Last large unit of Marines comes home from Afghanistan

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Families wait to greet their Marines on Thursday at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The Marines of Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan returned home after a 10-month deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Jennifer Hlad/Stars and Stripes)
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Families wait to greet their Marines on Thursday at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The Marines of Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan returned home after a 10-month deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Jennifer Hlad/Stars and Stripes)

Last large unit of Marines comes home from Afghanistan

by: Jennifer Hlad | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: November 08, 2014

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — After handing over control of the Camp Leatherneck-Camp Bastion compound in Helmand province to Afghan forces, the Marines of Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan — the last large unit of Marines expected to deploy to Afghanistan — have come home.

Carla Mitchell said she and her two children had been getting ready for her husband’s return for nearly a week. This was not Maj. Raymond Mitchell’s first deployment, but it was his first to Afghanistan, she said, which made it a little more difficult, knowing he was in harm’s way.

Seth Robb, a former infantry Marine who deployed to Nawa in 2009, sat under a red canopy holding flowers as he waited for his wife.

Sgt. Andrea Robb, who worked in supply, said she enjoyed the deployment — despite eating only MREs the past few days — but had a “big mission,” sending back all of the Army equipment that the Marine Corps had borrowed.

MEB-A took control of Regional Command-Southwest in a short, snowy ceremony in February. Army Maj. Gen. Mark Milley, then commander of International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command and deputy commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, praised the outgoing North Carolina-based Marines for the progress they made reducing violence and making it the “most disciplined regional command in Afghanistan, by far,” but warned Gen. Daniel Yoo that the fight wasn’t over.

This year was to be “the most decisive period in the entire war,” Milley said, when ISAF would deliver “a mortal death blow to the enemies of Afghanistan.”

Two weeks later, in an interview with Stars and Stripes in his office at Leatherneck, Yoo, the commander of MEB-A and Regional Command Southwest, said he was “very cautiously optimistic,” about the Afghan forces’ ability to sustain themselves after the Marines left.

“They know how to fight. It’s the planning, it’s making sure they can project forward and deal with whatever resources they’re given,” Yoo said. “Right now, [the challenge] seems to be sustainment.”

Thursday, standing in a hot parking lot in front of a Humvee and the Marine Corps flag, Yoo told the Marines and their families that they had accomplished their mission.

“We saw a lot of transition during our time frame there, and … I am optimistic [Afghan forces] will continue to provide security for their nation. They have the capacity, the capability,” he said. “Your Marines performed extraordinarily over there.”

Capt. Julius Oreiro deployed with MEB-A as a maintenance adviser to Afghan forces. In an interview at Camp Leatherneck in February, he was not sure whether Afghan forces would be able to master and sustain the complex logistics systems the American forces were teaching them.

Thursday, he said the Marines had simplified the system and that by the time he left Afghanistan in June, the Afghans were acquiring parts from Kabul on their own.

“We did what we [could], and when we left, we were confident,” he said “[that] they were completely sustainable.”

Though many of the Marines with MEB-A had not previously deployed to Afghanistan, Yoo was part of the unit that first went into the country in 2001; he returned from July 2009 to April 2010.

“It’s been a long history of Marines in Afghanistan,” he said Thursday. “I think places like Marjah, Sangin, Kajaki, Garmsir, Lashkar Gah, all those will go down in the history of the Marine Corps.”

During this deployment, the Marines left Delaram, Nimroz province and Sangin, and closed or transferred all remaining bases in RC-Southwest to Afghan forces.

Not long after the Marines left Sangin, the Taliban launched a blistering attack, and while Afghan and coalition officials insist the Afghan security forces were able to hold and reclaim their ground, the toll the enemy took is undeniable.

On Wednesday, the commander of ISAF Joint Command, Army Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, said in a news conference via satellite from Afghanistan that the ANSF had lost 4,634 troops this year, compared to the 2,346 troops the U.S. has lost in Afghanistan since 2001.

“Those numbers are not sustainable in the long term,” Anderson said.

Despite the uncertainty ahead, Yoo said he believes MEB-A “had an impact, there’s no doubt about it … we came in there with our coalition partners, we secured the area and we transitioned it. And that was our goal.”

“What the Afghans do with it is really up to them. They’ve got to want it more than us, and based on my observations, I think they do.”

Winter is a less kinetic time in Afghanistan, but also a chance for both the insurgency and the Afghan forces to rest and get ready for the spring, he said.

“I think the next 90 days [are] critical because they’ll be seating the government, which means there’s going to be change,” he said, which means risk.

“The corruption is still a problem, the poppy is still an issue, but there are a lot of issues we have in the United States … and they’re going to have to decide how they’re going to deal with them from a governance perspective and an Afghan perspective,” Yoo said.

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad