Story and photos by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones
PB Alcatraz sits atop a sandy bluff on the valley’s rim. The outpost, home to 3rd Recon Bn., and 1st Bn., 6th Marine Regt, overlooks miles and miles of the valley. “It ain’t sex; it’s good old-fashioned hard work,” said Master Sgt. Rex Coste, the senior enlisted Marine on the TF, a native of Texas, and the staff NCO-in-charge of expeditionary airfield systems for Marine Wing Support Sqdn 371.TF Nomad’s helicopter landing zones allow rotary-winged aircraft ranging from light attack helicopters to MV-22B Ospreys, and heavy support helicopters, access to the dozens of patrol bases that pepper the Helmand River valley.The bases help rid the region of violence and terror, while earning the trust of the Afghan citizens. As Afghan and CF hunt down the enemy and integrate with the populace, they do so knowing that the dynamic capabilities of Marine Corps aviation lay just beyond the clouds. Marine Wing Support Sqdn 371, and its small TF, are in place to provide those air assets with whatever they need on the ground. “Our role as a Marine wing support sqdn. is to support flying sqdns, whether for medical evacuations or attack aircraft,” said Capt. Michael Gagnon, a native of Mass., who commands the small detachment. “What we’re doing here allows troops to get resupplied, and casualty evacuation.”The small team of roughly 20 men come with more than 10 different occupational specialties. Together, they'll construct landing zones, allowing the full might of Marine aviation to support the forces operating in the valley. “Personally, what we’re doing has a real honorable cause behind it,” said Sgt. Eric Zauner, the TF’s senior motor vehicle operator, and a native of Wisc. “Anything we can do to get medical attention for the Marines faster – that’s first and foremost in my mind.”In the early morning hours of Oct. 21, the TF left for its first mission. Convoying down Route 611, an important and busy road in Helmand prov. Busy with cars, trucks and motorcycles, the convoy pressed on under the watchful eyes of the MP tasked with protecting the TF’s ops.“Convoying up these routes with all this traffic is difficult. It’s hard to have vehicles all around your convoy and feel secure,” said GnySgt. Ronald Williams Jr., of Mo., who heads the MP plt. “We’re going to stay vigilant, stay alert. My guys are well trained and know what they’re doing. I have great NCOs; they run the show.”The convoy arrived at their destination to build a gravel helicopter landing zone. The unit’s compound was built alongside a village. TF Nomad began the work enabling a viable and safe helicopter landing zone, that would support the weight of a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter, or MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.Cpl. Christopher Cane, a heavy equipment operator, and a native of Wash., manned an armored bulldozer, spreading gravel for the construction of the landing zone. “It’s always a challenge coming into a situation not knowing what you’re going to find,” Cane said. “I’m proud of these guys,” Coste said at the end of a successful op. “We went somewhere we’ve never been, and we didn’t know what we would find when we got there. There were a lot of unknowns, and we made it happen.”Gagnon, who is on his 3rd Afghan deployment in 2 years, said future successes come with challenges. “This is a thinking man’s war,” Gagnon said. “The enemy is watching. If I do things the same way twice, the chances dramatically increase for an incident.”Gagnon said that his Marines were the most important asset to the mission. “There are only 3 things I need – weapons, equipment and my personnel,” Gagnon said. “They bring a unique skill-set central to setting up helicopter landing zones.” “If at any point we get into trouble or take enemy fire, I have no doubt this detachment can handle it,” Zauner said. “It’s what we’ve been training for, it’s what we’re here for.”
LCpl. Scott Van New Kirk cleans his rifle at PB Alcatraz, at the conclusion of a successful mission constructing a helicopter landing zone for a special ops outpost. Van New Kirk, a native of Calif., serves as an MP.
Capt. Michael Gagnon, right, and GnySgt. Ronald Williams Jr., debrief a recent mission.
Capt. Michael Gagnon, right, and Cpl. Christopher Cane discuss the construction of a helicopter landing zone.
GnySgt. Ronald Williams Jr., prepares for a mission, from the front seat of a MRAP all-terrain vehicle, in the early morning hours of Oct. 21.
Capt. Michael Gagnon, left, and Sgt. Eric Zauner test the communications equipment on an MRAP vehicle. Zauner, from Wisc., serves as the team's senior motor vehicle operator.
The day before the 1st mission, Capt. Michael Gagnon briefs his Marines on the plan to construct a helicopter-landing zone. Over the next several weeks, the TF will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the Helmand River valley.
