Alpena, Mich., native Lance Cpl. Johnathan Osmer, a mortarman with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, scans the horizon, pointing out landmarks he remembers from his deployment to Marjah last year. (Photo by Cpl. Jeff Drew)
MARJAH, Helmand province, Afghanistan (September 8, 2011) — Operation Moshtarak, a Dari word meaning “together,” began in February 2010 as a way for Afghan and coalition forces to assert authority in central Helmand and for the Afghan government to demonstrate its commitment to the people living there, according to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The city of Marjah was a hub for insurgent activity early last year. The residents were oppressed and lived in fear for their lives.
Improvised explosive device factories spawned homemade bombs to line the roadways, and weapons caches equipped insurgents in the streets. The party ended, however, when the Afghan National Army and the U.S. Marines began their movement through the city. Third Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, was on this initial push through the city. The unit has since returned to Marjah as part of its routine deployment schedule, only to find the city is a very different place this time around.
“Day one of Operation Moshtarak, we landed in helicopters and took indirect fire from 83 mm mortars, took fire from 107 mm rockets, and took machine gun fire,” said Alpena, Mich., native Lance Cpl. Johnathan Osmer, a mortarman with 3rd Battalion. “We were fighting platoon-sized elements of (insurgents), but they weren’t (very skilled fighters).”
The month following the initial assault was quiet for Osmer, yet the insurgents were just one enemy the Marines needed to fight. Hail, sleet and rain threatened to flood their desert fighting holes, and freezing temperatures allowed for only a few hours of sleep each night.
The local residents had little trust in the Marines and made their job of tracking down insurgents difficult. They lived in fear of the insurgency, knowing that if they helped Marines, their families could be at risk.
“The (local residents) last year would lie to you,” said Osmer. “You would get into a firefight one day, shooting at their compounds because the insurgents had it occupied. When you went back to ask them how many there were, they would say they haven’t seen (insurgents) in months.”
The spring offensive began once insurgents could extort money from poppy-growing farmers as a way to finance their campaign. The first week of May last year saw Osmer in firefights nearly every day. His deployment progressed and as Marines dominated the battlefield the enemy seemed to change before their eyes.
“The last few months (of our previous deployment) were a lot different,” said Osmer. “The fighters were using L-shaped ambushes, U-shaped ambushes, a combination of IEDs and ambushes – there was a big difference in the enemy from the beginning to the end. In the beginning they would only hit you from one spot and there wouldn’t be much thought put into it. By the end, one firefight I got in they came up behind us, then hit us from the east, then from the west.”
Several battalions have rotated through the area since 3rd Battalion moved through Marjah early last year, furthering the progress and development the unit began. The Marines who have returned with the battalion said they have noticed a lot of changes and are pleased with the improvements. Where once they slept in fighting holes, now the Marines sleep on cots or sometimes in air-conditioned tents. They no longer consume meals-ready-to-eat three times a day, but occasionally enjoy warm meals. Marines have also improved security measures throughout their patrol bases.
“This year the patrol bases are surrounded by (barriers),” said El Paso, Texas, native Lance Cpl. Justin D. Loya, a combat cameraman who was with 3/6 during its deployment last year. “Some have a (Ground-Based Operational Surveillance System) – last year no one had optics like that; it was just the Marines on post with their (night vision goggles) at night and their naked eye during the day.”
“The living conditions are better, we definitely have more cold water than we did last year,” added Osmer, a 2008 graduate of Alpena High School. “The biggest difference, however, is the IEDs and the firefights. Last year we couldn’t even walk on the road because the IEDs were so bad. We knew they were everywhere – (Marines with Explosive Ordnance Disposal) attached to us had their hands full.”
The Afghan National Security Forces partnered with Marines have made great strides since last year and continue to make a difference. Fewer firefights denote a decrease in insurgent activity, and residents can use roads without fear of IEDs. Afghan and coalition forces are training with each other to provide security for local residents. Afghan National Army soldiers have begun to execute successful patrols on their own, while local Interim Security for Critical Infrastructure teams, which function much like a neighborhood watch, are springing up to take responsibility for the protection of their homes.
“The local residents are stepping up and taking care of the area,” said Loya. “It shows the Afghans are helping themselves.”