Story by Sgt. Michele Watson

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Marines with Support Company, 9th Engineer  Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward) worked tirelessly toward  the completion of a 12 kilometer stretch of road.
A road was already in  place, but during several severe rainstorms the route was damaged and in  desperate need of repair.
“After receiving approval to reconstruct the  road, we had to figure out the amount of fuel, equipment and manpower needed to  accomplish the mission,” said Gunnery Sergeant Joel Williams, heavy equipment  chief, Heavy Equipment Platoon, Support Co., 9th ESB, 1st MLG (Fwd).
To  construct a road that can withstand heavy rains, heavy equipment operators used  heavy equipment for a multi-step system. The process created a smooth path  similar to roads in America.
First, the Marines used a front loader to  load up the dump trucks with gravel. The dump trucks then dropped the gravel  onto the road. A road grader, which is used to shape the road, leveled out the  surface and also made the V-ditches on the side. After the road was shaped, a  water truck wet the rock and soil. Once that dried, heavy equipment operators  used a compactor to pack the building materials together. This process results  in a fast, convenient route of travel.
“While I am in the compactor, my  job is to make sure the road is heavily compressed,” said Lance Cpl. Yanet  Sierra Trejo, a heavy equipment operator with Heavy Equipment platoon, Support  Co., 9th ESB, 1st MLG (Fwd). “When I am in the [front loader], I have to make  sure I put enough gravel in the dump to lay out on the road.”
Although  asphalt is not used to create a black top surface like highways in America, when  using the adapted road, the difference is hard to notice.
“You can feel  how smooth it is when you’re driving on the road,” said Williams. “It’s just  like driving on a road back home.”
To counter the effects of water  damage, the Marines built V-ditches on both sides of the road for rain to drain  into. The road was also built with a small crown.
“Instead of having a  flat road, we leave a three to five percent grade crown in the road, so the  water goes into the V-ditches during rainfall,” said Cpl. Joshua Reynolds, a  heavy equipment operator, Heavy Equipment Platoon, Support Co., 9th ESB, 1st MLG  (Fwd).
Road construction always requires the skill of heavy equipment  operators, but more was required to accomplish this mission due to the threat of  insurgent activity.
“Being in Afghanistan we also have to determine how  much security is needed,” said Williams.
During the project, a security  team was established to protect the Marines working on the road.
“Before  the heavy equipment operators begin their work, we clear the area using  mine-rollers to proof the area for [improvised explosive devices],” said Cpl.  Jared Hilton, security team leader, 2nd squad, Security Platoon, Support Co.,  9th ESB, 1st MLG (Fwd). “Once it’s cleared, the operators can move freely.”
Multiple irrigation trenches and canals create opportunities for enemy  fighters to maneuver and place improvised explosive devices, but added security  diminishes the threat.
“Insurgents use the areas we can’t see, like  wadis, to move around,” said Hilton. “We post security and keep eyes on all  avenues of approach, so the heavy equipment operators can work through the day  and focus on their task.”
With the completion of the road, military  vehicles as well as local civilians have a faster and safer method of  travel.
“The road will allow freedom of movement without worrying about  damaging mine-roller wheels or the vehicle itself,” said Williams.
Hilton  also discussed the benefit of lessened IED threats.
“Because we add so  many rocks, the road is harder, and it’s more difficult to dig holes to plant  IEDs in,” said Hilton.
The Marines of Support Company worked well  together, and their dedication to the mission brought safety to both military  and civilian vehicles and garnered the appreciation of the locals.
“I  think these Marines are some of the best I have ever worked with,” said  Williams. “They have the ability to deliver and make it happen. They are all  positive, so it makes for good end results.”
Hilton also said the efforts  of both security and construction go hand in hand.
“We definitely work as  one team,” said Hilton.”We all know each other’s jobs and responsibilities, and  it helps to make the mission run smooth.”