Third Afghan Tour, Marine Brings Experience, Leadership
Story and photos by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones
PATROL BASE ALCATRAZ - Gagnon said “knowing how to employ personnel and equipment” is critical to the success of his current mission, and he’s learned a few tricks from the region over the years. “I was here in 2009 when we were putting the first bns. in country,” Gagnon said. “I’ve seen footholds spread from warzones, to active and bustling peaceful economies with wheat distribution centers. The local police, and the ANA get better every day. Civil Affairs has rebuilt roads and expanded economies. It’s remarkable how much things have developed in a short amount of time.”
Capt. Michael Gagnon teaches Afghan children how to fist bump.
Cpl. Christopher Cane constructs a helicopter landing zone from behind the wheel of an armored bulldozer, Oct. 21. Cane is a heavy equipment operator on a roughly 20-man team dubbed "TF Nomad." Over the next several weeks, the TF will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the Helmand River valley.
Sgt. Eric Zauner speaks at the debriefing at PB Alcatraz, on the conclusion of a successful mission, Oct. 21. Zauer serves as the senior motor vehicle operator.
Afghan National Army maintains Progress in Garmsir
GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand Province — When 1st Bn, 3rd Marine Regt arrived, the ANA acted as augments to the infantry squads of the bn. There were only a few un-partnered positions, and the ANA was spread throughout the district in groups of 3 or 4 soldiers.Now, nearing the 4-year mark of their presence in Garmsir, the ANA is functioning as a unit. Where there were fire teams before, there are now squads. With mentoring and advice from 1/3, the ANA has consolidated its forces into elements that can operate independently.“What we can call a success is that we've started to take Garmsir in a different direction,” said Capt. Joshua Cavan, asst. ops officer for 1st Bn, and native of N.Y. “On the hyperbolic curve, prior bns. were on the upside of the curve. The peak was when 2nd Bn, 1st Marine Regt. was here and cleared Safar and Durzay.” “We're now on the back slope of that curve,” added Cavan. “We’re not ready to pull out by any means, but we’re now in the build phase. We’re building up the ANSF, and closing some of the positions. We've gone from having more than 50 positions, with Marines, to having a little more than 30. The ANSF have gone from 18 positions to more than 25.”More than 8 Marine PBs have been transferred to the ANA. Soldiers conduct their own patrols, and Marines at partnered positions act as advisors and mentors. Although there hasn’t been a change in the number of soldiers, the number of autonomous ANA elements has increased. “I would say that 85% of the patrolling effort we have is ANA lead,” said 1st Lt. Brandon Salter, plt. cmdr. of Combined Anti Armor Team 1, Weapons Co, 1/3. “It doesn’t take the Marines to drive them anymore. They're out there taking the initiative themselves and conducting ops.”“I feel that if I turned my positions over to the ANA, they're not going to just sit there and allow the enemy to move around freely,” added Salter, a native of Ga. “They're going to get out there and be aggressive with their patrolling. Just because we're pulling back into more of an over-watch atmosphere, it doesn’t mean we aren’t there. We're still mentoring them; we’re still going out there, and we still do joint patrols.”Over the course of 1/3’s deployment the ANA has participated in every op, having taken the lead in 4 of them. Every squad has gone through a validation course, which brings the squad together at a Marine position, and evaluates proficiency in patrolling, offense and defense movements. Afghan forces are becoming self-reliant, requiring little Marine logistical support. Further training continues with monthly classes conducted by 1/3’s ETT. “Before, it was just 2 or 3 ANA soldiers at a PB, and we, the Marines, would take care of them,” said Cavan. “Now that they've their own positions, they have to supply themselves.” “They can take care of the basic needs of their soldiers as far as food, water and fuel,” added Cavan. “In terms of a fully functioning supply and maintenance system, it’s coming along. They've made some strides, but they're not to the point where they can do it on there own. With continued mentorship they'll get there.” With the help of Marines from 1/3, the ANA have progressed toward taking authority of security in Garmsir. As Marine forces consolidate in preparation for the planned transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces, the ANA soldiers of Garmsir look to fill the role. Being able to work alongside a foreign force, no matter the location, is an opportunity in of itself. The relationship is dynamic, often times working through a language and cultural barrier, that can make daily tasks difficult. For the Marines of Combined Anti Armor Team (CAAT)-1, the experience of working with ANA soldiers is unique. Sgt. Angel Franco has patrolled almost every day with his ANA counterparts. “At first it was difficult conducting joint patrols,” said Franco, a section leader with CAAT-1, and native of Ariz. “They don’t patrol the same as we do, but now it’s much better. They respond to our advice, and if we've a problem, we sit down and fix it by talking to each other.”This sentiment is echoed by the other Marines of CAAT-1, who see their experience of training and mentoring Afghan soldiers as one they won’t soon forget. “When I call back home, I tell my family that this is a once in a lifetime experience,” said Salter. “Being able to train and lead Marines, and at the same time work alongside a foreign force and watch them grow, build and take pride … to see them start raising Afghan flags, and start taking pride in their country, it’s great. It’s rewarding to get to be a part of that.”
