GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan (May 7, 2012) — Over the past seven months, I’ve seen and experienced progress in Afghanistan most Americans will never hear about from mainstream media.
Serving as a Marine combat correspondent with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in Helmand province’s Garmsir district, I’ve been blessed with the unique opportunity of telling the stories of our Marines, sailors and counterparts with the Afghan National Security Forces.
While most of my fellow Marines operated from the same position with the same group of men, my duties as a writer and photographer allowed me to travel throughout our 80-kilometer long area of operations to cover all five of our infantry and headquarters companies.
In recent years, Garmsir’s green zone — the fertile, populated area surrounding the Helmand River and forming the shape of a snake — had been the scene of heavy fighting between insurgents and coalition forces.
After gaining a foothold in Garmsir in 2008, British forces were augmented by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The British worked in the district for almost two years before turning over combat operations to 2nd Bn., 8th Marines, the first of eight Marine battalions to support Afghan forces here.
By the end of 1st Bn., 3rd Marines’ deployment in November 2011, Garmsir was a model of security among Helmand’s 14 districts. Insurgent activity was significantly reduced when compared to surrounding districts.
While the ‘Lava Dogs’ of 1st Bn. 3rd Marines had worked alongside ANSF throughout their deployment, the evolution of security in Garmsir left my battalion with a different mission. We stepped into a position of overwatch and looked toward the transition of lead security responsibility in the district from Marines to Afghan forces.
Early in the deployment, I joined India Company to support the Afghan National Army and Police in clearing strains of insurgent activity in central Garmsir’s buzzing Safar Bazaar. The new year brought a helicopter-borne clearing operation in northern Garmsir with Lima Co. and the ANA. During subsequent months, I patrolled with Weapons Co. and the Afghan Border Police in southern Garmsir, and Kilo Co. and the ANP spread throughout the district.
From the outset, I found most of the ANSF I worked with to be well trained and capable of operating on their own, especially the ANA — a testimony to their combat experience and the hard work of previous Marine mentors. However, after years of combat and logistical support from coalition forces, they were reluctant to plan and operate alone.
As weeks and months progressed, I watched our Marines wean the ANSF off their dependence on us. They stepped into the periphery and pushed Afghan forces to strengthen Garmsir’s security. They helped them understand that bolstered security would enable commerce to develop, and governance to deepen its roots.
Garmsir’s police force grew from approximately 300 to 600 patrolmen. A second ANA battalion — 6th Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps — arrived in southern Garmsir to augment 2/1/215 based in the north. In the eastern desert near Khan Neshin district, the ABP expanded south to prevent the movement of drugs and insurgent logistics into Garmsir.
Security increased around the district’s bazaars and commerce followed. Protected by ANSF vehicle checkpoints throughout Garmsir, local citizens celebrated the Afghan New Year in mid-March safe from the insurgent threat.
District community council elections were held April 17 in Hazar Joft without incident. The successful elections enabled governance historically centered around the district center to expand into areas previously lacking representation by the Afghan government.
Over the last seven months, I experienced significant, historic development built on the sacrifices of thousands of Afghan and coalition forces. I witnessed positive progress in Garmsir that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media.
During this time, I captured Marines, sailors and Afghan forces in 9,300 photographs, 62 stories and standalone photo essays, and 16 video packages. I’m proud I had the opportunity to share their stories with the families of men sacrificing to make a difference and every American supporting their efforts.
In coming weeks, 3rd Bn., 8th Marines, will relieve 3rd Bn., 3rd Marines. The incoming Marines will continue to assist ANSF on a journey marked by both hardship and progress.
In months and years to come, the Afghan forces will face their greatest challenges. Far from home, we’ve sweat and bled to prepare them to the best of our abilities. It will be up to them to stand on their own and defend their people.