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Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class  Monique LaRouche

FORWARDING OPERATING BASE EDINBURGH, Afghanistan – The Shock Trauma Platoon and  Forward Resuscitative Surgical Systems from Bravo Company, 1st Medical  Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward) on Forwarding Operating Base  Edinburgh, Afghanistan, are more than just in the fight, they save the lives of  the combat wounded any time of the day.
The STP is the smallest mobile  medical support element of a medical battalion. They provide assistance to  Regional Command Southwest including collecting, clearing and evacuating  casualties. They provide resuscitative treatment care and temporary holding of  casualties.
The 38 member team works around the clock and is equipped  for medical evacuation emergencies. The team consists of enlisted and officer,  doctors, nurses, surgeons, corpsmen, anesthesiologists and Marine security.
The basic medical center consists of an emergency room, two operating rooms,  a lab and X-ray capability. The patients arrive via helicopter with a medical  evacuation team from the battlefield.
The combat casualties consist of  anything from gunshot wounds, scorpion bites, electrocutions and fragmentation  from improvised explosive devices to anything else, said Lt. Cmdr. John Moore,  officer in charge of the STP/FRSS.
Their mission is to provide medical  care to troops in northern Helmand province, said Moore, a native of Memphis,  Tenn.
In the remote location of FOB Edinburgh, the team provides  surgical level care, damage control and care to trauma casualties including  amputations if necessary. Since the STP is mobile, they are completely  operational anywhere in the world, added Moore.
“Everyone has their  responsibilities,” said Moore about their role on the team.
After  lifesaving combat skills are given on the ground, Dedicated Unhesitating Service  To Our Fighting Forces, or DUSTOFF, gives medical care in the air, and  transports the rescued wounded to the STP/FRSS.
“The care given consists  of cleaning all wounds, stopping massive bleeding, splinting all types of  fractures, securing the airways and managing and controlling massive trauma to  include blast injury and multiple amputees, gunshot wounds and basic head  trauma,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Justin Wright, a field medical corpsman at  FOB Edinburgh, and a native of Loomis, Calif.
After the patient is  stabilized, the patient is then moved via airlift to resuscitative care. If the  patient is stable enough, the medical helicopters will fly the patient directly  to a Role III hospital, said Wright.
The blood bank, a vital part of the  STP, receives blood from the United States for blood transfusions. They have a  walk-in blood bank which is open to anyone interested in donating blood, said  medical lab technician, Petty Officer 2nd Class Melisa McCannell.
“We  have not gotten so low in our inventory that we have had to take whole blood,” said McCannell, a native of Hallowell, Maine. McCannell is deployed to  Afghanistan for her third time and is enjoying FOB Edinburgh.
“We have  to have a step between the battlefield and the hospital,” said McCannell. “There  are patients who come through here, and if they were to go straight to (Camp)  Leatherneck, there may not have been enough time.”
“We have donors, like  the Army and the Marines, who work here. We have them all come in and get  prescreened. We draw blood from them, take samples and the results take about a  month,” said McCannell. “In case of an emergency, like a mass causality, we can  take blood from those patients and we know it is safe.”
Most patients who  are seen at the STP are lower extremity amputations, said Petty Officer 1st  Class Richard McFarland, surgical technician and the leading petty officer.
The vast majority of what they see are IED blasts and 95 percent are  Afghans, said McFarland, a native of Monterey, Calif., on his second tour to  Afghanistan.
The STP/FRSS treats everyone from Marines, Afghan National  Army, Afghan Police, local nationals, children and even on some occasions,  insurgents.
“All patients are treated equally,” said Moore.
Because the STP staff members experience trauma firsthand, taking care of  themselves is detrimental to their well being. Their first day on the job, the  new team treated nine patients who came through the door and two were dead on  arrival, said McFarland.
Most of the members are gaining experience with  new types of injuries they have never witnessed previously including amputees  and IED blasts to small children, said McFarland.
