Iraqi colonel understood how to effectively navigate the near-featureless terrain using a global positioning system and more importantly the age-old map and compass method.

“At The Basic School they teach us everything we need to know to be an infantry officer; then they teach us how to teach someone else,” said Kressin, “so I took the time to teach their commanding officer how to read a map and navigate accordingly.”

For the junior Marines participating in the operation, the experience was a little more personal.
“I think operations like this really give us the opportunity to understand who the guys we’re supporting out here really are,” said Lance Cpl. Dustin A. Wilson, a rifleman with Company D. “It’s funny how no matter how different the parts of the world we come from are, people are still pretty much the same.”

Wrapping up their first day with a road cleared and a compound secured, the Marines and soldiers of the combined force stopped and set up camp in the center of the desert, posted a guard force, and grabbed a few hours of sleep.

Afterward, the Dragoons and IA soldiers pushed on to the next objective of their mission – an abandoned oil-pumping station. Once the building was cleared and determined to be free of insurgent presence, the units packed up and rolled out, heading back to Al Asad Air Base with another successful and incident-free mission under their belts.

Once they reached Al Asad, the Marines stopped to take stock of what they’d accomplished, or for that matter, what they’d witnessed the Iraqis accomplish – three major highway routes cleared, a former regime compound secured and an oil-pumping facility identified for possible future use by the Iraqi people.

Standing beside their LAV-25s, the Dragoons looked at one another and didn’t talk about how they felt about having supported such a mission, what interesting stories they’d have to tell their children some day or even how they felt about being partly responsible for rebuilding a nation. No, looking back at one another, then up at the yellow, dust-filled sky, Lance Cpl. William Sewell said all that needed to be said, “Let’s go grab some chow and get ready for tomorrow.”

April 26, 2009

USS New Orleans Enters Dry Dock

MANAMA, Bahrain – USS New Orleans (LPD 18) entered a dry dock in Bahrain yesterday to continue repair work on the ship’s hull. The Navy signed a firm fixed price contract with Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard “ASRY” Shipyards in Manama, Bahrain to repair New Orleans.


April 26, 2009
From Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs

The repair contract includes planning efforts, material procurement, pre-fabrication and dry dock repair work and is expected to be completed in 10 to 14 days.

The amphibious transport dock was damaged in a collision with USS Hartford (SSN 768) March 20, 2009.

The ship dry docked in ASRY Shipyards Graving dock located in Manama, Bahrain. Two commercial vessels are in the graving dock at the same time as New Orleans, Motor Vessel Virginian and Ensco-97. Virginian is a U.S. flagged munitions ship often contracted by the Military Sealift Command. Ensco-97 is a Liberian flagged oil drilling rig owned by U.S. based Ensco International Incorporated.

While New Orleans will be repaired in Bahrain, U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command engineers determined that Hartford will be repaired in the United States. The submarine recently completed sea trials and is underway, making a surface transit back to her homeport of Groton, Conn.

Prior to the submarine’s departure from Bahrain, Master Chief Machinist Mate (SS) Jon Wells relieved Master Chief Electronics’ Technician (SS) Stefan Prevot as “Chief of the Boat,” the senior enlisted Sailor aboard Hartford. The appointment of Wells, who is assigned as Hartford’s engineering department master chief, is expected to be temporary. A new Chief of the Boat is expected to be named by the time Hartford arrives in Groton.

April 25, 2009

Motorcyclist Killed on I-70 Near Concordia

LAFAYETTE COUNTY, Mo. – A 26-year-old Kansas City man is dead after a one-vehicle crash Friday afternoon in Lafayette County.



Posted by: Victoria Swoboda
Last Update: 4/25 12:51 pm

Paul D. Eaton was killed when his 2006 Suzuki motorcycle crashed on Interstate 70, one mile east of Highway 23.

According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol Online Traffic Crash Report, Eaton was traveling eastbound on I-70 at a high rate of speed. As he was approaching two tractor trailers, he attempted to pass 60-year-old Rodney D. Cline of Formso, Kan., who was driving a 2008 Volvo tractor trailer. Eaton sideswiped the trailer and lost control of his bike, striking another vehicle driven by 56-year-old Hillis S. Oakley of Rickman, Tenn.

Eaton was ejected from his bike when he struck the third vehicle. He was pronounced dead at the scene by a Lafayette County coroner.

Due to the crash, authorities shut down eastbound I-70 near Concordia at around 1:45 p.m. Traffic was reopened a few hours later.

Marine at Twentynine Palms adds to the growing list of military suicides

The photo is still tucked into Paul McShan's wallet. Protected by a plastic sleeve warped and dulled by the 23 years since the picture was taken, the image shows the wrinkly face of his sleeping 5-day-old son, Ricky.

10:00 PM PDT on Saturday, April 25, 2009
The Press-Enterprise

"I was there when he took his first breath," McShan said. "And I was there when he took his last."

Paul, 51, knew that when Ricky joined the Marines there was the risk he might be injured or killed. But when McShan rose to speak at a memorial service for his son April 3, it was because Ricky had become one of the growing number of military personnel who have taken their own lives in recent years.

Marine Corps suicides rose 71 percent from 2003 to 2008, with 41 Marines killing themselves last year, according to the Department of Defense. That's a rate of 19 per 100,000. The Army had an even higher rate of 20.2 per 100,000 in 2008.

Historically, suicide rates in the military have been significantly lower than that of the general population, when the numbers are adjusted to mirror the demographics of the armed forces. But the latest statistics put military suicides at or above that adjusted civilian population rate of 19.5 per 100,000.

The overall civilian suicide rate, before adjusting to match military demographics, is 11 per 100,000.

Camp Pendleton had no suicides in 2003. Last year there were nine among Marines based there. At the Marine Air Ground Combat Training Center in Twentynine Palms, where McShan served, two suicides each in 2003 and 2004 have been followed by a single suicide in each of the past two years. The increase in incidents since the onset of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has spurred discussion and action.

In February, Marine commanders were ordered to hold an additional suicide-prevention training session for all troops sometime during the month of March.

Warning at Memorial

Ricky McShan, who had been deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, had recently re-enlisted. He was scheduled to join a company preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. Busy with the process of leaving Twentynine Palms, he did not attend the suicide-prevention session.

His memorial service at the base chapel reflected the heightened attention suicide is getting among the troops. It was more a warning than a remembrance.

"My sole purpose in being here today is to keep someone else from feeling this pain," McShan told the gathering of Fox Company, in which his son had served. He stood before pews of Marines in camouflage uniforms and told them that standing at his son's bedside in the hospital and watching him die "is the most miserable feeling you can have. Don't let what I feel now happen to your parents."

It was just five days earlier, on March 28, that San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies received an early morning call and found Cpl. Richard McShan lying in the driveway of a Twentynine Palms home with a head wound. He was still breathing. Sheriff officials say McShan shot himself following an argument with his girlfriend. She was inside her home when she heard a gun go off and raced outside to find him on the ground. Sheriff's deputies were on the scene within minutes. McShan was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

He was in transit, when an officer called his father.

Paul McShan was 260 miles from his Colorado Springs home that morning at a worksite in Guernsey, Wyo. He couldn't grasp the idea that his son had been shot.

"They told me it was self-inflicted," he said, "and I said, 'No, that can't be.' "

He couldn't make the news fit with the generally happy young man he knew, the son who was a hunting buddy and who had followed his father, a retired Army staff sergeant, into the military. Paul had spoken with him just three days earlier. There had been no hint, he said, that his son was troubled about anything.

He raced home to inform his wife, Angelika. They caught a plane for Palm Springs out of Denver and by the end of the day were at their son's bedside. Doctors told the couple that Richard had severe brain and skull damage. If removed from the respirator he was on, he would not survive.

"We had talked in the past, and he told us if he could not live on his own, he did not want to live connected to a machine," Paul said. "The hard decision was to obey his wishes."

Marines' Support

On March 31, doctors removed the respirator. The following day, the McShans watched as the boy they had seen grow up playing soccer and baseball, playing trumpet in the school band and working as a cameraman for his high school's television station, drew his final breath.

Marines from Richard's unit were there was well.

"There were Marines with us every day," he said. "They have gone out of their way to support us."

It was in an effort to support them, said McShan, that he felt compelled to address his son's company.

"Help your buddy," he told them. "When he starts to stumble, help him out and you'll help yourself out. Nothing is so bad that you can't talk about it. Speak to someone. Get it off your chest."

Chaplain Russ Hale led the memorial service. He compared the emotional turmoil experienced in life to windstorms. As if on cue, the doors of the chapel rattled from a dust storm rolling off the desert, whistling through the cracks in the doors.

A 17-year veteran of the military, Hale said he has seen increased numbers of Marines needing help with self-destructive thoughts.

"Within the last two months there has been a rise in people that are willing to come and talk," Hale said. In the two weeks prior to McShan's death, he said, eight Marines on the base had expressed suicidal thoughts.

"Of the guys I've talked to that have talked about hurting themselves and have actually acted on it, it hasn't been serious," he said.

Hale and other officials attribute the increasing suicides to the stress brought on by multiple war deployments. A recent Army survey on mental health showed that soldiers who had been deployed to Iraq three or four times had a more than 25 percent chance of showing signs of depression, anxiety or acute stress.

Changing Attitudes

At Camp Pendleton, Navy Cmdr. Chaplain Marc Ticonti, 50, said the rise is noticeable.

"I definitely have seen an increase of people saying, 'I don't know how to cope with this,' " Ticonti said. "I think it's a natural consequence of the changes since 9/11. It makes us proactive in saying, 'What are the outcomes of combat and war?' making sure we don't overlook the fact that people may have these issues. I like the fact that we're at least looking at it."

The increase in deaths has changed attitudes, he said. In the past, suicide prevention briefings were treated as just another box to check off on a to-do list, Ticonti said. Now, it's serious business.

His own briefings on the subject have changed, he said.

He incorporates many more visuals in his presentations, which he believes are more effective in reaching his audience. He also tries to convince the Marines that it is all right to ask for help.

"I've seen society change where it's less of a stigma," Ticonti said. "I think that's true in the Marine Corps and the Navy. There are people who have gone for that help, especially after combat. They're referred to a psychiatrist, and they're on meds, and they've gone on in their career successfully, even with promotions."

But statistics seem to show there is still a long way to go.

A 2008 survey by the American Psychiatric Association showed 75 percent of military personnel feared their chances for promotion would suffer if they asked for help with a mental or emotional problem.

Ticonti said seeking such assistance can't be left solely to the individual.

'Be Bold Enough'

He said he tells his troops, "You need to be bold enough or caring enough to come out and ask the question, or say, 'Hey I'm worried about you.' "

Hale said he's not sure anyone could have helped McShan.

While many suicidal people provide clues that they might harm themselves, Hale said, "With Cpl. McShan, there was none of that. I'd spoken to (him) on the Thursday prior. I had no indication to expect anything like this from him. He seemed happy."

His suicide also happened off base. Of the 91 suicides and attempted suicides reported on the two bases from 2003 to 2008, 59 occurred during liberty or leave, while 26 happened while Marines or sailors were on duty.

Paul McShan said he doesn't expect he will ever understand what drove his son to shoot himself. Richard's time in the Middle East hadn't seemed to be a major impact, he said.

"Everybody changes," he said, recalling his own experience in the first Gulf War. "But there wasn't any drastic difference, no red flags. If I had seen or noticed something, I would have done something.

"The only time I'll get that answer," he said, "is when I'm standing in front of the maker myself."

Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or [email protected]

A New Group of Martial-Arts Instructors Emerge From USS Boxer

USS BOXER, At sea -- From a room blocked off by curtains and boards in the gloomy, lower parts of USS Boxer, came yelling, pounding and the noises of someone beating on barrels. Not one person was allowed in for two hours until the next group's transition into the 'secret room.'


Photo Gallery:

Story by Megan E. Sindelar
Date: 04.08.2009

With a sigh of relief and grim memories of the 'secret room' behind them, 27 students from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit proudly graduated the Marine Corps Martial-Arts Instructors Course aboard USS Boxer, April 8.

The course was 15 training days which included 10 hours of training every day. Course requirements allow no students to miss more than two days. Three instructor trainers' used all the time they could to push the Marines toward their breaking points.

Gunnery Sgt. Juan Ynfante, an instructor trainer and communications security manager with 13th MEU said everyday was harder than the previous; pushing them to and past their limits brought mental stress to the students as well, which is part of combat conditioning.

"Although the course is both physically and mentally challenging, it has gotten me more into a combat mindset," explained Sgt. Gabrielle G. Reynoso of Nampa, Idaho, a student in the course and switching chief with 13th MEU.

Instructor trainers' goal while coaching students is to improve techniques, skills, and endurance. In turn, this improves their mental character and combat mindset.

Students spent 18 to 25 hours in a classroom environment learning how to be an instructor, taking quizzes, and having one-on-one weekly counseling with the instructor trainers. Marines spent the remaining time drenched in sweat during physical conditioning, which weaved Marine Corps Martial-Arts Program skills into multiple squad building exercises.

Physical training was the easy part—the instructor trainers stressed on pushing these Marines to learn control and be able to stay in the fight, said Ynfante, a Mathis, Texas native.

"The hardest part for the Marines is combat cohesion," he said, when speaking on events that occurred in the 'secret room'.

Not one of the Marines gave up after spending two hours expending all their energy as they fought to survive the combat cohesion events—an exclusive rite-of-passage which all instructors-to-be must experience.

Even though combat cohesion was tough, Reynoso said it was her favorite part and brought her squad closer together.

"Marines will take what they've learned in this course and be able to teach their Marines how to effectively use MCMAP as a weapon of last resort," she said.

The 13th MEU and Boxer Amphibious Readiness Group are currently on deployment in support of regional and Maritime Security Operations.

April 24, 2009

3/9 raids Yuma’s ranges

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. — Camp Lejeune’s 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, assisted the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course in the largest air assault exercise since the 1990s here, April 13.


