CAMP LEATHERNECK, Helmand Province, Afghanistan --
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a four-part series chronicling a trek across Nawa district called the Nawa Victory Walk, a four-day, 30-mile patrol by U.S. Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers.
The third day of the Nawa Victory Walk began early. Marines with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, woke as the sun rose, then filled up on energy bars for breakfast. They checked their equipment, refilled water containers, met up with their Afghan National Army counterparts, and headed for the front gate.
The third day of the four-day, 30-mile patrol was in full swing. The battalion commander of 1/9, Mercer Island, Wash., native Lt. Col. Tyler Zagurski, joined Afghan Lt. Col. Gul Ahmad, the commanding officer for 1st Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps, to continue their trek, meeting with local elders and Afghan residents along the way to promote confidence in Afghan security forces.
The Marines’ aching shoulders and sore feet seemed to be a thing of the past, as they had grown accustomed to the weight and pace of the movement during the previous days of patrolling.
In the last two days the Afghan soldiers and Marines had seen a lot. On the first day they moved hundreds of meters into the desert to aid local forces if necessary after hearing gunfire in the distance, an event that highlighted the readiness of Afghan police to maintain security.
“During the movement to contact (the enemy), I think the ANA and the Afghan Local Police did excellent,” said Lynn, Ark., native Sgt. Jeremy Cooney, the ground element commander for the patrol. “I was impressed. They immediately set out flanking movement and got online and pushed out straight toward (the gunfire). They didn’t hesitate and they didn’t shoot at anyone because, at the time, we didn’t know who was good and who was bad.”
A groundbreaking ceremony of a local health clinic marked the second day. Key leaders, including council members, local elders, and the district governor, arrived at the Loy Kolay Precinct, an Afghan security outpost, to cut a ceremonial ribbon and place the foundation bricks.
Morale was high as the group set out the third day, marked by a shorter distance of eight kilometers.
As they exited the door that led to the surrounding town of Khalaj, Cooney took charge of his Marines, and they fell in line behind the ANA.
“I think we are setting out to do what we intended,” said Cooney. “The biggest part of this was being able to go to the different (patrol bases) and let (the Afghan soldiers) see that their commanders are out here with them. The ANA and the Marines are walking the streets and keeping it safe – I think, so far, this has been a success.”
As the ground element commander, Cooney is in charge of all Marines walking in the patrol, taking charge of all security aspects and ensuring coverage in all directions. His southern drawl matched with the surrounding sea of cornfields and farms highlighted his southern upbringing, and he spoke of his family as the soldiers and Marines walked down the dirt roads. He described his five children and how he couldn’t wait to finish the mission and go back to the United States so he could go fishing and hunting and ride horses with them.
Nawa’s security stands on the cusp of transition to Afghan control, and as the Marines patrolled to the various patrol bases and outposts, Cooney spoke of some of the district’s progress.
“The people were pretty supportive of us when we got here, but I think we’ve been able to build on that relationship a lot,” said the 31-year-old Cooney. “There are many more patrol bases being run by ANA than when we got here; that, in itself, is a big accomplishment. (Afghans) are starting to take care of security and do things themselves.”
“You reach a point in a place like Nawa where continued growth and progress is impossible until you take a step back and encourage your partners to fill the gap,” said Zagurski.
“We won’t let them fail; we haven’t let them fail. We’ve watched them very carefully, and they have been very successful.”
The ANA soldiers and Marines patrolled to Patrol Bases Luy Jolah, Jangeali, and Toor Ghar. At each stop Afghan security forces welcomed them, offering food and chai tea. From Toor Ghar the Marines jumped into vehicles and moved to Patrol Base Kharaman, an abandoned mansion turned into an outpost where they would sleep for the evening. With one day left on the scheduled patrol, the service members were excited. They tucked themselves into sleeping bags to fend off the dropping temperatures and fell asleep under the stars.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my men,” said Cooney. “They keep pushing on without complaint – some have blisters, or their shoulders ache, but they don’t show it.”
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.