Although their training  is specific, nothing can really prepare them for what they will see in a war  zone. Most of the crew is not used to experiencing traumas such as gunshot  wounds or amputees in the United States, but it is common out here, said  McFarland.
Doing physical exercise in this environment is vital to  maintaining balance, said McFarland.
“It is a good outlet to blow off  steam. Some of them are seeing things they have never seen before,” he said.
Along with physical exercise, the combat stress team is used for extra  support to help the teams with any questions or concerns they may have  concerning their own mental health.
The combat stress team from RC (SW)  located at Camp Leatherneck visits FOB Edinburgh and takes care of anyone who  needs help with combat stress, said Seaman Connor Rezac, a patient care  provider.
“Observing and keeping an eye out for any warning signs,” said  Rezac, a native of Gilbert, Ariz. “Combat stress affects anyone, no matter where  you are.”
Post traumatic stress disorder is a natural reaction to an  unnatural event.
“There are people who see a lot of horrible things,” said Rezac. “We want to make our presence known, that we are there for them. If  we need to come out and visit, wherever you are, we have someone on call 24  hours a day, every day. In any case of emergency, there is always someone there.  We want to spread out support as far as we can go because not everyone can make  it to the clinic.”
Keeping members in the fight and at full speed is one  of the main objectives of the combat stress team, said Lt. Brian Foley, a  psychiatrist for the team.
Foley explained that his job is rewarding,  seeing guys get better and getting back into the fight. Some of the ways the  combat stress team helps is by doing simple interventions like relaxation  techniques, deep breathing and some simple medications.
“The bulk of the  service members out here seem motivated to get back into the fight, so it is  encouraging to see them a couple times and help them through their problems and  they move forward,” Foley said.
The combat stress team at Camp  Leatherneck has a 98 percent return rate.
A huge piece of mental health  is the environment and command structure, explained Foley, a native of Mentor,  Ohio. Some branches of services are seen more than others, and the Marines have  a high success with morale.
He said he sees success in units that have  good unit cohesion and good leadership. Units that have high morale and work  together as a team are seen less at the combat stress clinics.
Most of  the issues Foley and his team face will be back in the rear, when the troops are  home. His experience of knowing what the environment is like will be helpful to  those who were here, he said. “Having been here makes you more credible,” said Foley.
Polishing his skills and using different types of therapies  will be beneficial to those he will help stateside.
Although the STP/FRSS  and DUSTOFF appreciate their time to reset, when the call for help comes in on  the radio and the bell rings, both crews come together seamlessly.
The  staff at the STP are grateful to DUSTOFF, they would not be able to do their job  without them, said McFarland.
DUSTOFF would not be able to do their job  without the STP either. They work hand in hand and neither crew will take credit  for the other, for they know they would be lost in the fight without the  teamwork.
“We cannot do our mission without the STP,” said Sgt. Troy  Hayes, a flight medic with the Army National Guard.
There is a paradox in  his job, explained Hayes, a flight paramedic for the Arizona State Police. “When  we go do our job, somebody is having a bad day,” said Hayes, a native of Tucson,  Ariz.
Their jobs are emotional, but all members of the crew must be  onboard.
Since DUSTOFF is a major part of getting the wounded out of the  battlespace, off the ground and into the air during the golden hour, they must  be on their game 100 percent of the time.
The crew of 22, which consists  of pilots, medics, nurses and helicopter maintainers, who are all from the Army  National Guard from New Mexico, Arizona and Minnesota, is spot on and have  become family.
DUSTOFF faces many challenges in the air and on the  ground. They live up to their name and carry the proud tradition of ‘Until I  have your wounded.’
“The risk is worth the reward,” said Sgt. Zachary  Menzie, a flight medic for DUSTOFF and a native of Albuquerque, N.M.
Sometimes they cannot save all of their casualties and combat death is the  hardest part, explained Hayes.
“It is really painful,” said Hayes. “Getting them some place to be taken care of.”
Although the job can be  tough, STP and DUSTOFF members know this is their job and take the challenge of  the mission. They know the Marines are out there fighting for freedom and will  be there for them no matter what.