By Cpl. Laura A. Mapes,
Marine Corps Air Station Yuma

Approximately 500 3/9 Marines were airlifted from Auxiliary Airfield 2 in CH-46 Sea Knights, CH-53 Super Stallions and MV-22 Ospreys and dropped off at Landing Zone Crow, a Yuma Proving Ground live-fire range, where they shot stationary targets while securing the landing zone.

This history-making WTI course included the largest ground combat element the air station has ever hosted and proved to be beneficial not only for the pilots, but for the Marines on the ground as well.

Roughly 950 North Carolina-based Marines arrived here March 29 to support the current WTI course and take advantage of Yuma’s unique training opportunities.

“Supporting WTI has been a great opportunity for the battalion,” said Maj. Richard Rosenstein, battalion executive officer. “Having an entire infantry battalion integrated into the WTI command and control architecture provides realistic operational planning and coordination for the MAWTS-1 students and the battalion.”

More than 20 troop-transport aircraft fall under the air assault department of Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1.

“Having a battalion this size here is mutually beneficial,” said Maj. John Lehane, MAWTS-1 ground combat department head. “It is a great opportunity for the student pilots to get a feel for what it is like to move actual Marines.”

The battalion is training for both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they emphasized combat operations in Afghanistan.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom the need for air assaults was limited, but Afghanistan is very conducive for it, said Lehane.

The battalion wanted to best replicate the challenging operating conditions found in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Rosenstein. The Barry M. Goldwater Range, Army Yuma Proving Ground and Camp Billy Machen offer range complexes that provide the most realistic challenges for the battalion.

The terrain and distances between the air station and Yuma Proving Ground replicate the distances battalions operate across in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the same logistical planning and execution, he explained.

The battalion is scheduled to conclude their training in late April with a battalion-sized helicopter-borne assault exercise, twice the size of this exercise.

WTI offers the opportunity for large-scale, helicopter-borne operations, which a battalion would not normally have the opportunity to participate in, said Rosenstein.

“Operating in this realistic environment on complex, unforgiving terrain severely challenges our Marines every day, physically and mentally,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Greenwood, battalion commanding officer. “There is definitely an intangible benefit that our Marines will … possess the confidence to accomplish anything anywhere.”

MAWTS-1 is considering continuing to host entire battalions here for WTI courses in the future.

“There is nothing like having actual passengers who are real infantry Marines, expecting us to do our job and get them where they need to go,” said Maj. Matthew Robbins, MAWTS-1 air assault department head and WTI instructor.

Removing unnecessary gear from Iraq: a crucial step in a responsible drawdown

CAMP AL TAQADDUM, Iraq — Even before Feb. 17, when President Barack Obama announced his strategy for Iraq, the operational tempo for Marines and sailors within the 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) in Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq, was high.


By Gunnery Sgt. Katesha Washington,
2nd Marine Logistics Group

Since the President’s announcement, the tempo at the 2nd MLG (Fwd) has elevated tenfold. While they are in charge of the responsible drawdown of the Marine Corps’ logistical assets in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, they are also still required to support subordinate units who work with Iraqi Forces to stabilize the country.

From the outside looking in, the responsible drawdown of equipment may seem like a simple task to complete. But with more than 53,000 individual pieces of gear in the MLG’s inventory that still need to be processed for turn-in, the enormity of the overall mission can only be accomplished with precise, complex planning by leaders at the top and demanding physical labor by those in charge of carrying out the plan.

The process of drawing down equipment and weapons from subordinate units is a complex one; every single item and its components must be cleaned, inspected, and physically accounted for prior to being transferred to the Marine Corps Logistics Command (Forward), here. MCLC (Fwd) receipts for the equipment and begins its own internal process for retrograde back to Blount Island Command in Jacksonville, Fla. Once the assets reach BIC, they are then forwarded to their respective depot level repair facility. If the equipment meets the requirements of support for Operation Enduring Freedom, however, it is shipped to Afghanistan. The job is not complete for the MCLC team after gear leaves the 60-acre lot – as soon as one unit transfers equipment to the command, another is coming through the gate to drop off more gear.

Master Sgt. Demetrius B. Jones, staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the MCLC (Fwd) Retrograde Lot, said to date, his team of 30 Honeywell contractors have processed more than 58,000 pieces of gear to include air and ground support material, administrative vehicles, electronics, tactical vehicles, weapons. Since December 2008, when Jones first arrived to the lot, developments in the timeline of the responsible drawdown increased the need for more personnel. In mid-March, more contractors were added to the staff to sustain the immense workload. Jones said that many of the employees are retired from the military and therefore understand the importance of teamwork in order to accomplish such a hefty mission.

“These guys work together like a well-oiled machine,” Jones said. “Between receiving the gear and shipping it out, they have been working very hard to reduce the turnaround time [as much as possible.]”

Just as personnel on the ground are working together to accomplish the mission, those crunching numbers are just as deep in the process. Staff Sgt. Dominique Giles, supply chief, 2nd MLG (Fwd) G-4, who is responsible for the overall tracking of equipment belonging to the group, said although most subordinate units are eager to turn in their gear as quickly as possible, when dealing with such a large amount of serialized gear, accuracy outweighs speed.

“Some items take longer than others [to transfer], and it’s best to take care of it all now instead of waiting until it’s time to leave and doing it in a hurried fashion, but our priority is and has been accurate accountability. We want the units to accurately account for their gear and to downsize equipment that isn’t being utilized,” she said.

Giles added that because subordinate units are still conducting daily operations in Al Anbar province, they have been asked to give up only 10 percent of their equipment. If a unit is leaving the area and not being replaced, then they will turn in all of their gear. So far, she said, the process is going very smoothly because of the cooperation from everyone involved.

“Units are excited about turning in their unnecessary gear, so I think as long as the units remain positive and willing to turn in equipment, things will continue to move smoothly.” She thankfully noted.

As MLG (Fwd) and MCLC (Fwd) work toward meeting their own goal of decreasing the footprint of the military in Iraq, they are also working to achieve the President’s target date for the U.S. military to be out of the country. While Iraq is rebuilding itself, the logistics team remains available to provide support to Iraqis and Marines even as they progressively take themselves out of the picture, one truck at a time.

For more information about the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/iimeffwd.


2/9 leaves no man behind, returns from deployment

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Around 300 Marines and sailors from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, returned home, April 22, after a seven month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


By Lance Cpl. Meghan J. Canlas,

During the deployment, the Marines worked closely with Iraqi Security Forces towards the goal of a more self-sufficient Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police.

“It was extremely successful. We were there during the elections and got to see a new government in Ramadi,” explained Lt. Col. Thad Trapp, battalion commander 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines. “We were able to have a (U.S.-Iraq) Status of Forces Agreement and transfer security to the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police.”

This was Trapp’s third deployment to Iraq. He said the deployment held many changes since his previous visit in 2006.

“It was extremely different,” he explained. “It’s proof of the Iraqi Security Forces (success). The police have a (lead) in Ramadi. I’ve seen an increase in commerce and an increase in security.”

Trapp said, with the ISF having the cognitive ability to take the lead over security, his Marines were able to pull back from certain posts as Iraqis took over.

Although the deployment was triumphant, it was hard for families back home to be away from their Marines and sailors.

“It was long, but looking back, it’s amazing how fast it went by,” said Jessica Hardiesty, the wife of Sgt. Matthew Hardiesty, a squad leader with Company F. “This was my second deployment since we’ve been married, but this time, I struggled with a toddler while being pregnant.”

Hardiesty said it was hard for her husband to miss the birthdays and holidays, but can’t wait for them to be a family again.

“I’m totally ecstatic!” she explained. “I’m days away from giving birth and I’m glad he made it home in time.”

Hardiesty said he was happy to be home and was “speechless.”

Every family had a Marine or sailor to wait for, because on top of the battalion’s success, Trapp said the most important thing is, “We brought everyone back that we took with us.”

April 22, 2009

Marine Parents hold annual conference, visit Pendleton

An organization of caring parents visited Camp Pendleton, April 17, as part of a three-day conference.


By Cpl. Daniel Lutz,
Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton

Marine Parents held their fifth annual National Marine Parents Conference in San Diego, April 17 through 19. The conference consisted of a guided Camp Pendleton tour, as well as several guest speakers at the Crown Plaza hotel in San Diego.

The tour aboard Camp Pendleton began with a demonstration of military working dogs. Tim P. Conway and Lance Cpl. Lee G. Bartholomew, dog handlers with Security Battalion, Marine Corps Base, showed the group the discipline and high level of training instilled in the four-legged Marines.

Following the demonstration, the tour stopped at the 13 Area Mess Hall to break bread and share conversation with Marines stationed on base.

The parents had the opportunity to purchase Marine Corps souvenirs from the 22 Area Military Clothing Sales after lunch. Their next stop on the tour was to the School of Infantry-West to learn about essential training all Marines must go through.

While at SOI, the group spoke with several Marines about the different aspects involved in Marine Combat and Advanced Infantry Training.

The forum portion of the conference began Saturday, April 18 with sessions on Mojave Viper training, post traumatic stress disorder and deployments.

Saturday’s events concluded with a colors presentation ceremony and a proclamation from San Diego Mayor, Jerry Sanders, declaring April 18 as Marine Parents’ Day in the city.

Former Marine Capt. Dale A. Dye, film consultant, was the keynote speaker at the conference.

“Over the years that I've been a Marine - in and out of uniform - I've always felt outfits like Marine Parents represent a very important legacy that we can't ignore and need to support,” Dye said. “These support organizations are an extension of our most basic concepts including dedication, honor and loyalty. They reinforce what we learn in boot camp: Every Marine is a brother or sister for life. That's the true meaning of Semper Fidelis.”

Also in attendance was former Marine Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman, author, “From Baghdad with Love,” who participated in a panel discussion on PTSD and an open forum question and answer session.

The conference wrapped up Sunday with former Marine Cpl. Aaron P. Mankin, combat correspondent, who was medically retired in October 2008, speaking to the group about the perspective of a wounded service member and the importance of the extension of the Marine Corps family. Mankin was severely wounded in May 2005 while on deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For more information about Marine Parents, visit their Web site at www.marineparents.com

April 21, 2009

New helmet program focuses on stopping power

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Apr 21, 2009 13:21:01 EDT

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — The Marine Corps and Army are pushing forward with a plan to roll out a new, tougher battlefield helmet, but will keep existing padding inside despite criticism over safety and comfort.

To continue reading:


VA to accept new GI Bill applications May 1

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Tuesday Apr 21, 2009 13:18:52 EDT

Applications for the new Post-9/11 GI Bill will be accepted by the Veterans Affairs Department beginning May 1, according the VA and Defense Department officials.

To continue reading:


April 20, 2009

TBI screens need to get specific, report says

By William H. McMichael - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Apr 20, 2009 5:21:31 EDT

Inexact post-deployment questions about service members’ health are leading to incorrect diagnoses of mild traumatic brain injury, resulting in troops sometimes receiving the wrong medications and inappropriate treatment while other maladies go untreated, two leading Army TBI researchers conclude in a paper published April 16 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

To continue reading:


April 14, 2009

Singer Uses Stage to Bring Attention to Servicemembers’ Sacrifices

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2009 – A former Marine sergeant turned country-music artist is using his newfound fame to urge Americans to do more to support the men and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service

Having toured with major acts, including Toby Keith and Alabama frontman Randy Owen, and landing three of his own songs on the national country music charts, Stephen Cochran says everything he has planned for the next 10 years involves rising to the top of the country music industry. At the same time, he wants to improve the quality of life for severely wounded veterans and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I want to bring attention to that great 1 percent … it takes to stand up and defend a whole country,” he said. “One percent of our population does that, so why can’t the other 99 percent of it take care of them?”

Cochran’s dedication to the livelihood of combat veterans stems from his own personal story of severe injury while serving in Afghanistan.

“Everything that I can do, I believe, I have to go through before I can know what my mission is – like being injured,” said the singer, who was told he’d never walk again in 2004. “I had to be injured to know that our men and women aren’t being taken care of properly.”

Called to Serve

As the son of a songwriter who grew up in America’s “music city” of Nashville, Tenn., Cochran had a country-music career in his sights all his life. He had a bedroom full of instruments as a child – given to him as presents instead of toys – and he made his first radio appearance with his father at age 3, singing the Alabama hit “Dixieland Delight.”

“I don’t think that there’s ever been an aspect of my life that hasn’t been surrounded by music,” he said, “or that I haven’t ever known that’s what I always wanted to do.”

However, shortly into his junior year at Western Kentucky University, everything changed for Cochran. He had just been named captain of Western Kentucky’s lacrosse team and was gearing up for the season when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened. That night, while watching the television coverage in his fraternity house, he made the unexpected decision to join the military.

“Everything was normal, and then it was like a snow globe,” he recalled. “In one day, … I didn’t feel safe anywhere.”

Cochran enlisted in the Marine Corps a week and a half later, walking away from his college education, a promissory record deal, and his then-fiancée, who broke their engagement when he announced his decision.

Enlisting wasn’t a choice he had to make, Cochran said. “It was just something that I was called to do and was made to do,” he explained. “It was … just a strong voice inside me that [said] I had to do this.”

Patriotism always has been driven home hard in his family, Cochran added. His father, both grandfathers, and an uncle served in the military.

“They joined when they needed to, when our country needed them,” he said.

Beating the Odds

Cochran, 19 at the time, reported to boot camp on Feb. 2, 2002, and trained for nine and a half months with the Marine Corps before he was deployed to Kuwait with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion – part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force – to prepare for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Once the unit crossed the threshold into Iraq, it fought to Tikrit and back, completing 111 missions during a year-long deployment. Enemy contact was frequent, Cochran said, but the unit brought every man home.

“That was something we prided ourselves on,” he said. “We brought our whole family home.”

Confident after Iraq, the unit immediately volunteered to join the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit for a special operations push in Afghanistan. The unit deployed just four months after returning from Iraq. The decision to redeploy so soon was “something we would all regret later on,” Cochran said.

The unit arrived to find a much more hostile environment in Afghanistan, and firefights with the enemy were a daily occurrence. It was no longer a matter of if the unit would get ambushed, Cochran explained, it was when.