An ANA soldier interacts with a local child during a security patrol.
An ANA soldier shakes hands with a local child.
An ANA soldier calls in a position report.
Marines Maintain Security 24/7 at PB Mehraj
PATROL BASE MEHRAJ, Helmand province – “I’m at the entry control point post, so anybody coming too quick toward it, I’ve got to make sure that I slow them down, tell them to stop,” said Calif. native, LCpl. Javier Deleon. “I check everybody before they get too close.”The Marines thoroughly scan the landscape during their shifts, on the lookout for potential threats, scrutinizing every detail within their view. They radio the Combat Ops Center (COC) on base if something catches their attention, which uses a camera perched atop an antenna to get a closer look. “You get on post and watch your sectors of fire for anything out of the ordinary,” said Deleon, a dog handler with Fox Co. “For instance, if somebody all of a sudden is running somewhere, you’d call that in; guys walking around with yellow jugs – I know a lot of them use them for water, but you don’t always know, so you scope them out; guys with shovels – there are always a lot of guys with shovels, but you want to make sure they’re not dangerous.” Kinetic attacks directed at the base are not an everyday occurrence, but the threat always remains. It can be easy to lose focus, especially considering the Marines work many hours in austere conditions, and are often tired. They must, nevertheless, stay attentive, so they're ready to respond appropriately to any potential threats to the base. “I usually just sing songs in my head and keep looking at different stuff,” said Mich. native, LCpl. Clayton Todd, a rifleman with Fox Co. “You can’t stare at the same thing, otherwise you’ll just daydream and space out; you’ve got to always keep looking around different areas.” Standing post for hours on end may be mundane most days, but also has an upside: it has given the Marines a unique vantage point to watch people who live in the immediate vicinity of the PB, an education on Afghan culture one can’t receive from watching a television program, or listening to a university lecture. “You learn how people live. You just watch them throughout the day, what their routine is – what they do in the morning, what they do in the afternoon, and what they do at night,” said Deleon, who is experiencing his 1st combat deployment.
“They drink from the well, so they don’t have a water system like we do. I’m not sure if everyone has electricity, but they have power lines and when they went down, they tried to fix them right away. Most of them walk barefoot – I’ve seen that. I’ve never seen anyone walk around barefoot in America, especially on ground like this – rocks and all kinds of stuff everywhere.”
SouthHELMAND PROVINCE -- A combined Afghan and coalition patrol killed multiple insurgents and detained 2 others, during an op in Baghran district, yesterday. 8,800-lbs (4,000 kgs) of poppy seeds, 66-lbs, (30 kgs) of opium, and a quantity of small arms were seized by the SecFor.
----- A combined Afghan and coalition SecFor detained multiple suspected insurgents, during an op in search of a Taliban facilitator in Sangin district, yesterday. The facilitator distributes weapons and explosives throughout the Sangin district, and plans roadside bomb attacks against CF. Additionally, he coordinates the movement of insurgent fighters from Ghorak to Sangin, and directs them in attacks throughout the district.URUZGAN PROVINCE -- In Tarin Kot district, a combined Afghan and coalition patrol killed 2 insurgents and detained numerous others, during an op to disrupt an insurgent network, yesterday. The patrol also seized a quantity of small arms.KANDAHAR PROVINCE -- A combined Afghan and coalition security patrol discovered a large IED, during an op in Zharay district, yesterday. The IED was located just inside the entry to a local compound, presenting a direct threat to the local population. The combined force requested assistance from an EOD team, which safely destroyed the IED, resulting in one uninhabited building damaged. No civilians were harmed during the op. East
PAKTIKA PROVINCE — A combined Afghan and coalition SECFOR killed 2 insurgents and detained a suspected insurgent, during an op in search of a Haqqani network leader in Yahya Khel district, yesterday. The leader oversees multiple insurgent fighting cells, and is responsible for numerous attacks against Afghan forces. Multiple weapons and bomb making materials were seized.
----- A coalition airstrike killed an insurgent after troops positively identified him emplacing an IED in Sharan district, Nov. 1.