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Story by 2nd Lt. Scott Murdock

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – “When I was here last, we had a 12-year-old boy  turn his father in for making [improvised explosive devices],” said Capt. Aaron  Fisher, Support Company commander, 9th Engineer Support Battalion. “We asked him  why he’d do that. He said he learned in school that IEDs are bad and that bad  people make them.”
Route Tiffany runs east-to-west through the low  rolling hills of southwest Afghanistan. Constant wind makes the air thick with  sun-bleached dust and the sweet smell of blooming poppy. The landscape is as  beautiful as it is deadly.
Marines from 9th ESB left Camp Leatherneck in  northern Helmand province the morning of March 27 to begin construction on the  new road. They reached the dry riverbed, called a wadi by locals, where they  would begin construction and established security by early afternoon.
The  construction team “rolled out a click and a half of road the next day,” said  Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matt Lovely, Heavy Equipment Platoon commander, Support  Company. One or two kilometers of road per day is exactly the pace the Marines  were accustomed to. The next week would not see similar results.
The  night of March 28, one of the team’s armored vehicles was struck by an IED that  killed one Marine and wounded two others. At that point, it became clear that  creating Route Tiffany would not be a typical mission. Telling signs of the  insurgency warned that by leaving the established security area Marines risked  driving into what was likened to a minefield.
Marines bore the effects of  this attack in their hearts and on their bodies. Cpl. Nickolas Gaversoni,  security team leader for the first convoy to begin work on Route Tiffany, pulled  his Marines from the stricken vehicle. His uniform was torn from his body in  places and he was covered in motor oil. Like all Marines there, he continued  working in a way that honored his brothers’ sacrifice.
A second team,  composed of Marines from Support Company, 9th ESB, Army explosive ordnance  disposal, and an Army route clearance platoon, was dispatched from Camp  Leatherneck on April 1 to relieve the Marines in the wadi. From the time the  convoy departed friendly lines it was confronted with small-arms fire and  IEDs.
One of the most frustrating challenges was identifying which  individuals posed a threat.
“A kid carrying yellow jugs in a wheelbarrow  could be getting water for his mom or he could be getting ammonium nitrate to  blow us up,” Fisher said. “One is a hostile act, one is just a good deed for his  mom.”
Fisher explained several reasons for the opposition the teams  faced. Insurgents often use IEDs to protect the poppy fields that provide the  revenue with which they fund the insurgency. They also see any sort of  improvement to the infrastructure of Afghanistan as a threat because it  decreases the degree to which the local population relies on insurgent support.
An established road running directly through poppy fields poses a  serious threat to insurgents.
“Basically wherever you put pavement,  terrorists go away,” said 1st Lt. Andrez Posada, Motor Transport Platoon  commander with Support Company, 9th ESB.
The combined teams received the  full support of their command and quickly sent a strong message to the local  population.
“We’re here to build roads,” said Brig. Gen. John  Broadmeadow, commanding general of 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward). “The  roads will help you. You can let the insurgents take that away or you can help  us build roads.”
The Marines of Support Company were backed by the full  force of Marine fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing  (Forward), unmanned aerial vehicles from 1st MLG(Fwd), coordination from 1st  Marine Division (Forward) and I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), Army route  clearance platoons and explosive ordnance disposal units, British rotary-wing  aircraft, and Georgian ground patrols and mortar illumination.
“It feels  good to know I’m being backed up,” Posada said. “Now that we’ve got the support  we need, we’ll do it.”
The teams identified threats in the route ahead  using ground and air assets, and cleared the way using various methods of  controlled detonations. The road quickly became crowded with armored trucks and  heavy machinery. Marines labored under heavy body armor stained with rings of  sweat.
As the sun set each night, a second shift of Marines, soldiers  and Navy corpsmen took to the road to continue nonstop construction under the  watchful eyes of Marines picketed along the entire route.
Georgian  mortars cast an eerie glow over the desert, steadily hanging illumination rounds  over the road and adjacent compounds. Under the flares’ flickering light, white  poppy blooms turned bright orange in the black fields.
Days were marked  by explosions from a combination of insurgents’ homemade explosives and military  countermeasures. Line charges ripped through the sky and fell ahead of the  convoy. The charges, and any IEDs in their path, detonated with shock waves that  rippled across the fine Helmand sand.
Every indicator of a potential  IED was treated with the utmost caution.
“There’s a 99 percent chance  that command wire is from a previous blast,” 1st Lt. Tony Cox, the convoy  commander said. “But there’s still a one percent chance that I don’t want to  risk.”
Fisher frequently spoke to local farmers to gain information and  communicate his mission. Sitting in the sand between the road and poppy fields  with village elders, Fisher explained that the road would bring them access to  schools, hospitals and commerce.  Before using explosives to clear IEDs he  assured them he was not there to threaten their lives or livelihoods.
“I  am a peaceful man,” Fisher said. “I have a family. I believe in God.”
Broadmeadow visited his Marines to share words of encouragement and to ensure  they were being taken care of. He asked several Marines what they needed, and  how he could help them. He comforted those whose friends had been wounded or  killed. His face showed genuine concern as he told even the most junior of  Marines to look after one another. As he addressed a large group just before  nightfall, the general demonstrated the kind of resolve and determination that  makes Marines successful.
“This is not easy,” Broadmeadow said. “But it’s  who we are, and it’s what we do.”
The general’s visit marked the  completion of the road that linked the established road to the west to the wadi  that provided the gravel for Route Tiffany. He gave his closing remarks as the  sun sank below the wadi’s protective berm. New aircraft arrived overhead to keep  watch over the construction crews below. Thick black clouds of diesel exhaust  coughed from dump trucks and graders. Headlights flashed to life and  night-vision goggles sprouted from helmets. The Marines turned east and began a  new stretch of road.
“We’re the engineers,” Fisher said. “If we can’t  find a way, we’ll make a way. That’s what we’re going to do right now.”