“We started losing guys,” he said.

The anticipated ambush happened July 14, 2004, eight months into his deployment. Cochran, serving as a reconnaissance scout, was on a routine security mission 20 miles inside Kandahar when his unit’s light armored vehicle struck an antitank mine. The explosion threw Cochran off the back of the vehicle 125 feet, breaking five vertebrae in his lower back.

The medics lost his pulse twice during resuscitation, declaring him dead both times.

Cochran has no memory of the incident. When shown photos from the scene, he said, he recognizes himself, but it doesn’t feel like he was actually in the picture.

“That’s just a real weird feeling that you really don’t know how to deal with,” he said.

Cochran woke up a month later in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and was told that he was paralyzed from the waist down and would most likely never walk again.

To make matters worse, the record label he had a promissory deal with dropped him, not wanting to invest in a paraplegic. The woman he had been engaged to cut all ties with him, and the Marine Corps retired him.

“It was a bad week; it was a bad week,” Cochran said. “Everything that I’d worked for in my past, present, [and] future was gone in one week.”

However, nine months into his recovery at Bethesda, another option arose.

Doctors at Vanderbilt Medical Center in his hometown of Nashville proposed trying a surgery called a kyphoplasty to mend the broken vertebrae in Cochran’s spine. Kyphoplasties usually are reserved for older patients suffering from degenerative discs. However it’s possible to use the procedure to restore feeling in the lower body for spinal-injury victims.

Cochran traveled to Vanderbilt for the surgery. Four days after an orthopedic surgeon applied almost 4 pounds of cement to fix the crushed vertebrae in his back, Cochran had the first feeling in his legs.

It was a tingling feeling, like feet falling asleep, Cochran recalled. “It was the best feeling in the world, because it was the first thing that I had felt in nine months,” he said.

Six months of intense physical therapy had him walking with a walker, and a year and a half later, he was in a recording studio working on his first album with only a brace to support his back.

Adapt and Overcome

Today, Cochran’s dream of becoming a professional country-music artist has come full circle. He signed a record deal with Aria Records and released his self-titled debut album in 2007.

“Two and a half years after they told me I’d never walk, I signed a record deal,” he said.

Between tour dates, Cochran has been back in the studio, recording and helping to produce his second album, which comes out later this year. The first single from the new album, “Wal-Mart Flowers,” will be released for play on country radio stations across the United States this month.

Cochran said he believes the second album really shows how he’s grown into being a country artist, compared to the first album, which was recorded and released quickly after his recovery.

“I feel like [the first album] was a Marine that sings country music,” he said, “and I feel like now, on the sophomore album, I’m getting to show a country artist that’s a Marine.”

Cochran’s back injury still causes him pain occasionally, but he said it doesn’t stop him from doing everything he did before the incident.

Perhaps of greater everyday impact is the loss of the tip of the ring finger on his left hand – the hand he uses to form chords on the neck of the guitar. For dealing with that obstacle, Cochran lightheartedly cited a Marine Corps saying, “Adapt and overcome.” He said it might take him a little longer to learn a new song now, but he’ll sit down with the guitar and try playing it different ways until it sounds right.

Changing Up the Attack

Around the same time Cochran signed with Aria Records, a Marine major he had served with called to tell him his options as a retired servicemember. When Cochran informed him that he’d just signed a record deal, his friend immediately changed the subject to his ideas for a group focused on bettering the livelihoods of servicemembers returning from combat, especially those suffering severe injuries and PTSD.

Together, they founded a nonprofit group called the Independence Fund. Their goal, Cochran explained, was to create an organization that covers servicemembers from the time they enlist or are commissioned to “the time that we put you in the ground.”

“I’m very proud of where we’ve taken [the fund],” Cochran said, “from just being two guys’ ideas, to now being a full-fledged foundation that’s doing a lot of great work.”

Last year, the Independence Fund gave away 19 robotic wheelchairs at $30,000 apiece to severely wounded veterans. The wheelchairs use Segway technology to raise users up to a 6-foot, 3 inch height and can climb stairs.

Cochran maintains that these wheelchairs are the equipment he’s seen for a paraplegic or quadriplegic.

“I remember one of the worst things when I was in a wheelchair was that I constantly had to look up to everybody,” he said. “I went from being this Marine sergeant to the next day that I couldn’t look anybody in the eye when I wanted to talk to them.”

The Independence Fund recently joined the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, which hosts a variety of programs to help wounded and disabled veterans live the fullest lives possible – such as reconstructing homes, providing financial aid and building support networks. Cochran sits on the board of this larger organization.

Cochran is focused on finding ways to improve support for servicemembers with PTSD, which he has suffered from himself. “The paranoia [is] the worst,” he said. “You think everybody is against you. That’s something we need to figure out before the greatest causalities of this war don’t come at the hands of our enemy, but the come at the hands of PTSD.”

Multiple deployments aren’t making the task any easier for today’s servicemembers, he noted. “Nothing has ever been asked of our fighting men and women like has been asked of this generation,” he said. “It’s five, six times they’re going overseas.”

In addition to his charity work, Cochran has returned to Kuwait to perform for servicemembers preparing for the fight in Iraq – men and women he said he sometimes feels more at home with than his own family. He also is still in touch with the Marines he served with in Afghanistan who made it back.

“I don’t believe that I was done fighting when I was taken out of the war,” Cochran said, again employing a Marine Corps principle to make his point. “I just had to ‘change up the way that I was attacking,’” he said. The way that I attack now is with going out here and trying to get as many benefits [and] organizations working for the men and women that are coming back home. Then, they know that they have one Marine in the United States that’s going to do everything every day that he can do to make sure that … his or her life is a better quality.

“I think that I can win every award in country music,” he continued, “and still one of the greatest things that I’ve ever accomplished in my life was being handed a new eagle, globe and anchor and being told ‘Welcome aboard, United States Marine.’”

(This is the seventh installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Kristen Noel works for the Defense Media Activity’s Emerging Media directorate.)

Wolfpack takes control of Ninewa Province from Highlanders

First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, relinquished its operational responsibilities in Iraq’s Ninewa province, Iraq to 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, April 7, 2009. Operating from a remote airfield near the Sinjar Mountains, the Marines of 1st LAR Bn. spent the majority of their seven-month deployment interdicting smuggling and conducting reconnaissance in the open desert terrain.


Story by Sgt. Dean Davis and Staff Sgt. Ryan Smith
Regimental Combat Team 8

“As the first sizable ground combat element in this area, we were able to assist the Iraqi Security Forces by slowing and restricting the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons coming into Mosul,” said Lt. Col. Scott D. Leonard, commanding officer of 1st LAR Bn. “We coordinated our efforts by, with and through the ISF, allowing them to take the lead in security operations in Ninewa Province.”

The Highlanders of 1st LAR spent much of their time in Ninewa living out of their vehicles and staying “outside the wire” for as many as 75 days at a time, returning to Sinjar Airfield for only a few days to rest, shower and refit.

“We are a stronger, more capable warfighting team because of the efforts of 1st LAR,” said Lt. Col. Kenneth R. Kassner, commanding officer of 3rd LAR Bn. “It’s exciting to be back to continue the war effort and the many successes the Marines have had in [Operation Iraqi Freedom].”

Now, as 1st LAR Bn. prepares to return to Camp Pendleton, Calif., the Marines and sailors of 3rd LAR Bn. will take over in an area spanning hundreds of miles of desert and mountains.

“The Wolf Pack now stands ready to continue the distinguished accomplishments of the entire LAR community in combat,” said Kassner.

As the Iraqi Security Forces continue to take control of Ninewa province, they will have the continued support from a light armored reconnaissance battalion ready to go anywhere and do whatever it takes to provide peace and security for the Iraqi people.

For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/iimeffwd.

April 13, 2009

Congressmen push for a 'Department of the Navy and Marine Corps'

The Marine Corps is a military service branch within the Department of the Navy and since November 10, 1775, its warriors have fought at the tip of America’s military spear. Still, some believe that as a branch within the Navy department, the Marine Corps doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.


Pfc. Nicholas J. Neighbors,
Headquarters Marine Corps

Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina hopes to change that with Congressional Bill H.R. 24, which proposes to change the title of the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.

“It’s three words. It’s symbolic, but I think it’s important,” said Jones who has been trying to push this bill since Dec. 13, 2001.

In the short time since the current bill was reintroduced Jan. 6, it currently has 200 cosponsors, which is more than this bill has ever had in its previous attempts in Congress, said George Mulvaney, a former Marine and Korean War veteran.

The process a bill goes through to become a law starts at the House of Representatives. If the House votes “yes” to the bill becoming a law, then it is sent to the Senate where the same process occurs. If both the House and Senate agree, then the bill is sent to the president and he makes the final decision on whether or not it becomes law.

In order to speed up the lawmaking process, Jones enlisted the help of Senator, and former Marine, Pat Roberts of Kansas. Roberts introduced an identical bill, S. 504, into the Senate. This is known as a companion bill, and it speeds up the process by allowing the bill to travel through the House and Senate at the same time, Mulvaney said

In the eight years that H.R. 24 has been circulating, it has garnered a lot of support from both the military and civilians. Among the supporters are former Commandants of the Marine Corps Gen. Charles Krulak and Gen. Carl Mundy and former Secretaries of the Navy Paul Nitz and John Dalton.

Krulak cited the bill as a logical evolution in a series of legislation designed to clarify the role of the United States Marine Corps. He said he supports both its “spirit and intent.”

The National Security Act of 1947 defined the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Force as four separate services with their own individual missions. Furthermore, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 stated that each service branch commander serves equally on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, even though there are four chiefs of staff, there are still only three Departments, Mulvaney said.

If passed, the day-to-day life of Marines won’t change. The only thing that will change is the Marines will finally get the recognition they deserve, Jones said.

All bills start as an idea, and most never make it past that stage, he added. With a strong following and a lot of supporters, H.R. 24 becoming a law is starting to look more like a reality.

If Jones has his way, his eight year crusade will succeed with this Congress, and the Department of the Navy will be known as the Department of the Navy and Marine Corps. If not, he said there’s always next Congress.

April 12, 2009

Maersk-Alabama Captain Rescued

MANAMA, Bahrain - At approximately 7:19 p.m (12:19 p.m. EDT) U.S. naval forces rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, the master of Motor Vessel Maersk-Alabama.


From Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/5th Fleet Public Affairs
April 12, 2009

“This was an incredible team effort, and I am extremely proud of the tireless efforts of all the men and women who made this rescue possible” said Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. “The actions of Capt. Phillips and the civilian mariners of Maersk-Alabama were heroic. They fought back to regain control of their ship, and Capt. Phillips selflessly put his life in the hands of these armed criminals in order to protect his crew.”

Following the rescue, Phillips was initially taken aboard the Norfolk, Va. based guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96). Phillips was subsequently flown to the San Diego based amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), where he contacted his family, received a routine medical evaluation, and is resting comfortably.

U.S. military forces have one pirate in custody, three were killed in the rescue.

A Pentagon press briefing with Navy Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, is planned for later today. The Admiral will provide additional details regarding the rescue operation from his headquarters in Bahrain via satellite.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs will post details regarding the briefing time at http://www.defenselink.mil/advisories/

SEALs free U.S. hostage, kill 3 pirates

By Lara Jakes and Elizabeth A. Kennedy - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Apr 12, 2009 17:17:59 EDT

MOMBASA, Kenya — U.S. Navy snipers opened fire and killed three pirates holding an American captain at gunpoint, delivering the skipper unharmed and ending a five-day high-seas hostage drama on Easter Sunday.

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Boxer sailing toward area of pirate standoff

By Anne Gearan - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Apr 12, 2009 14:23:24 EDT

WASHINGTON — The Navy is moving an amphibious ship closer to the scene of the pirate hostage standoff off Somalia.

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April 10, 2009

Marine depot’s mascot gets promotion

By Patrick Donohue - The Beaufort Gazette via The Associated Press
Posted : Friday Apr 10, 2009 15:56:03 EDT

BEAUFORT, S.C. — There were smiles, a smattering of applause and more than a few laughs when Archibald Hummer was called before Col. Gregory Douquet to become the Marine Corps’ newest corporal during a recent ceremony at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

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‘Thundering Third’ prepares to tame Viper

Marines and sailors of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment prepared for their Mojave Viper pre-deployment exercise training their small unit to company level combat skills from April 6 - 10.
The purpose of the training is to gain proficiency from the individual Marine to eventually the battalion level, through refresher and small-unit training, said Maj. Rigoberto Colon, the battalion operations officer and a native of New York.


4/10/2009 By Lance Cpl. M. C. Nerl,
Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command 29 Palms

“This is part of the battalion’s building block approach to training,” Colon said. “Our approach is to start at the lowest level; the individual Marine. Then we build up through our training and refreshing tactics all the way to the company level out here.”

The next step in preparation for the battalion’s upcoming deployment will be operating at battalion strength, their largest level during Mojave Viper.

“Right now we’re only moving up to the company level,” he said Tuesday, before the bulk of the training began. “We’re certifying all of our Marines at the platoon level right now. Later in the week we’re going to be operating with whole companies doing live-fire ranges.”

Colon said the rifle platoons and eventually companies would be performing patrols as well as assault courses during the day and night in addition to the battalion’s other elements using their weapons as well.

“In addition to our rifle platoons doing their normal job, we have every element of the battalion out here for the exercise doing their own thing,” he said. “We have our CAT [Combined Anti-Tank] teams out here doing hunter-killer missions.

“In addition to that we have our snipers doing patrols and unknown distance shoots,” he said. “We’re setting up defensive positions later in the week as well. We’re doing gun line drills as well and unilluminated night movements with our Marines.”

Navy Corpsmen, who were part of the exercise along with their Marines, took a lot from the training.

“Docs go along with the Marines all the time,” said Seaman Sskief Ahmed, a corpsman with 3/4’s Company L, and a native of Tampa, Fla. “Doing this training helps us be closer with the unit and helps us understand the green side more.