LOGAR PROVINCE -- ANA troops detained 4 individuals wanted for questioning in Baraki Barak district, Nov. 1. They were safely transported to a nearby HQ for questioning.NANGARHAR PROVINCE -- In Shinwar district, a weapons cache was turned over to Afghan forces, as part of a local disarmament program, yesterday. The cache consisted of 2 RPG launchers, 8 RPGs, a mortar tube, 74 82 mm mortar rounds, a recoilless rifle, 3 heavy machine guns, 90 12.7 mm rounds, and various weapon mounts. All of the weapons were turned over to local police officials for inventory.KHOST PROVINCE -- A combined Afghan and coalition SecFor detained multiple suspected insurgents, during an op in search of a Haqqani network leader in Sabari district, yesterday. The leader distributes rockets, firearms, and roadside bomb components, as well as plans attacks throughout Sabari district.
----- Insurgents wounded 2 Afghan civilians, when an IED detonated in Khowst district, Nov. 1. CF immediately provided medical care, and transported one of the wounded to a nearby coalition clinic for treatment. The other individual was treated at the scene and released.Ops in RC-East are still ongoing.GHAZNI PROVINCE -- During a routine security patrol in Ghazni district, a combined Afghan and CF observed multiple suspected insurgents unloading AK-47s and RPGs from a container, yesterday. Assessing an imminent threat, the combined force requested close air support to engage the insurgent position, resulting in several insurgents killed, and a building destroyed. The combined force assessed that no civilians were harmed during the op. In addition, multiple rifles and RPGs were seized by the force and turned over to local police officials.
----- Coalition airstrikes killed 4 insurgents after they were identified with machine guns and an RPG launcher, in Ghazni district, Nov. 1.
RAMADI – “What time is it?” yelled a Paratrooper donning a crisp, white paper cap. “Five minutes till,” answered another. It was 4:55 pm, almost time for dinner to be served, and a line had already formed outside the chow hall doors, continued down the long hallway, and disappeared to the outside. Hungry paratroopers gazed expectantly through the window to see what was cooking.When the door finally opened, a flood of soldiers forked off to utilize both left and right serving stations, ensuring they get their food as fast as possible. “People have to wait longer, but these guys are doing a lot more than people realize,” said Sgt. Justin Gonzalez, a food service specialist, assigned to the 2nd Bde, 82nd AD.The 2/82’s food service specialists took control of the Camp Ramadi dining facility from KBR civilian contractors on Oct. 25, in preparation for the turnover of the camp to the GoI by the end of the year. While some have been overseeing ops in the DFAC throughout the Falcon Bde’s deployment to Iraq, most worked at the Class 1 yard distributing food in support of outpost ops. Now they're all back in the kitchen conducting every step in the process of feeding personnel on Camp Ramadi, but with a fraction of the equipment and manpower of the contractors."While KBR had more than 60 personnel per shift, the Falcons make due with only 12," said Gonzalez, a native of Texas. Much of the equipment the contractors used has also been removed. The cooks have to keep up a quick pace in order to make up for the difference. “We’re working at optimal tempo,” he said.The days are split into 12-hour shifts, each shift responsible for serving one meal, feeding a total of about 2,700 personnel every day. Soldiers have the option of picking up a meal ready-to-eat to serve as their lunch. "The DFAC only serves 2 hot meals in order to make the food they have last as long as possible," said Sgt. 1st Class William Richter, the senior food service specialist for the 2/82’s 1st Bn, and a native of Calif. This ensuresthat personnel will receive hot food for a longer period of time, before having to settle for MREs for every meal. All of the food from the Class 1 yard was moved to a large room attached to the DFAC, which is now stacked high with pallets of everything from grape juice cartons to industrial-sized cans of peas. "Every shift, the cooks must break down about 150 of these boxes to prepare for each meal," Gonzalez said. "Some food is taken to the kitchen to be cooked, and the rest is organized in the dining room. Timing is crucial," he added, "since some of the food can't be at room temp for too long, before it's cooked. “We have to manage our time well and reverse-plan,” he said."About an hour before each meal is served, the cooks load down large tough-boxes with dozens of to-go plates for paratroopers who cannot make it to scheduled meal times," Gonzalez said. The cooks have been working hard for several hours before the door opens for their shift’s meal service. “We’ve already been here 5 hours for a 2 hour service,” Gonzalez said as paratroopers began pouring in for dinner chow. Even with fewer personnel to prepare meals, and less equipment to prepare them with, the 2/82’s food service specialists are getting the job done. Just before walking to the counter to help serve his fellow paratroopers, Gonzalez added, “to be able to push out the amount of food we’re putting out, with such little equipment and personnel is pretty awesome.”
Spc. Anthony Linton, a food service specialist, assigned to the 2nd Bde, helps load a tough-box. Linton is a native of Mich.