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Story by Sgt. James Mercure

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WHITEHOUSE, Afghanistan – If a Marine gets injured in  combat, the response by those he serves with is immediate.  If a Marine has  problems handling operational stress, they are there for him just as quickly.
To help Marines identify the stages of operational stress, the  Operational Stress Control and Readiness program is taught to all infantry  battalions across the Marine Corps. Keeping with a long-standing tradition of  small unit leadership, the OSCAR program teaches leaders at all levels how to  get their Marines the help they may need.
“The OSCAR program is an  effective tool we use to help our own,” said 1st Sgt. James Robertson, OSCAR  instructor and Weapons Company 1st sergeant, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment,  and Nicholasville, Ky., native. “It teaches all Marines not to just stand by and  watch a Marine struggle. You may be a lance corporal and he may be a sergeant,  but you should still step up and talk to him if you see a change.”
The  OSCAR program has a four-tier color system that helps quickly identify Marines  who need a hand.
“If a Marine is in the green zone, he is good to go. If  he is in the yellow, something is bothering him and someone should talk to him,” Robertson said. “If the Marine is in the orange or red zone he needs assistance.  The goal is to not let that Marine have a chance to slip into the orange or red  zones. The goal is to let him know you’re there for him when a problem surfaces  and get him the help he needs.”
The ultimate goal of the OSCAR program is  to keep Marines and sailors healthy and in the fight through prevention, early  identification and intervention with stress-related problems, outlined in Marine  Administrative Messages 667/09 and 597/11.
“’No Marine left behind’ doesn’t just apply to the battlefield,” said Navy Lt. Keith Russell, Command  Chaplain for 1st Bn., 8th Marines, and Kansas City, Mo., native. “Sometimes you  have to help pull a Marine off his own battlefield and get him the medical or  spiritual help or a combination thereof. But, sometimes it’s just about noticing  a change in the Marine’s behavior and asking what’s going on.”
To  complement the OSCAR program, the Marines and sailors of 1st Bn., 8th Marines,   have refresher courses throughout their deployment and long after to keep  operational stress control identification and response as an important part of  the warrior culture.
“We have warrior transition briefs at the end of the  deployment and every 30 days after the battalion returns home to keep  reiterating to be personally aware for your family and friends you serve with  and get help for you or them if it’s needed,” Russell said.