“It’s good for me to know what I’m doing on a patrol,” he said. “I know my job well on the medical side, so this is just making what I’ll be doing in country that much easier.”

With their buildup to Mojave Viper over with, the battalion is slated to deploy during the summer later this year.

Pirates Demand Ransom After U.S. Ship Captain Tries to Escape

A Somali negotiator said Friday pirates holding American ship captain Richard Phillips hostage want a $2 million ransom and are ready to kill Phillips if attacked.


Friday, April 10, 2009

The Navy is moving a huge amphibious ship closer to the scene of the standoff. Defense officials say the USS Boxer, the flag ship for a multination anti-piracy task force, will be nearby soon.

The ransom announcement by the unidentified Somali, who helped negotiate a ransom paid last year to pirates who seized a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks, comes the same day Phillips was recaptured after he made an escape attempt from the life boat where he is being held hostage.

The negotiator said he has spoken with a pirate leader on the ground in Somalia who is coordinating action on the lifeboat adrift in the Indian Ocean. He says the plan is to get the hostage to shore to negotiate from a better position.

Sometime overnight, captain Phillips got away for a short period, and jumped off the lifeboat in an attempt to swim away, probably managing to escape through the lifeboat's backdoor. The drama was witnessed at some distance by the U.S. Navy, but it reportedly happened so quickly they could not provide assistance.

Defense officials said that one of the pirates fired an automatic weapon when Phillips tried to swim to safet, but it was not clear whether the pirate fired at the fleeing hostage, or into the air.

Also on Friday officials said other pirates sought to reinforce their colleagues by sailing hijacked ships with other captives aboard to the scene of the standoff.

The U.S. also was bolstering its force by dispatching other warships to the site off the Horn of Africa, where a U.S. destroyer shadowed the drifting lifeboat carrying Phillips.

The pirates on the lifeboat apparently fear being shot or arrested if they hand over Phillips — who was taken hostage in their failed effort to hijack the cargo ship Maersk Alabama on Wednesday — and they hope to link up with their colleagues who are using Russian, German, Filipino and other hostages captured in recent days as human shields.

Shipping company Maersk said Thursday, prior to the escape attempt, that Phillips had a radio and contacted the Navy and the crew of the Alabama to say was unharmed.

But the pirate gang said they won't back down from signs of U.S. pressure. One of the pirates told Reuters Friday they would fight if attacked by the U.S. naval forces near them.

"We are safe and we are not afraid of the Americans," the pirates told Reuters by satellite phone. "We will defend ourselves if attacked."

The pirate was speaking on behalf of the four men holding Capt. Richard Phillips hostage.

The U.S. brought in FBI hostage negotiators Thursday to work with the military in trying to secure the release of Phillips. An official said the bandits were in talks with the Navy about resolving the standoff peacefully.

The freighter that was the target of the pirates steamed away Thursday from the lifeboat under armed U.S. Navy guard, with all of its crew safe — except for the captive captain.

The pirates tried to hijack the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on Wednesday, but Phillips thwarted the takeover by telling his crew of about 20 to lock themselves in a room, the crew told stateside relatives.

The crew later overpowered some of the pirates, but Phillips, 53, surrendered himself to the bandits to safeguard his men, and four of the Somalis fled with him to an enclosed lifeboat, the relatives said.

Phillips contacted the Navy and the crew of the Alabama to say he is unharmed, the Maersk shipping company said in a statement, adding that the lifeboat is within sight of the USS Bainbridge, the naval destroyer that arrived on the scene earlier Thursday.

The Alabama began sailing toward the Kenyan port of Mombassa — its original destination — and was expected to arrive Saturday night, said Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy whose son, Shane Murphy, is second in command of the vessel. The elder Murphy said he was briefed by the shipping company.

A U.S. official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, said a Navy team of armed guards was aboard the Alabama.

The Bainbridge had arrived earlier Thursday near the Alabama and the lifeboat. Maersk shipping company spokesman Kevin Speers told AP Radio the lifeboat was out of fuel and "dead in the water."

The U.S. Navy sent up P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft and had video of the scene.

Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said more ships would be sent to the area because "we want to ensure that we have all the capability that might be needed over the course of the coming days." U.S. officials said the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton was among the ships en route.

The additional ships will serve as a show of force following an increase in the number of attacks and the first one on a U.S.-flagged ship. The vessels would give the U.S. military more eyes on the threatened area and make the pirates think twice before trying to seize another ship, but it was not enough to mount a blockade, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss operational matters.

"These people are nothing more than criminals and we are bringing to bear a number of our assets, including naval and FBI, in order to resolve the hostage situation and bring the pirates to justice," said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

President Barack Obama was getting regular updates on the situation, said spokesman Robert Gibbs. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the United States will take whatever steps are needed to protect U.S. shipping interests against pirates.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko described the bureau's hostage negotiating team as "fully engaged" with the military on ways to retrieve Phillips.

The pirates were holding talks with the Navy about a peaceful resolution, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Mohamed Samaw, a resident of the pirate stronghold in Eyl, Somalia, who claims to have a "share" in a British-owned ship hijacked Monday, said four foreign ships held by pirates are heading toward the lifeboat. A total of 54 hostages are on two of the ships — citizens of China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines, Tuvalu, Indonesia and Taiwan.

"The pirates have summoned assistance — skiffs and mother ships are heading towards the area from the coast," said a Nairobi-based diplomat, who spoke on condition on anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. "We knew they were gathering yesterday."

Samaw said two ships left Eyl on Wednesday. A third sailed from Haradhere, another pirate base in Somalia, and the fourth one was a Taiwanese fishing vessel seized Monday that was already only 30 miles from the lifeboat.

He said the ships include the German cargo ship Hansa Stavanger, seized earlier this month. The ship's crew of 24 is made up of five Germans, three Russians, two Ukrainians, two Filipinos and 12 from Tuvalu.

Another man identified as a pirate by three different residents of Haradhere also said the captured German ship had been sent.

"They had asked us for reinforcement, and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding a German cargo ship," said the pirate who asked that only his first name, Badow, be used to protect him from reprisals.

"We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him," Badow said.

"All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with the captain, and then (negotiate) ransom later," he added.

At Phillips' home in Underhill, Vt., family members nervously awaited word on his fate. Sister-in-law Lea Coggio said Thursday a representative of Maersk called to let Phillips' wife know that food and water had been delivered to the lifeboat.

"I think he's coping, knowing Richard," she said. "He's a smart guy, and he's in control. "

Most of the lifeboats are about 28 feet long and carry water and food for 34 people for 10 days, said Joseph Murphy.

The lifeboats are covered and Murphy, speaking after a briefing by the shipping company, said he suspects the pirates have closed the ports to avoid sniper fire.

Steve Romano, a retired head of the FBI hostage negotiation team, said he doesn't recall the FBI ever negotiating with pirates before, but he said this situation is similar to other standoffs. Although pirates release the vast majority of their hostages unharmed, the difficulty will be negotiating with people who clearly have no way out, he said.

"There's always a potential for tragedy here, and when people feel their options are limited, they sometimes react in more unpredictable and violent ways," Romano said.

McKiernan, Afghans in Pre-surge Talks

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The top U.S. general in Afghanistan reached out to influential Afghan tribesmen in regions where U.S. troops will soon deploy, apologizing for past mistakes and saying he is now studying the Quran, the Muslim holy book.


April 10, 2009
Associated Press

Gen. David McKiernan met with villagers in Helmand and Kandahar - two of Afghanistan's most violent provinces - in an attempt to foster good will ahead of the U.S. troop surge that will send 21,000 more forces here this summer to stem an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency.

McKiernan said he wanted to show respect to tribal elders by traveling to Kandahar on Wednesday to explain some of the mistakes U.S. forces have made in the past - such as arresting people based on information taken from one side in a tribal fight, or killing civilians during operations.

"I'm trying to connect to the local population in a bottom-up way and try to explain what the new U.S. strategy means and why they're going to see an increased force presence where they live," McKiernan said during the trip to Kandahar aboard the seven passenger jet he flies in.

McKiernan for the first time disclosed precise locations where the combat troops arriving this summer will deploy. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, expected to arrive in May or June, will deploy in eastern Farah province and from Lashkar Gah - the capital of Helmand province, the world's largest opium producing region - south toward Garmser.

An Army Stryker brigade from Fort Lewis in Washington state expected in July and August will deploy in Kandahar province, in the eastern districts around Spin Boldak and northern regions around Arghandab, Khakrez and Shah Wali Kot, he said.

Some 250 tribesmen traveled to a sparkling new Afghan army base just outside the main NATO base in Kandahar for two separates sessions with the four-star general on Wednesday.

McKiernan explained to elders from Spin Boldak how the U.S. is training the Afghan army and police so that U.S. troops can one day leave, apologized for past mistakes committed by U.S. soldiers and said the Iraq war had diverted resources from Afghanistan that were needed to fight the Taliban.

"Until (militant) safe havens are eliminated across the border in Pakistan, there cannot be peace in Afghanistan," he said, generating enthusiastic applause from the elders.

U.S. and Afghan officials say that Taliban militants use lawless areas in northwest Pakistan as safehavens to train, arm and rest. Insurgents then travel back over the Afghan-Pakistan border to launch attacks.

Afterward, several Afghan elders spoke. One picked up on McKiernan's Pakistan message.

"When you come here and the Taliban is pushed out, why doesn't the violence stop? Destroy their safe havens," the Afghan said.

McKiernan told the Afghans that President Barack Obama's new strategy is to combat instability in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region as a whole. He said that in the future, Afghan forces will enter villagers' homes if necessary, a pledge that brought another round of applause. He then said he was studying the Muslim holy book.

"I'm reading a very good book now about this part of the world. It's written in English, but it's all about you - it's the Quran," McKiernan said to applause. Moments later an Afghan man stood up and gave McKiernan a bright purple, red and green cloth in which to wrap the translated version of holy book.

Government leaders from Kandahar province were not invited to the meeting. McKiernan said he wanted to talk straight to the tribal leaders in the hope their words weren't influenced by the presence of possibly corrupt government officials. Government leaders were invited to a similar session in Helmand last week.

During a second session with Afghans from Arghandab, Khakrez and Shah Wali Kot, which has seen more violence than the Spin Boldak region, McKiernan faced a tougher audience.

No one applauded during his speech. Afterward, Haji Saran Wal praised McKiernan for admitting past U.S. mistakes and for saying the Iraq war depleted resources. Then he asked McKiernan to prohibit house searches by U.S. forces.

Back in Kabul, while driving to NATO's headquarters, McKiernan called the day "pretty positive."

"I think it was a good give-and-take session," he said.

April 9, 2009

Marines prep for possible second surge to Afghanistan

President Barack Obama is spending this holiday weekend weighing what to do in Afghanistan, the rugged Asian nation where the war against the hard-line Taliban and al-Qaida has raged for nearly a decade.


MARK WALKER - | Posted: Friday, September 4, 2009 11:55 pm

Taming factions in the landlocked country, which is said to have harbored the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, has proven as difficult for the U.S. and its NATO allies as it did for the Russians, who withdrew in 1989 after their own 10 years of war.

Now, the president must decide whether to stay, a commitment that could require billions more dollars and thousands more troops, including U.S. Marines and sailors stationed at Camp Pendleton and Miramar.

Whatever he decides after evaluating a report prepared by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the risk is great.

The Taliban appear stronger than ever, the U.S. body count continues to climb and the government in Kabul has little influence over great swaths of the country.

The voices calling for withdrawal say any emerging terror camps can be wiped out by missiles and bombs delivered from the safety of the skies.

Proponents of staying the course say more troops are necessary to crush the Taliban and weaken al-Qaida so it does not threaten to overrun Pakistan and gain access to that country's nuclear arsenal.

No choice

Two people who closely follow developments in Afghanistan say Obama has little option but to send more troops, as McChrystal is expected to seek.

"If he doesn't, and there's another attack on the U.S. or West by al-Qaida, Obama will be blamed for not having prevented it," said John Pike of the military monitoring firm GlobalSecurity.org. "The argument will be ... if only McChrystal had been given more troops when he asked for them."

Obama spent part of the last week reviewing McChrystal's assessment of Afghanistan. McChrystal apparently did not provide a lot of optimism in the report, which has not been made public.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious," the general said when his report was delivered. McChrystal called for a "revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort."

Pike said part of that revision needs to take into account the harsh realities of Afghanistan, a country of 28 million people that is one of the poorest in the world, with little electricity and few paved roads, and where generational allegiance to clan and tribe supersede loyalty to any government.

"We have to have policies that are aligned with the realities of Afghanistan," Pike said. "The notion that we are going to be able to increase trust in the central government is insane.

"This is a war that will be won only by building a really big Afghan army and killing the enemy."

Many analysts agree that the root of the problems now confronting the military was the Bush administration's complacency toward Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001. The invasion and resulting insurgent war in Iraq from 2003 on gobbled up vast quantities of U.S. troops, materials and money.

"We're in a worse position today to defeat the Taliban than we were in the beginning," said Jonathan Morgenstein, a Marine Corps reserve captain who served two tours in Iraq and now works as a national security analyst at the Third Way, a progressive think tank in Washington.

"By increasing the number of troops there, it will give us and the Afghans the time they need to develop a larger and stronger army," he said. "Obama needs to make the case that we need the time and resources to make this happen. The consequences of failure are that al-Qaida and the Taliban will control large parts of Afghanistan and will have free rein to conduct attacks against us and our allies."

Morgenstein, who also spent time at the Pentagon working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if that approach had been taken when the war began, he is certain the Taliban would no longer be a threat and al-Qaida would be scattered to the winds.

Election and opposition

Clark Gibson, a political science professor and director of the International Studies Program at UC San Diego, just returned from Afghanistan, where he served as an election monitor during the Aug. 20 presidential election.

As of last week, President Hamid Karzai was leading with slightly more than 47 percent of the vote. He needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff election against former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Gibson's work was conducted in the opium-rich southern province of Helmand, where the vast majority of Marines are stationed, including more than 1,200 from Camp Pendleton's 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

It was an almost surreal experience, he said.

