Story and photos by Chief Petty Officer Leslie Shively
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Key Afghan leaders from both Helmand and Nimroz provinces joined U.S. military and civilian leadership for a farewell gala hosted by Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, March 8, at the Afghan Cultural Center.
Before dinner, Toolan, commanding general, II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and current commander of Regional Command Southwest, took the opportunity to introduce his successor, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus commanding general, I MEF (Fwd.) during the event.
Toolan relinquishes command of RC(SW) to Gurganus next week.
The evening was lighthearted and fun. While introducing Gurganus, Toolan remarked that his replacement already has a complete set of Afghan robes. “He will probably wear them sooner than it took me to wear mine,” he said.
“I don’t have a turban,” Gurganus said.
“I will leave you my turban,” Toolan responded, laughing. The general wore a complete Afghan outfit to the celebration.
Deputy Commander RC(SW), U.K. Army Brig. Nicholas Welch, also introduced his successor, U.K. Army Brig. Stuart Skeates, deputy commander, RC(SW) IMEF (Fwd.) to the gathering.
“There’s no difference in the way we operate,” Welch said. “He’s just younger, better looking and slightly brighter.”
Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal commended the partnership between RC(SW) and the Helmand province during his remarks.
“The relationships we have between the Afghan National Security Forces, the Marines and coalition forces are strong,” Mangal said, adding that now coffee is offered to guests as often as tea in Afghan homes.
“There are many achievements in this time,” Mangal said, “especially along Route 611 through the Sanguin district.”
Route 611 extends north through Helmand province into the Upper Sangin Valley. The road was an insurgent hotbed until late last year, when Marines asserted their presence and reestablished a sense of stability, freedom of movement and commercial development.
Traditional Afghan music and dancing followed dinner.
“A joint gathering like this strengthens relationships between coalition forces and Afghan officials, tribal leaders and religious leaders,” said Qamar Jabarkhiel, an RC(SW) cultural advisor. “Having a good relationships between representatives of Afghan society, we can reach the communities.”
Jabarkhiel said creating a bridge between coalition forces and Afghan society supports the mission of RC(SW), the Afghan government and benefits the people of Afghanistan.
“We are warrior developers,” said Col. Michael Lawrence, garbed in a turban. Lawrence, a provincial coordinator for Nimroz province, said he wore the traditional head gear to honor the Nimroz representatives who came to the gala.
“We’ve built close relationships and we’ve watched the Afghan Security Forces grow to a very professional force,” said Toolan. “Through it all we were a team and I think, as a result, there’s been a lot of growth and change in Helmand.”
We’ve made some progress and things are better,” Toolan said, adding that his departure from Afghanistan is bittersweet. He said he feels a bond between himself, his team and the Afghan people, especially when he sees the children smile.
“You want to help them out. We had an opportunity over this past year to do just that, so I feel pretty good,” he said. “Afghans have got the best chance they’ve ever had in 32 years.
The general said he knows his team has made a positive impact in Afghanistan. “Some people go through life wondering if they’ve made a difference. These Marines and these soldiers don’t have that problem,” he said, referring to a quote from former President Ronald Regan.