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Story and photos by Cpl. Kenneth Jasik

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – As the tour of duty for many soldiers with  British Advisory Group 3rd Kandak 215th Corps, (Two Rifles Battle Group), comes  to an end, many of them can look back at their work and see the results of their  time advising the local security forces when they see a more independent Afghan  National Army.
British troops played a supporting role in Operation Now  Roz, March 16 through 19. During the operation, they observed Afghan National  Security Forces securing the Yakchal Valley almost twice as fast as they  expected.
“The ANSF have done really well,” said British Cpl. John D.  Elliot, a section commander with Two Rifles. “They are quite professional. The  locals are showing the ANA appreciation, which I believe is winning the  war.”
Elliot, who first deployed to Sangin district approximately three  years ago, said things have definitely changed since then, when they had to  teach the ANA the most basic military skills. “They are taking care of things  themselves,” said Elliot, 24, from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. “Advising them is  much easier.”
When he arrived on Camp Gereshk as a battlefield casualty  replacement during December, British Capt. Oliver C.S. Little, a Tolay Adviser  Training Team commander with Two Rifles was expecting a less disciplined ANA  then what he found.
“My expectations were that they would be at pretty  basic skill levels,” said Little, 26, from Tisbury, Wiltshire. “Everything I’ve  seen them do, they’ve done with a lot of professionalism.” Little said his  advisers have refreshed the ANA on first-aid and map reading skills, but the  only kinds of support they’ve needed to provide is helicopter-based casualty  evacuation, fires and surveillance. He added that the Afghan soldiers have done  a good job of training themselves.
“I think from what I’ve seen at the  start state of the tour to where they are now, I’ve been massively impressed  with the progression,” said Little. “They are now at a state where I believe  they could completely plan and conduct an operation themselves.” After the  ANA’s success in Operation Now Roz, the adviser has even more confidence in  their abilities.
“I think the next step is pulling back even more,” said  Little. “With a couple of things from us, they can look after themselves.  They’re able to map read, able to bring about better results.”
Little  also noted that an ANA training team usually relies on a sergeant and an officer  to complete their tasks, but during this tour the whole platoon-sized team got  involved, which produced strong results.
“I think it’s quite interesting.  A lot of the guys don’t get a chance to get involved with the ANA as much as  possible, so we’ve quite often used them to deliver lessons to the ANA, which  gives them a good chance to get involved,” he said
During their  Afghanistan tour, Little’s team stayed involved in the ANA’s development, and  built a strong relationship with their Afghan counterparts.
“It’s all  about relationships,” said Little. “If the guys have a good relationship with  them, and the guys have a good relationship with the ANA, then things work  smoothly. Generally speaking, the better the relationship, the better their  output is going to be, because they trust you to do the right thing.”

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Story and photos by Cpl. Kenneth Jasik

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Afghan troops cleared a Taliban stronghold the Yakchal Valley, with the support of International Security Assistance Forces, during Operation Now Roz, March 16 – 19.

During the operation, the Afghan National Security Forces discovered more than 40 improvised explosive devices, arrested known Taliban members and discovered caches which included IED components and suicide vests.

Senior Afghan National Army leadership planned and led the operation to secure the objective.

“The ANA seemed to dominate the ground pretty effectively,” said British Sgt. Chris G. Bannon, a platoon sergeant with British Advisory Group, 3rd Kandak, 215th Corps, (Two Rifles Battle Group). “They had a positive effect on local nationals, who were pleased to see the ANA. It’s quite easy to say that their presence on the ground forced the insurgents out.”

After several years of developing the ANA, British soldiers on their second tour of duty in Afghanistan note significant improvement in the ANSF capabilities.