"We could hear rockets going off and hear and feel the concussions from IEDs," he said in reference to roadside bombs that were detonated near the polling station he was observing in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. "The fact that anyone even came out to vote was amazing to me."

While numerous allegations of fraud are dogging the election, Gibson said neither he nor the monitoring team he was part of saw any major irregularities. There were voters who refused to dip their finger in dark ink to show they had voted ---- out of fear the Taliban would see and cut off the finger, he said.

Regardless of the election's outcome, Gibson said it is in the best interest of the U.S. to stay the course in a war that recent polls show has rapidly declining support at home.

"Obama has to go all in," Gibson said. "Yes, Afghanistan is a tough place because of its history and its ethnic groups and all the issues that don't easily boil down when discussing international politics. But if we're truly worried about the Taliban and al-Qaida and them getting access to nuclear arms in Pakistan, we have to stay."

The academics went out the window, he said, when he attended memorial services for U.S. troops killed during the short time he was there.

"It never becomes more real than when you do that," Gibson said. "This thing is real and it involves real people, and it's extremely important."

Hearts and minds

One of the issues Obama is considering is a proposal to reduce the number of noncombat troops in Afghanistan and replacing them with an equal number of "trigger pullers," thereby not increasing the overall U.S. troop count.

At least one local academic says that could be a mistake, stressing that raising the Afghan economy in places such as Helmand, through civil works similar to what the U.S. did in Iraq, is as important as military might.

"The Afghans I have talked to say that while the U.S. needs to deal with the Taliban, we also have to address human needs," said Ron Bee, a foreign affairs lecturer at San Diego State University. "Building more hospitals might gain more ground in the long run than increasing the number of tanks."

In the run-up to last year's U.S. presidential election, Obama vowed to get the U.S. out of Iraq and put more emphasis on Afghanistan, which he said represented the real threat to American interests.

"The pressure is now on Obama to make the case that remaining in Afghanistan will prevent another 9/11 and keeping the fight there keeps it from here," Bee said. "What is so concerning to many people is this has all the markings of a long, drawn-out campaign with no end in sight."

As Congress reconvenes this week after its long August recess, national health care and Afghanistan are certain to dominate the political discussion.

Among the challenges is the growing wariness about the war in Afghanistan. Daily reports of the deaths and wounding of U.S. troops and an acknowledged lack of progress led conservative commentator George Will last week to call for an immediate withdrawal.

Oceanside resident Bob Kerber, a World War II Navy veteran, agrees.

"I just don't see an overriding national interest there," Kerber said, adding that the deaths of 91 U.S. troops in July and August ---- the highest two-month death toll of the war ---- seems a senseless waste.

"I just don't think it's a winnable war," Kerber said. "I think we can make a deal with the Taliban and stop wasting lives and resources there."

Obama Offers Plan to Improve Care for Veterans

President Obama announced plans on Thursday to computerize the medical records of veterans into a unified system, a move that is expected to ease the now-cumbersome process that results in confusion, lost records and bureaucratic delays.


Ángel Franco/The New York Times
Published: April 9, 2009

Medical information will flow directly from the military to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care system. At present, veterans must hand carry their medical records to Veterans Affairs’ facilities once they leave active-duty service. The Veterans Affairs system has a backlog of 800,000 disability claims, which means that veterans typically wait six months for decisions on their cases.

The task of creating a unified system will be handled by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. The undertaking has repeatedly confounded the two agencies in the past, and it remains unclear how long the project will take and how much it will cost.

Both Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki joined Mr. Obama for the announcement, but provided no details.

“We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America, a commitment that begins with enlistment and must never end,” Mr. Obama said. “But we know that for too long we’ve fallen short of meeting that commitment. Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need.”

Mr. Obama also voiced support for a measure that would allow Congress to approve the money for veterans’ medical care one year in advance. Congress has been routinely late in passing the bill that finances the Department of Veterans Affairs, a delay that hampers medical care for veterans and makes planning difficult.

The budget resolution recently passed by the Senate includes the proposal. The Senate and the House are now negotiating the differences between their bills.

“The care that our veterans receive should never be hindered by budget delays,” Mr. Obama said.

The announcements are part of a larger effort to improve services for veterans. Mr. Obama’s budget for 2010 increases spending for veterans by $25 billion and funnels more money into programs for those who suffer mental health problems and traumatic brain injury.

Veterans’ advocacy groups called Thursday’s announcement an important step in smoothing the tangle of bureaucracy that frequently overburdens the veterans’ health care system.

Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that modernizing medical records and allowing the two systems — military and veterans affairs — to talk to each other would have a dramatic effect on care.

Recently, Mr. Rieckhoff said, a Veterans Affairs doctor told him he had encountered a soldier with a brain injury, an amputation and a septic leg. The doctor had no idea how the man had been hurt because he did not have a complete file, he said.

“If you are a wounded service member, you have no continuity through the system,” Mr. Rieckhoff said on Thursday.

In creating a unified electronic system and pushing for more predictability in financing, Mr. Obama is trying to address two chronic stumbling blocks for improving care for veterans.

“He is setting Shinseki up for success,” Mr. Rieckhoff said of the department secretary. “He has a mountain of problems ahead of him and a big mess to clear up.”

Safety team: Iraq site wiring deemed risky

By Kimberly Hefling - The Associated Press
Posted : Thursday Apr 9, 2009 14:39:14 EDT

WASHINGTON — A military team sent to evaluate electrical problems at U.S. facilities in Iraq determined there was a high risk that flawed wiring could cause further “catastrophic results” — namely, the electrocutions of U.S. soldiers.

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April 8, 2009

13th Marine Expeditionary Unit Conducts Wash Down Before Heading Home

RED SEA - The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit is scheduled to conduct an agricultural wash down, sustainment training and cultural awareness tours for Marines and Sailors of USS Boxer while at a port in the Middle East, April 1-8.


Story by Lance Cpl. Megan E. Sindelar
Date: 04.08.2009
Posted: 06.02.2009 02:21

After four months of being at sea, dirt and salt water build up on vehicles throughout operations within various areas of U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility.

The wash down ensures no contaminated vehicles or gear will enter the United States upon the 13th MEU's arrival in San Diego. Pulling the gear off the ship also serves as a good tool to help alleviate maintenance issues that would otherwise be difficult to resolve while on ship. This gives USS Boxer and the 13th MEU the readiness to return home, but more importantly restores all capabilities to conduct missions in any area of responsibility that may arise throughout the remainder of the deployment.

While Marines wash down the vehicles and gear, other elements of the 13th MEU are able to participate in training, both unilateral and bilateral with the host nation.

Members of Battalion Landing Team 1/1 are scheduled to conduct weapons training in various terrain while the Reconnaissance Platoon refreshes their diving capabilities. Members of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163 (Reinforced) will provide air support throughout the exercise and conduct live fire training. The Command Element will control the unit's movement to ensure success of the training exercises that are planned around the area.

Service members will be given a break and an opportunity to participate in cultural awareness tours. The tours give the Marines and sailors a chance to experience one of the most culturally rich areas areas the world.

The 13th MEU and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group are currently on a deployment in support of regional and Maritime Security Operations.

Vet Upset at Anderson Flag Handling

- Larry Garrett, of Northwest Austin, says he won't be able to vote next month. His polling place is the high school he recently got banned from


Created On: Wednesday, 08 Apr 2009, 4:47 PM CDT

"That is a piece of cloth that represents our country," Garrett says, as he points to the flag poles on the Anderson High School campus.

Garrett, a veteran, says he's noticed staff members mishandling the school's American Flag for the past several months.

"A pattern developed which they took it down whenever they felt like it, which is frequently after sunset," Garrett says.

He snapped photos of a lone staff member lowering the flag one afternoon. Garrett explains how the individual threw the flag over her shoulder, and did not properly fold the flag. He says it's just one example of how the national elblem was disrespected.

"I addressed the issues," Garrett said, and suggested the principal, a group, a club, some sort, hold a ceremony to build a little pride in our flag."

Last month, Garrett saw the flag flying past sunset. He says he'd had enough, so Garrett properly took down the flag.

The following week, AISD Police served Garrett a criminal trespassing ticket, warning him not to enter Anderson or any other district campus.

AISD wouldn't comment on Garrett's actions, but a spokesperson says he sends out flag etiquette points each year, to every campus.

"Yes, we make mistakes, even in the military, we all make mistakes," Sgt. Maj. Anthony Sandoval, of Camp Mabry, says. He shared some rules of thumb with FOX 7. First, he says two people should always fold the flag. He adds that he understands when schools or businesses have only one person for the job.

"Never let the U.S. Flag touch the ground. You never want it soiled, damaged, torn, anything else. So if it takes draping it over your arm, or should, so that it doesn't touch, yes, that's okay."

Just as the American Flag stands for freedom, Garrett says the criminal trespassing ticket is a reminder of how much he's willing to sacrifice for that.

Read: AISD Letter on
Flag Etiquette



Becoming a Marine redefines ‘hard’ for senior track runner Cody Henning

As the beauty of spring slowly but surely paints the landscape of the Missoula valley, productive indoor activities go right out the window. Of the possible outdoor activities to choose from, running 400-meter sprints in the blazing hot sun would probably reside at the bottom of the list for most. But University of Montana sprinter Cody Henning holds many things in lower esteem than sprint workouts. Relay workouts are not hard. Cody Henning knows what hard is.


Story by Colter Nuanez | April 8, 2009
Montana Kaimin

Henning came to the University of Montana by way of Whitefish High School where he was a six-time state champion sprinter. He continued to receive decoration at UM as he was an All-Big Sky performer four times by the time his senior season was looming.

But something was missing from Henning’s life. He had always embraced a challenge. One morning he woke up and decided it was time for a change.
Henning looked into joining the armed service right after high school, but the allure of a free education and the continuation of his track career steered him toward Missoula. The military always seemed like a unique opportunity, however.

Henning explored what each branch of the armed forces had to offer. He decided he wanted to enlist in the United States Marine Corps and enter Officer Candidate School.

“It’s the hardest program to get into, the hardest to graduate from. And I really like challenges, seeing how far I can go,” Henning said.

The 400-meters is among the most grueling events in all of track and field. But sprinting at full speed for 50 seconds paled in comparison to the 11-week hell Henning went through when he arrived in Quantico, Va.

Gone were the simple things in Henning’s life. Little things like going on a hike or listening to music or just going out with friends ceased. Such minute details were major mental obstacles for Henning.

“As far as being mentally tough, this (track) doesn’t even come close to the Marine Corps,” Henning said. “It doesn’t even skim the surface. They break you down to your lowest point, lower than you ever thought possible. Then they build you back up.”

When Aug. 8, 2008 arrived and it was time for Henning and his fellow soldiers to graduate, over 40 percent of his class did not complete the training. But to the man, even those who did not complete the challenge, every person who attempted OCS came out a better man, said Henning.
In order to receive commission and have a chance to be an officer in the U.S.M.C., candidates must complete OCS and attain bachelor’s degrees as well. With this in mind, Henning returned to UM to complete his degree in exercise science and exhaust his eligibility in track.

With only a few weeks off between graduation from OCS and indoor track season training, Henning said his body was in shock, but the freedoms afforded civilians were a welcome change.

“In OCS, we were just constantly physically, emotionally and mentally busted down to nothing at all times,” Henning said. “They strip you of your individuality. Me and I do not exist. We had hardly any sleep, hardly any food. We were run down, stressed out and sick all the time. So when you come back here, you have freedom. You can train at your own pace, you can eat healthy. The Marines just made this whole sport easier than it used to be.”

The daily grind of being a Division I athlete of any kind is a significant one, but UM sprints coach Harry Clark said it is often overlooked how grueling a sport track and field really is. The individual aspect and the lack of contact contribute to this sentiment, but Clark and Henning both agree that the Marine has a new definition of pain. No longer do nagging injuries slow him down. His drive to improve is omnipresent.

“He learned training doesn’t hurt,” said Clark, who is in his eighth season at UM. “When he was younger, everything used to bother him, he used to be hurt all the time. Now, not so much. His mental discipline is much improved.”

Henning has a new view on pain.

“You just aren’t afraid of pain anymore,” he said. “You can go out and work out ‘til you are sick, or work out until you break.”

One transition that contributed to the shock Henning described was the vast variance between training to be a soldier and training to be a sprinter. During the 11 weeks in Virginia, Henning ran long distances, trained on obstacle courses, hiked mountains — all things counterproductive to building the fast-twitch muscles sprinters covet.

“The summer training he went through was probably about twice as hard as anything we do, probably even more than that,” Clark said. “We are really working on speed with him. He has a ton of endurance from this summer. Once it all clicks together, it’s going to be dynamite.”

Clark thinks that dynamite could, and should, translate into a Big Sky Conference championship. He is encouraged with Henning’s early season production. Henning placed second in the 200 at last week’s Al Manuel Invitational and ran a leg on the 4X400 team that also placed second.

If Henning is to win a conference title in the 400M, he will most likely have to beat Montana State standout Dan Johnson. But if the conference title comes down to a time similar to the one Johnson ran on Saturday (47.71 seconds), then the victor would more than likely also surpass the Regional Qualifying standard of 47.2 seconds. Clark and Henning both think it is an attainable goal if the senior continues to improve day in and day out.

Regardless of how far Henning can extend his track career, the end creeps closer by the day. He will graduate in the spring with a degree in exercise science. Following graduation, his options are numerous. He is engaged to Katlin Anderson, who is in her final semester of physical therapy school. Once he has his bachelor’s degree, he can accept his commission as an officer and continue his military service or decline and possibly follow Katlin wherever she may go. He has a year to decide whether he wants to be a soldier or continue living as a civilian.

Either way he is a changed man. Nothing ails him, nothing stresses him, nothing causes him pain. He knows the true definitions now. No matter what path Henning takes, he will forever be a product of what it means to be one of the Few, the Proud, the Marines.

“Everything I thought was hard before is no longer hard after the Marine Corps,” said Henning. “Morally I am a better person. OCS opens your eyes to bigger things in life. I wouldn’t take it back for the world.”

