CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Good evening, friends. We’re still aboard this forward operating base, conducting interviews for several stories in forthcoming issues of Marine Corps Times.
In the meantime, I wanted to share a meeting I had today with the top brass in 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. The unit is on its way back to the U.S. following a grueling seven-month deployment in volatile northern Helmand province.
Its Marines were based primarily in Sangin at first, and then gradually spread through Kajaki, Musa Qala and Now Zad districts as the drawdown in forces across Afghanistan commenced this summer. They’ve been replaced by the bulk of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines.
As some of you may remember, photographer James Lee and I embedded with 1/7 in April, shortly after they arrived in theater. It was a positive experience, so I was glad to cross paths unexpectedly today with Lt. Col. David Bradney, the battalion commander, and Sgt. Maj. Keith Coombs, the unit’s top enlisted Marine.
In what became a 45-minute interview, the two leaders shared their feelings about the deployment, their mission and the shift to Afghan forces taking the lead on security operations while Marines serve in a reserve security force assistance role. Of note: Sangin, once the most notorious place in Afghanistan, has shown tangible progress, both in terms of security and the development of Afghan forces who must protect it.
Doing so required firmness, Bradney said. Security eroded temporarily in Sangin in several places after the shift, prompting officers in the Afghan National Security Forces to take over, he said.
“I would look right at them and say, ‘What is your response? What are you going to do?’” Bradney said. “They would just look at me like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not how we’ve done it before,’ and I had to reiterate that the rules have changed.”
That isn’t to say 1/7 didn’t push the envelope to chase the Taliban. They ran several raids and operations in and around Sangin, killing scores of enemy fighters in the process. In one case, 17 insurgents were killed in a Sept. 6 firefight involving Marines and members of both the Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniformed Police, the men said.
“Everybody said, ‘Nobody can tame Sangin’ … and we essentially did it,” Coombs said. “We pushed them across the river, we pushed them out into the desert, and then we went down south and got some of that, too. We have things in place now that gives them a chance to work it. However it works out now, that’s on them. But we’ve given them space, which I think is important.”
To illustrate the tests his battalion faced, Bradney said 680 of the estimated 1,025 men in his unit were recommended for Combat Action Ribbons. Four service members have been recommended for the Silver Star, and 10 for the Bronze Star with V device, he added.
On the flip side, six members of 1/7 were killed on the deployment and three lost both legs in improvised explosive device blasts. That’s frustrating and tragic, but it’s also a marked improvement over last summer, when 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., was hit hard.
Bradney said the Marines pushed hard each day, but also were smart about avoiding streets, alleys and other potentially treacherous spots where IEDs could be hidden unless there was an absolute need. The result: The Taliban is far less formidable in the region than it could have been.
“They’re kind of limping into the fall season,” Bradney said. “We smacked them pretty hard all summer, and we continued to punch them in the throat.”