“I think this is definitely a step forward,” said Bannon, 29, from Leyburn, Yorkshire. “I saw the ANA company a couple years ago and they wouldn’t manage it. It’s better now. The ANA are independent. It’s good to see them taking the lead in their country.”

The ANSF forces weren’t the only ones on the ground. British and Danish troops were there too, but only in a supporting role.

“The only things they ever can need from us is helicopter-based casualty evacuation, fires, and (surveillance),” said British Capt. Oliver C.S. Little, a Tolay Advisor Training Team commander with Two Rifles. “Having said that, they’re not going to have it once we leave.”

Little, 26, from Tisbury, Wiltshire, added that the ANSF will need to find ways around that and have begun to plan accordingly.

“As we’ve seen on this operation, they can get a casualty out on the ground,” said Little. “They can do it very quickly, so they are more than capable of going it alone.”

While the roles of the ISAF and the ANSF are changing, the Afghan troops are building on their knowledge of their homeland and have begun to fight in a way which the local population can support.

“Their concepts and the way they do things is different to ours, given the fact they are not a western army,” said Bannon. “They get the job done in good order, and they are respected by the local nationals.”

The mission did more than clear a historically strong Taliban area, it showed that the ANSF are growing in professionalism.

“It sent the message out to the insurgents that the ANSF are completely capable of planning and mounting large operations such as (Operation Now Roz) successfully,” said Bannon.

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Story by Staff Sgt. Brian Buckwalter

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave a strong message of support to service members during a town hall meeting at Camp Leatherneck, March 14.

“We will not fail,” said Panetta to the nearly 200 Marines and Afghan forces in attendance.

He made his remarks before visiting a nearby combat outpost and Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, where he’s scheduled to meet with the country’s president, Hamid Karzai and other senior leaders.

“This is probably the broadest and the deepest international military coalition that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said. “Fifty nations that are working together to bring together a very strong international effort to try to bring some peace, some justice and hopefully some security to Afghanistan and to the world.”

Camp Leatherneck is in Helmand province, which is a part of the Regional Command Southwest area of responsibility. Violence in the region is down 31 percent from this time last year. In some areas of RC (SW), the secretary said, violence is down 80 percent.

“This was the Taliban’s stronghold,” Panetta said. “And because of your work, because of your dedication, because of the tremendous sacrifice you’re making, the reality is that we are achieving greater stability and greater security in this area.”

The efforts, successes, and sacrifices in the region aren’t just made by the U.S. and other coalition nations. Afghan forces are playing an increasingly larger role in their own security.

“The Afghan forces are doing an outstanding job throughout Afghanistan because of the partnership you’ve built out here,” said Panetta. “You train, you fight together, and you’re willing to put your lives on the line together. Afghan forces continue to take charge and head up operations, and you’ve made that possible. By working with them, by training with them, more than 90 percent of the operations are now partnered with the ANSF. That’s a remarkable achievement.”

In recent weeks, Afghanistan has been a focal point of attention because of increased violence in the country.

“As tragic as these events of violence have been, they do not define the relationship between the coalition and the Afghan forces and the Afghan people. What you are doing out here every day determines that relationship,” Panetta said.

The defense secretary reaffirmed the commitment the U.S. has to finishing the mission in Afghanistan, saying that the resolve of coalition forces will not be undermined by individual events.

“We will be challenged,” said Panetta. “We will be challenged by our enemy. We will be challenged by ourselves. We will be challenged by the hell of war itself. But none of that must ever deter us from the mission that we must achieve. That mission is the dream that I talk about. The dream of making sure that we can provide our children – that we can provide children of Afghans – a better life for the future.”

Panetta traveled to Combat Outpost Shukvani after the town hall. There he met with Georgian troops and praised them for the work they’ve been doing in the area and for their sacrifices. He also read them a letter from their recently injured battalion commander.

This is Panetta’s third trip to Afghanistan since assuming his office in July, 2011.