[email protected]

Military studies shed light on brain injuries

ARLINGTON, Va. — Military scientists are learning how roadside bombs — the most common weapon used against U.S. troops in on the battlefield — harm the brain even when there is no other physical damage, according to research results released by the project’s lead scientist.


By Gregg Zoroya - USA Today
Posted : Wednesday Apr 8, 2009 16:33:32 EDT

Researchers discovered a sliding scale of injury ranging from brain cell inflammation to cell damage or cell death, depending on the power of the blast, said Army Col. Geoffrey Ling, a neurologist at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Future research that builds on these findings may lead to ways battlefield medics can use a combination of helmet sensors and over-the-counter pain reliever to identify and treat mild cases of blast-caused brain injury, Ling said.

Scientists also found that brain damage from an improvised explosive device can be made worse for those riding inside an armored Humvee because materials in the vehicle magnify the blast wave effect, Ling said.

Up to 360,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have suffered brain injuries, the Pentagon announced in March. Many of those injuries are from IED blasts, and about 90 percent are so-called mild cases, in which recovery is expected.

An estimated 45,000 to 90,000 victims, however, suffer persistent symptoms such as memory loss, lack of balance and problem-solving difficulties.

“This really sheds light where there was none,” said Army Col. Mike Jaffee, director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. “I think it’s extraordinarily important. It’s some of the first research and findings that help to illustrate ... the evolution of” traumatic brain injury.

During an 11-month period of research ending in December, scientists wrapped pigs in body armor and placed them in a Humvee simulator, in open fields and in a closed room and subjected them to varying degrees of explosions at a research laboratory in a location researchers declined to disclose. Pigs were used because their brains are structured much like the human brain, Ling said. Rats also were part of the study that has cost about $10 million so far.

Some key preliminary findings from the studies:

• A blast can injure the brain even without shrapnel or a victim being knocked down. The power of the explosion in the first fraction of a second — known as the primary blast effect — can damage or destroy brain cells in ways conventional imaging devices cannot see.

• The brain can tolerate low levels of blast, measured in pounds per square inch. At a certain pressure level that Ling would not disclose, brain cells become inflamed. At higher levels, cell death begins, Ling said.

• Brain cell inflammation occurs in mild TBI cases, he said. It caused balance and coordination problems in pigs, but healed in hours or weeks depending on the blast severity, Ling said. “It’s probably what a lot of the guys [in combat] are getting,” Ling said. “Shaken up a little bit, but they recover quickly. No surprise. That’s the natural order of the disease.”

• In the most severe of these mild cases, the inflammation can damage areas of the brain that have been associated with the later onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, Ling said. No connection between the blasts and these later diseases has been proved, he cautioned.

• Research will continue to determine whether basic over-the-counter drugs such as Motrin can help reduce the inflammation, Ling said, which could help treat troops suffering mild TBI on the battlefield. “That would be awesome,” he said.

• As scientists learn more about how much of a blast can cause brain cell inflammation or worse, they may use helmet sensors to alert medics when a service member needs a break from combat to heal a mild brain injury, Ling said. That would help scientists diagnose or identify the soldiers who are most at risk, he said.

• Unlike a blow to the head, where damage occurs at the point of impact, blast damage radiates across the brain, although it’s heaviest on the side facing the explosion, Ling said.

April 6, 2009

Corps outlines inaugural Marine Week event

By Dan Lamothe - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Apr 6, 2009 16:20:48 EDT

The Marine Corps outlined details Monday for its inaugural Marine Week, saying that nearly 2,000 Marines will participate in a week-long series of demonstrations, concerts and outreach efforts in Chicago beginning May 11.

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Civil Affairs, Provincial Reconstruction Teams Assist 3/8, Improve Southern Afghanistan

Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Afghanistan

GOLESTAN, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ? The generosity of foreign aid has found its way to the isolated villages of one southern Afghan province through the hands of the provincial government with the help of Marines.


Story by Lance Cpl. Brian D. Jones
Date: 04.06.2009
Posted: 04.06.2009 04:03

Marines with second platoon, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced), the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force ? Afghanistan, serve in Golestan, Farah province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. They work diligently to provide security for the growing community that lives under the threat of insurgents who oppose the Afghan government and alliance forces operating there.

Afghan provincial government officials and others who befriend the Marines brave-it-out each day as they deal with the pressures of the threats against their lives and the lives of their families and fellow villagers.

2nd Lt. Daniel M. Yurkovich, second platoon?s commander, meets with Golestan?s Afghan leaders regularly to address local interests, such as security and the many projects that are underway to gain the support of the community.

As the Afghan national police and volunteers keep a strong hold on security with the help of the Yurkovich?s Marines, who conduct counterinsurgency operations in the area, foreign aid is passed through the hands of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to be invested into villages that have seen increases in security, such as Golestan.

As Yurkovich keeps the doors of communication open, a civil affairs team with 3rd Civil Affairs Group and the Provincial Reconstruction Team are working to improve the community in many ways. The PRT, which consists of military officers, diplomats and engineers, supports reconstruction efforts to help empower local governments to operate more effectively.

?[Civil affairs?] interest in Golestan is to give the local government a face,? said Cpl. Aldo J. Almazan, a civil affairs non-commissioned officer. ?It?s very secluded out here, so the people don?t know their government officials and have little faith in them. [Our projects] will help the people identify with them better.?

Civil affairs Marines such as Almazan speak with locals to emphasize that the Afghan government wants to provide for its people.

?We are showing them how it is surely but slowly going to happen,? said Almazan.

With the help of Yurkovich and his Marines, the civil affairs team has a foot in the door with the Afghan community to pursue smaller, community-driven projects. In some cases, the PRT follows the civil affairs team to offer support on larger-scale projects with a high impact on Afghan communities in the long term.

Brad D. Arsenault, a U.S. Agency for International Development representative for Farah province, recently visited Golestan with PRT associates. Arsenault is part of an integrated team with the PRT that works with the U.S. departments of State and Agriculture.

?The four of us together are trying to pool our resources and get the best effects out of what we are doing,? Arsenault said of the teamwork between the organizations.

Arsenault?s job is to take a firsthand look at the projects going on in Golestan and report back to his command with recommendations.

?I really appreciate how the Marines work in small groups and get out most everyday,? said Arsenault. ?They have good rapport with the district governor, census officer, district prosecutor and all the key leaders. It?s real impressive.?

Members of the civil affairs team and PRT held a meeting with leading local government officials March 13, to determine the progress of current projects and prospects of new ones. They discussed the attitudes of the locals and to whom their loyalty belongs.

The subgovernor worries that the people who don?t receive jobs through the reconstruction contracts may turn to the insurgency to find income, and he also worries that the people will expect their government to continue to provide as much for them, though there are limited funds.

?There are not a lot of jobs, and sometimes people go down the wrong route,? said Qasim Khan, the district subgovernor, as translated by an interpreter.

Concerned about security, Khan went on to warn Yurkovich of the upcoming poppy harvest and the ensuing security threat.

The poppy harvest will last approximately 18 days, and jobs are estimated to increase from 300 to 3,000 during that time, giving the people a chance to increase their income tenfold. The insurgents depend on the harvest and are not likely to back down, according to Khan.

The topic that took precedence during the meeting was the 11 schools within the district. It was determined that four of them were in good condition, while the rest needed renovating. The PRT wants to improve the structures for long-term use. The schools are also in dire need of provincial government support to supply the students with school books and other supplies.

?Before, kids feared going to school and now that they are going to school we face the problem of not having enough school books,? said Amir Mohammed, the district prosecutor. ?The less books they have, the less people come to the school.?

Mohammed went on to say that education must be a top priority to help solve issues in the long run. He said although the food assistance the provincial government is providing is nice, it would be education that would ultimately solve the problem of hunger in such communities.

Marines of second platoon escorted the civil affairs and the PRT members through the city March 12, to conduct site surveys of the schools, health clinic and bazaar.

They talked to locals about their businesses and the positive effects the new projects are having on the community.

Civil affairs Marines are currently involved in projects such as the cleanup of the local bazaar, facilitating a trash pickup, road construction and a new drainage system for the bazaar. The Marines and civilians who make up the PRT were pleased to see the progress made in Golestan and have additionally begun plans to install solar-powered street lamps and public restrooms in the bazaar.

?The people are happy that you are here and that you are focused on the bazaar because it is the center of the community,? said Khan.

Golestan has seen notable security increases but still faces an insurgent threat. However, it is not stopping the provincial government, Afghan security forces and Marines from providing for the people. Civil affairs, the PRT and the provincial government will continue to push forward with their assistance.

Future projects already in the works include: the distribution of 85 tons of wheat, the donation of live chickens, passing out material assistance items and installing a local radio station in the city. Each of these initiatives is based on Afghan needs.

?What we don?t want to do is impose American standards and ideals on the community,? said Capt. Anthony R. Ward, a team leader with 3rd CAG.

150 Kaneohe Marines leave for Iraq

Soldiers hope to build on existing peace

Kaneohe Marines who have deployed more than once to Iraq say the country is now far more peaceful and amenable to community building projects.


POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Apr 06, 2009

"I'm hoping to do a lot of good things over there as far as helping the community, rebuilding schools, shopping centers, things like that," said Lance Cpl. Richard Johnson.

Johnson was part of a contingent of 150 Marines that left Kaneohe yesterday for a seven-month deployment to al Asad, Iraq. They are members of the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, which is replacing Kaneohe's 1st Battalion, 12th Regiment, now in Iraq.

The returning battalion is scheduled to go back to Iraq in November even as President Barack Obama has ordered a drawdown in U.S. forces.

Lance Cpl. Richard Johnson was supposed to get out of the Marine Corps last December.

But he extended his active-duty enlistment for a year when he learned his unit was returning to Iraq this month.

"I wanted to go back with these guys. They're a very good unit. I wanted to go back to Iraq and do good things," he said.

Johnson is among the last 150 Marines and sailors with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, to depart from Kaneohe yesterday for a seven-month deployment to al Asad, Iraq. About 850 other Marines and sailors of the 3rd Battalion left earlier this month.

This is Johnson's third deployment to Iraq since 2006. He said there were a lot of close combat encounters, improvised explosive device (IED) strikes, sniper shots and small-arms fire in his first deployment.

His second deployment in 2007 was more peaceful, with far fewer insurgent attacks.

Johnson is hoping for more of the same for his third deployment.

"I'm hoping to do a lot of good things over there as far as helping the community, rebuilding schools, shopping centers, things like that," he said.

And he's happy President Barack Obama plans to draw down the number of troops in Iraq by the summer of 2010.

Obama said he would like to withdraw two-thirds of the 145,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.

"I think we did everything that we could (in Iraq). And we have a lot of priorities in Afghanistan right now," Johnson said.

The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, is replacing Kaneohe's 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, now in Iraq. The 1st Battalion is scheduled to go back to Iraq in November.

Staff Sgt. Felix Nole-Ortiz is another one of the 150 to depart Kaneohe yesterday. This will be his fourth deployment to Iraq since 1992. His first time was as part of Operation Desert Storm, the campaign to liberate Kuwait, during which some U.S. units crossed the border into Iraq, then withdrew.

He says he has seen living conditions improve for some Iraqis during his three previous deployments.

"Some of the areas are built up, some of the areas not. Some of the people are living a lot better than others," he said.

Nole-Ortiz says if the Iraqis can handle their own security, he supports the drawdown. If he is ordered to go to Iraq after next summer, he says he will do his job.

He says the only difficulty with his deployments is being away from his family. He and his wife have two sons, ages 8 and 13, and are expecting another child in June.

Nole-Ortiz says the military services have greatly improved communication opportunities between service members deployed overseas with their families back home.

"But I still write letters the old-fashioned way," he said.

And this time, Nole-Ortiz says he is bringing a laptop computer.

April 5, 2009

13th MEU Participates in Eastern Maverick

QATAR LAND FORCES TRAINING AREA, Qatar – Elements of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), began conducting Exercise Eastern Maverick 2009, alongside Qatari military forces on March 28, a bilateral training exercise designed to build and improve cooperation between both military forces.


April 5, 2009
Release #055-09
By Staff Sgt. Matthew O. Holly, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit Public Affairs

During the exercise, U.S. Marines and Sailors will work alongside the Qatari military for approximately two weeks, conducting a number of training exercises, to include small-unit vehicle training and live-fire exercises, as well as pilot training with the Qatari Air Force.

Lt. Col. Tye R. Wallace, commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/1 assigned to the 13th MEU, said he looks forward to the operating with the Qatari military during the exercise.

“Exercises like this one provide important opportunities for us to work more closely together with our friends in the region, thereby helping to enhance understanding, security and stability throughout the Middle East,” he said. “Understanding and communication are vital to a strong friendship, and these exercises are an excellent opportunity for us to further develop both of these with our Qatari friends.”

The first day of the exercise consisted of several classes covering sniper training, grenade handling and the use of a Global Positioning System. Each subsequent day will build upon the skills learned from earlier days.

“They picked it up quickly,” said 1st Lt. Jesus S. Mendez, platoon commander with Combined Anti Armor Team 2, Weapons Company, BLT 1/1. “It was a good opportunity to work with the Qataris to see how our friends operate.”

The exercise also allows opportunities for athletic interaction and competition between the two nations. U.S. Marines and Sailors participated in a friendly game of volleyball on the first night of the exercise with several Qataris.

“It is good for integration and to get to know each other in one way or another,” said Maj. Adel Ali Al Saadi, a maintenance officer for the Qatar Maintenance Corps. “It’s a way to break down the barriers.”

“We should do this every time during exercises – it builds unity and friendship,” said Staff Sgt. Steve D. Oldham, 3rd platoon sergeant for Company B, BLT 1/1. “This helps strengthen relationships with our host nation, which is important.” “I think it was a great game,” said Pfc. Abdul Rahman, a rocketman in the Qatari Amiri Land Forces. “This created a good team environment for the upcoming training between us and the Marines.”

The 13th MEU is embarked aboard Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group (BOXESG) ships deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations to conduct Maritime Security Operations.

April 4, 2009

Female patrol finds unlikely new ‘sisters’

By Trista Talton - Staff writer
Posted : Saturday Apr 4, 2009 8:19:28 EDT

Marines often speak of brotherhood, but in a remote Afghan village a sisterhood has been born.

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USS Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group and 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit Land on Djiboutian Beach

Sailors assigned to USS Boxer Expeditionary Strike Group and Marines from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted an amphibious landing on a beach near Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, April 1.


Story by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jesse Awalt
Date: 04.04.2009
Posted: 04.04.2009 08:54

The Navy-Marine Corps team utilized three Landing Craft Air Cushions from Assault Craft Unit Five, and four CH-46E transport helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 163 to refresh skills that could be used in a major combat operation.

Sailors and Marines worked together, establishing a secure location to provide logistical support and force protection.

?This operation is the backbone of the Marine Corps,? said Sgt. Adam Strode, a landing support specialist assigned to the 13th MEU. ?The ability to do amphibious offloads anywhere in the world really sets us apart from any other service, and certainly any other country. We establish the beach, we get accountability of all personnel and gear that is going ashore so that we can push logistical support forward to operating units in support of sustainment training for real world operations.?

The service members deployed to the beach from the USS Boxer, flagship of Combined Task Force-151, a multi-national task force conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Peter Brennan, Commander of the Strike Group, discussed the importance of the event.

?In this type of event, everybody gains proficiency. We are an amphibious force, and we get to exercise our skills both at sea and ashore,? said Brennan. ?The Navy will fine-tune their skills to bring the Marines ashore.?

To maintain mission readiness, the Strike Group and MEU conducted three similar LCAC landings prior to their current deployment. Since leaving their homeport of San Diego, they have been able to conduct two additional landings.

?We have had the opportunity since we deployed in January to do exercises in Guam and the Maldives, but in the 5th Fleet area of operations this is our first big opportunity to get most of the heavy gear ashore, to exercise the skills the Marines have,? said Brennan.

While in Djibouti, the Sailors and Marines will be conducting training exercises with the Djiboutian and French militaries. The training exercises will incorporate various joint military operations including additional amphibious landings.

The 13th MEU is capable of accomplishing numerous missions around the globe--from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to decisive combat operations-and will be assigned to the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa while in Djibouti.

The service members of CJTF-HOA, headquartered in Djibouti, focus on fostering regional security capacity, improving maritime security and safety, and developing military leaders through professional military education and training. The Task Force's goals contribute to United States Government efforts to help Africans solve African challenges.

April 3, 2009

11th MEU conducts last land-based Marine air-ground task force exercise

The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit has been conducting a comprehensive Marine air-ground task force exercise since March 20 at numerous locations in California as part of its pre-deployment program.


4/3/2009 By
Sgt. Scott M. Biscuiti,
11th MEU

The exercise, running until April 9, is a culmination of past exercises, and is the final land-based training the MEU will conduct as a MAGTF, before shifting focus to embarked training with the ships of Amphibious Squadron 7. Future training has the MEU conducting sea-based exercises and executing missions from ship to shore.

The MEU decided on Fort Hunter Liggett and surrounding installations to perform the bulk of its training, based on the available ranges, facilities and variety of terrain the central coast offers.

“The reason we came up here is to put Marines in an unfamiliar environment, away from our home base,” said Lt. Col. Robert C. Rice, the MEU’s operations officer. “It demonstrates our ability to run missions over a 200-nautical-mile area.”

The rolling hills throughout the training locations presented new opportunities for Marines used to the desert terrain of installations in Yuma, Ariz. and Twentynine Palms; where many units conduct their pre-deployment training.

“We use terrain to mask ourselves from threats, and we just can’t practice that at most of the places we train,” said 1st Lt. Jerry Peacock, a CH-53E Sea Stallion helicopter pilot with HMM-166. “It also allowed us to practice steep approaches both at day and night.”

The hardest part of conducting such a large exercise is incorporating all of the MAGTF together, said Rice. “The more missions we plan together, the more comfortable we get, which makes us better in the end.”

All MAGTFs, including a MEU, consist of four main components, a ground combat element, an aviation combat element, a combat service support element and a command element.

The 11th MEU’s subordinate units are Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 (Reinforced) and Combat Logistics Battalion 11.

During the exercises, all the MEU’s major subordinate elements planned and executed missions together. The training included aerial gunnery, calling in close-air support, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel and multiple practice raids.

The next step in the MEU’s training is to embark upon amphibious assault ships and integrate with the Navy to form a functional team that can respond to almost any situation, be it combat or a humanitarian operation that may arise during deployment later this year.

Why, that’s Lt. Dan

MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER, TWENTYNINE PALMS, CASLIF. — Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band made a fifth appearance to the Combat Center and rocked a packed crowd at the Sunset Cinema March 28.


4/3/2009 By
Pfc. Michael T. Gams,
Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command 29 Palms

This free appearance gave base personnel and their families a chance to see a great show on base and an opportunity to meet ‘Lt. Dan’ and get the entire band’s autographsfrom the band members.

Sinise is best known for his roles in such films as Forrest Gump, The Green Mile and Apollo 13, and the hit television show CSI: New York. Despite his busy schedule, Sinise continues to give his time to support the troops stationed in the U.S. and overseas.

The 12-member band played several genres of music that gave those in attendance an opportunity to rock out to music they enjoy. The songs they played ranged from artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd to Evanescence.

The show started with Mari Anne Jayme singing a heartwarming rendition of The Star Spangled Banner.

The band then raised the tempo, singing classic American songs that got just about everyone on their feet and singing along.

During a cover of Lebelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” they called the ladies in attendance to join the band on stage to sing along and dance.

After a few more American classics, Julie Dutchek and Gina Gonzalez called one lucky Marine on stage and serenaded him with Beyonce Knowles’ “Crazy in Love” while competing for the Marine’s attention.

The band plans to come back next year and hopefully for years to come, said Kelly Coe, the special event coordinator with MCCS. “The families and troops love him.”

Gary Sinise agreed, saying he hopes his schedule allows him to come back next year.

“I know there’s not much out here,” said Sinise. “The people seem to enjoy when I come. I hope they see that they’re appreciated.”

He ended the night personally thanking all the Marines he could for their service, shaking hands with fans and signing autographs.

Keep an eye open next March, another great show may be on the way.

Hero finally gets his due

Vietnam veteran to receive Silver Star for bravery in battle 42 years ago

Nighttime cloaked Hill 881 South in a blackness that filled the Marines of Mike Company with a well-founded dread.


By Steve Liewer Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. April 3, 2009

Lance Cpl. Ray Calhoun's platoon had drawn the job of leading an assault in this northwest corner of South Vietnam on the morning of April 30, 1967. They knew the enemy was waiting for them.

Some of the North Vietnamese soldiers shouted taunts in accented English.

“All night long, they're telling us: 'Put on your helmets, Marines. You're gonna die in the morning,' ” recalled Calhoun, who now lives in Scripps Ranch.

The enemy didn't lie. Three-fourths of the men in Calhoun's platoon were killed or wounded.

Throughout the battle, the 19-year-old Calhoun alternately aimed grenades at enemy bunkers and bandaged his dying buddies. Twice he passed out from his own wounds, only to wake up and resume the fight.

Today, nearly 42 years later, Calhoun will receive a Silver Star – the nation's third-highest award for combat bravery – during a ceremony at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

Two of Calhoun's platoon mates also were awarded Silver Stars recently. Don Hossack of Kalispell, Mont., received his medal last month, and Tommy Wheeler of Lutz, Fla., will get his April 13.

The presentations follow six years of Pentagon review, through a process approved by Congress to recognize overlooked valor from past wars. The law has been invoked to credit ethnic or religious minorities whose heroism was ignored or initially downgraded.

In this case, though, the delay happened because the 1967 battle wiped out so many in Calhoun's chain of command.

“There were very few that remained alive to write up the awards,” said retired Maj. Gen. John Admire, who commanded Calhoun's platoon until shortly before the battle and who ultimately crafted the three Silver Star nominations. “A lot of Marines did a lot of great things, but they never got the recognition they deserved.”

Calhoun's road to Hill 881 started one day in February 1966, when he and seven of his college-football buddies were playing a poker game. They grew angry when they heard an anti-war march outside, and they vowed to join the military. All but one eventually did.

Calhoun, a native of Encino, enlisted in the Marine Corps the next day. Four months later, he arrived for boot camp in San Diego. The first night, a recruit committed suicide in his barracks by slitting his wrists.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” Calhoun said.

Assigned that fall to the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, he was sent to Vietnam almost immediately. Mike Company saw action from the start.

But nothing matched the battle that came the next spring. The North Vietnamese hoped to lay siege to the U.S. military outpost near Khe Sanh, which was on a vital supply route.

The Marines countered with a series of assaults on the uplands surrounding Khe Sanh that came to be called the “Hill Battles.” They succeeded, but at a frightful cost.

On April 30, 1967, the men of Mike Company set out through the tall grass about 8 a.m. They reached a saddle between two hilltops, and two platoons fanned out across a clearing.

The North Vietnamese opened fire from bunkers that honeycombed the hillside. Calhoun and his platoon mates took shelter behind some fallen trees, which they quickly realized was a trap when mortar shells started falling directly on top of them.

“They set us up. We were in a killing field,” said Joe Cordileone, a San Diego assistant city attorney who was with Calhoun that day. “It was a massacre.”

One mortar round killed the platoon's leader, 2nd Lt. Joseph Mitchell; wounded Hossack; and knocked out Calhoun. But he woke up and got to work, dragging survivors into a bomb crater and patching up wounds with battle dressings salvaged from the bodies of the dead.

Calhoun's eagle eye had earned him the job of platoon grenadier. He watched for muzzle flashes, aimed his M79 grenade launcher at them and took out four sniper's nests.

One bullet pierced his helmet, knocking him out a second time and wounding his scalp. But he woke up again and returned to the fight.

“You get so scared, you just start living off of adrenaline,” Calhoun said. “You think, 'I'm gonna die, and I'm going to kill as many of these guys as I can first.' ”

U.S. bomb strikes pushed the North Vietnamese off the hill, and reinforcements reached the clearing after a few hours. The few wounded survivors left Hill 881 and the war behind.

Calhoun recuperated at China Beach and Camp Pendleton, then left the Marines a few months later.

“I kind of wanted to forget about it,” he said.

He used his GI Bill benefits to earn a bachelor's in accounting and became a certified public accountant. He married in 1977, and he and his wife, Donna, raised three children in San Diego.

Calhoun also started BeamOne, a company that harnesses electron beams for medical uses.

His outward success disguised chronic nightmares and frequent insomnia. The sound of rain set him on edge; it reminded him of the monsoons in Vietnam. He hated the smell of fresh earth. He could be short-tempered and abrasive. Hill 881 never quite left him.

“The first thing you do is you stuff it. . . . (Then) you start looking at your life backward and realize that maybe you aren't truly normal,” said Calhoun, who still attends therapy sessions twice a week.

He lost touch with all of his Marine buddies. Then in 1996, he read a newspaper article about Admire's appointment as commander of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton. He sent a congratulatory note, and they reunited.

Over several years, they used the Internet to track down other Mike Company veterans and started to hold reunions. Calhoun and Cordileone, close friends in the Marines, were stunned to learn they had both moved to San Diego.

“We got together, had some beers,” Cordileone said. “It was like starting all over again.”

Admire came to learn that, despite the heroic conduct on Hill 881, none of the survivors from his old platoon had received awards for their bravery.

“I was fairly convinced there were some significant acts of valor that were not recognized,” Admire said.

He compiled statements and submitted Silver Star nomination packets for Hossack, Wheeler and Calhoun. They were reviewed at Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Va., and by a board advising the secretary of the Navy. All three nominees won approval this year.

Calhoun had never asked for the honor, but he's proud to return to the recruit depot to receive his medal.

“The nicest thing is that I've had the recognition of my peers,” Calhoun said.

Admire said there's another reward: The Silver Star will remind younger generations of what Vietnam War veterans endured.

“The sons and daughters of these Marines will now know that they are true heroes,” he said.

Steve Liewer: (619) 498-6632; [email protected]

Marines help Korean War vet raise flag

JOSHUA TREE — Korean War veteran and Navy Cross recipient Richard Blasongame raised his American flag on a sturdy new pole Wednesday thanks to help from the United States Marines and some clandestine calls by a fellow veteran.


By Cpl. Nicole A. Lavine
Special to the Hi-Desert Star
Published: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 12:07 AM CDT

Blasongame, who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in combat while serving with the Marine Corps’ 2nd Battalion, First Marine Division in 1951, is a proud veteran who has flown an American flag over his home for years.

“I’ve always flown a flag outside my house,” said Blasongame, who has lived in Joshua Tree since 2003. “I think it’s very important to do that.”

Because his flag pole was so close to his house, the rope that held the flags aloft frequently was worn down from rubbing against the shingles. Blasongame was not fit to repair the ropes every time they frayed and out of distress, he finally had his flag pole cut down completely.

It just so happened that Bob Halle, a fellow Marine who had fought alongside Blasongame that fateful day his actions earned him his Navy Cross, was visiting.

Halle secretly made a few phone calls and eventually got in touch with Marines of the 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, who said they’d be glad to volunteer their time and effort in repairing Blasongame’s flag pole.

“He did his part in serving his country,” said Lance Cpl. Chris Nichols. “If I was a veteran, I’d appreciate having young Marines come out and recognize the service and sacrifices that we made.”

Nichols said although the Morongo Basin community may see convoys roll by, it is not enough for the community members to fell like they knew these young men and women.

“For a lot of people, the Marine Corps is just this foreign entity,” Nichols said. “The only things they may know about us are the things they hear on the news. The media is quick to focus on the negativity, but they rarely show the positive stuff like this.

Sgt. Rolando Delacruz agreed.

“We are more than just warfighters,” said Delacruz, who joined Nichols, Sgt. Jeff Newton on the project.

“It would be nice for people to put faces with us,” Delacruz said. “We can help our community bridge some of those gaps that are there.”

As the Marines dug a hole for the post, mixed cement, made measurements and assembled the flag pole, Blasongame, Halle and their wives stood outside to watch the progress.

“I’m really proud of these good Marines,” Blasongame said as he sat in a folding chair nearby. “I think this is really an incredible thing they are doing for me.”

His friend recalled how Blasongame looked after an injured Halle in combat Sept. 16, 1951.

“He really helped take care of me,” Halle said about his early friendship with Blasongame.

Opal, Blasongame’s wife, expressed her thanks to the Marines, Halle and Halle’s wife, Nancy.

“This is overwhelming,” Opal said as she stood on her front walkway, smiling at her husband raising the new flag over their roof.

Newton said he and the other Marines felt honored to make a gesture of gratitude to a veteran.

“I’m all about this,” said Newton. “This is a great situation and I’d like to think that if I was a veteran who needed help, I could count on getting it from the same group of people I served with.”

The two veterans, their wives and the young men enjoyed a lunch together before departing ways, but not before Delacruz offered to take on more of Blasongame’s home projects free of charge in the future.

“We’re just here to help out a fellow brother,” Delacruz said. “Not only is this man a fellow Marine, he is someone who went far above and beyond his duties to help his Marines. This is something we can do for him and give back even though we are two totally different generations.”

April 2, 2009

Corps’ premiere air-controllers back with 11th MEU

After years of estrangement from Marine expeditionary units, 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company personnel, or Anglico, the Corp’s air controllers, are once again back with the 11th MEU to do what they do best: Bring death from above.


By Sgt. Scott M. Biscuiti,
11th MEU

Due to constant operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Anglico Marines and sailors have been engaged in coordinating close-air support and indirect fire there.

MEU leaders requested a detachment from 1st Anglico to deploy with them later this year. Subsequently, when the 11th MEU deploys later this year, it will be the first of the three West Coast MEUs in several years to take such a detachment, said Lt. Col. Robert C. Rice, 11th MEU operations officer.

As resident experts in all things that go boom, Anglico personnel are highly specialized at directing and controlling air support, not only from U.S. aircraft, but allied aircraft as well.

“Anglico is a phenomenal asset,” said Maj. Brent Johnson, the MEU’s air officer. “They’ll provide a greater capability. Operationally, we can provide better air support with Anglico personnel.”

Over the past several years, Anglico units have been very air-centric; that is, their focus has been on calling in aircraft instead of naval guns and artillery to destroy enemy targets.

Even though some systems are not widely used, Anglico personnel are proficient in all aspects of fire, including mortars, artillery and naval gunfire, said Capt. Robert Suarez, the officer in charge of the MEU’s supporting-arms liaison team, or SALT.

Though small in number, the MEU’s Anglico detachment has as much air controlling capability as an entire infantry battalion, said Suarez.

The MEU’s Anglico complement consists of 18 members. Three officers serve as joint-terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, and are the only ones certified to authorize fire missions. Two fire control teams consisting of five Marines each set up observation posts and engage enemy targets. Overseeing the FCTs and operating as a fire support coordination center is the SALT.

Even though combat operations are Anglico’s bread and butter, they bring greater capabilities to training as well.

“We provide the MEU commander with the capability to plug into any allied unit operating in theater,” Suarez said. “But if we do bilateral training, we have the ability to liaison with them too.”

With all the contingencies a MEU faces, having an Anglico detachment with a catchy motto means one thing: No matter where they go, “Lightning from the sky, thunder from the sea,” is only a call away.

April 1, 2009

Morale’s in full swing; Marines pair camaraderie with an American pastime

The bat cracked, sending the baseball soaring into the outfield where a Marine’s failed attempt to catch the pop-fly elicited a commotion of cheers and jeers from each team, while the batter simultaneously took this chance at running the base paths. The catcher stood ready to catch the ball, intending to tag out the runner before he reached home plate but to no avail, the Marine ran home safely.


4/1/2009 By
Sgt. Eric C. Schwartz,
Regimental Combat Team 8

The Marines of Mobile Security Detachment, Headquarters Company, Regimental Combat Team 8, took time out of their busy schedule to borrow some bats, balls and gloves from the Morale, Welfare and Recreation office and challenge their fellow Marines in a game many consider America’s national pastime.

They used green sandbags to create the baseball diamond and had a conjoined dugout, a squared-in-area next to the field, where they grilled sausages, steaks and hamburgers. There weren’t any gripes today as they took turns at bat, playing in the field, and munching on the grilled food.

“Baseball really has brought the platoon together,” said Sgt. Matthew Veniskey, a vehicle commander with the Mobile Security Detachment. “Plus it’s been able to get our minds away from work for half a day.”

The platoon, normally separated into three squads, has always been competitive to boast who has the most squared-away Marines, what squad has the most completed missions, and who has the best weapons knowledge. But today, the competition was between two teams, splitting up squads and working together to be the best baseball team for that game.

“I think it’s really great that our senior leadership was able to organize this for us,” said Cpl. Robert Dillon, a machine gunner with the MSD. “We’re usually in squads but today it feels like we’re a whole team.”

For many of the Marines, baseball was a normal part of their past but some have never played for an organized team.

“I’m glad we got to do this,” said Cpl. Jason Morris, a vehicle commander with the MSD. “It’s been since 2002 that I’ve gotten to play this sport. Everybody’s been having a blast.”

Sergeant Jeffrey McCarty, a section leader and the self-dubbed “morale technical expert” for MSD said that even the guys who are obviously new at this, are having a great time.

“That one year of T-ball as a child definitely paid off,” said Lance Cpl. Douglas Gruebel, a machine gunner with the MSD.

Many of the Marines were jovial about their lack of ability to play but to some, the day’s game was pure relaxation.

“I don’t know what it is,” said Lance Cpl. Brandon Swillinger, a Marine with MSD, “maybe it’s the sound of the game, the crack of the bat or the smack of the mitt.”

Pitch-after-pitch, swing-after-swing, for the stern-faced men of MSD, today was a day to relax, eat freshly grilled food and play some ball.

For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/iimeffwd.

Gates Signs Policy Change for Dignified Transfer Operations at Dover

WASHINGTON, April 1, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has approved a policy change that, under strictly delineated conditions, allows media filming of dignified transfer operations of fallen servicemembers’ remains at Dover Air Force Base, Del.


By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

The new policy is slated to be implemented April 6, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters today. If immediate family members consent to media coverage, Whitman said, reporters would be provided the basic information on the servicemember and the expected time of arrival of the flight bearing the remains.

“The core of the policy,” Whitman said, “is built around the desires of the family members, and it will be the families that decide whether or not media have access to any of these dignified transfers.”

Dover’s Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs is the Defense Department’s largest joint-service mortuary facility, and the only one in the continental United States. Dover also is the U.S. military’s largest air terminal. Media photography or filming of dignified transfers at Dover was prohibited under the previous policy.

In a March 25 memorandum that outlines procedures for the new policy, Gates wrote he’d determined on Feb. 27 “that the [Defense Department] policy governing media access to the dignified transfer of fallen servicemembers at Dover Air Force Base would be modified to allow media access, when approved by the immediate families of the individual fallen.”

Gates announced last month that he would change the policy that had prohibited news organizations from filming dignified transfer operations at Dover.

“We are committed to seeing that America’s fallen heroes are received back to their loved ones and their country with the honor, respect and recognition that they and their families have earned,” Gates said at a March 18 news conference.

Media with family consent to cover dignified transfer operations at Dover will be required to conduct themselves in a respectful, quiet manner so as not to disturb the solemnity of the occasion, Whitman said. That concern, he added, also requires filming and photography using only ambient light and sound.

“So, if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, you get lighting that is 2 o’clock in the morning-type lighting; if it is raining, it’s raining,” Whitman said. “We are not changing the dignified transfer process to accommodate media. What we are doing is accommodating the media to cover the existing dignified transfer process.”

Media with family approval to cover Dover dignified transfers would be placed in an area behind the families, Whitman said, noting that the families aren’t to be filmed or interviewed as they observe transfer operations. Families that agree to be interviewed by media after the transfer operations could do so, Whitman said, but only in a specified area away from the tarmac.

Whitman pointed out that the remains of fallen servicemembers are transported to Dover around the clock in an expeditious manner. When the new policy takes effect, he said, the Dover Air Force Base public affairs office will post to its Web site that a dignified transfer approved for media coverage by the fallen servicemember’s family is to take place, along with the time and some other particulars. The media, Whitman continued, also may opt to subscribe to an e-mail notification system that would provide similar information.

The military will take photographs of dignified transfer operations to provide to families that approve media coverage, Whitman said.

Each dignified transfer operation takes about 15 minutes to complete, Whitman explained. Dover public affairs personnel, he said, would assist media to gain access onto the installation, providing briefings, and take them to the flight line.

Gates tasked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen to set up a working group to develop recommended guidelines and rules for implementing the new policy. Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael J. Basla chaired the group, which consulted with service-support organizations such as the Gold Star Mothers, Gold Star Wives, veterans groups and senior enlisted advisors.

Family members consulted by the working group seemed split on the issue, Basla recalled in an earlier interview, noting some expressed concern about media coverage of dignified transfer operations at Dover, while others appeared to welcome it.

In his memorandum, Gates thanked the working group for its efforts and commended its “very thorough review” of the policy.

Decisions regarding media coverage of the dignified transfer process at Dover should “be made by those most directly affected -- on an individual basis -- by the families of the fallen,” Gates told reporters during a Feb. 26 Pentagon news conference. “We ought not to presume to make that decision in their place.”

Per the memorandum, the following actions are to be taken in conjunction with implementation of the new policy:

-- The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and other Pentagon elements will revise defense regulatory documents to reflect the new policy at Dover;

-- Deceased servicemembers’ remains will be transferred from the combat theater of operations to the Dover facility as soon as possible;

-- The primary next of kin will make the family’s decision regarding media access to dignified transfer operations at Dover;

-- Families of deceased servicemembers will be briefed on the option to allow media coverage of the dignified transfer at the time of notification of the member’s death or as soon as possible thereafter;

-- If the primary next of kin permits media access at Dover, reporters will be given the name, rank, military service and hometown of the “believed to be” casualty. A more complete identification of the deceased servicemember, including unit, place, date and circumstances of death, will be released following the confirmation of the casualty’s identity at the Dover mortuary, and then only 24 hours after the last of the deceased’s next of kin have been notified of the loss; and

-- Primary next of kin and two other family members may travel to Dover at department expense to observe the dignified transfer operation. The services may fund the travel of additional family members on a case-by-case basis.

The secretary’s memorandum also directed the development of a long-term plan to obtain the preference of individual servicemembers regarding media access to dignified transfers should they become a casualty while on active duty.

On March 17, Gates made an unannounced evening visit to Dover to observe the dignified transfer operations there. The trip to Dover “was a very moving experience” for Gates, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters the day after the secretary’s trip.

Quick Reaction Force learns more about man’s best friend

Marines stand by as one of their own dons a black protective suit in preparation for what seems to be a race. As the Marine finishes putting on the suit, a dog handler emerges from the background with a barking German shepherd. As the Marine slowly walks in front of the dog, the dog’s bark grows louder. A few more seconds pass then without notice, the Marine begins to run. Not long after, the handler releases the dog’s leash, and the animal lunges after the Marine in search for the perfect angle of attack.


Story Date
4/1/2009 By
Cpl. Alan Addison,
Regimental Combat Team 8


The Quick Reaction Force comprised of Marines from Bravo Company, 1st Tank Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, conducted training with military working dogs and their handlers, March 30, 2009. The training focused on the attacking and tracking capabilities of the dogs.

“This was a really great training experience,” said Gunnery Sgt. Jason Villasana, platoon sergeant for the QRF. “This is the first time in my Marine Corps career that I’ve been able to do anything like this. None of my guys have been able to do this either; as tankers we don’t get to do stuff like this.”

As the QRF for Multi National Force - West, these Marines must be ready to work with a wide range of various supporting units. Not only do the Marines work with dog handlers, they also work with explosive ordnance disposal and weapons interrogation teams.

“It’s always good when we get to coordinate events like this with other attachments, it gives us a great opportunity to see how they operate,” said Villasana

“Back in the rear the only time you see military police is when they’re at the gate or writing tickets, but this gave us a chance to see the other side of their job.”

During the demonstration, QRF Marines witnessed how military dogs detect possible munitions. A handful of these Marines also received the opportunity to put on bite suits, in order to get a firsthand look at the power and aggressiveness of the dogs.

“It’s good that they put on the bite suit,” said Sgt. Elijah Prudhomme, a military dog handler with Task Force Military Police 112. “It helps them really understand the capabilities of the dogs.”

Understanding the capabilities of the dogs is not the only reward for conducting hands-on training.

“If we ever go out with the QRF, they’ll know how the dogs respond, and they won’t act in a way that may disturb the dog,” said Prudhomme. “It just makes them more aware.”

During QRF missions or other operations, military dogs can be used for explosive, drug, and patrol explosive detection. Prudhomme added that the training helps Marines see the specifics of each aspect of their mission and how not to distract the animals while they are conducting their assigned duties.

Although it may seem that the Marines are gaining the most from the training; the dogs get just as much out of the period of instruction as well.

“For us, training is constant. We like to get the dogs out and train with them, whenever we can,” added Prudhomme.

While the event was a great opportunity to learn, it also provided a source of enlightenment for the Marines.

“All the guys who participated enjoyed it,” said Villasana. “Some of the guys underestimated the power of the dogs. They really didn’t think the dogs were strong enough to take them down until they actually were attacked by one.”

Marines begin to cheer vigorously as the dog draws closer to another heavily protected Marine. In an instant, the fierce animal is airborne and quickly latches onto the Marine and pulls him to the ground. One could take a single look at the dogs and see them as pets, but the QRF Marines of 1st Tank Battalion now know that man’s best friend can be a helpful aid while deployed to a combat environment.

For more information on the ongoing mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, visit www.iimefpublic.usmc.mil/iimeffwd.