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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.

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Story by Master Sgt. Brenda Varnadore

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Major Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) commanding general, assumed command of Regional Command Southwest, from Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, II MEF (Fwd) commanding general, during a Transfer of Authority ceremony here, March 12.

During the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Gurganus, along with Brig. Stuart R. Skeates, the RC (SW) deputy commanding general, assumed responsibility for Helmand and Nimruz provinces.

“The strength of RC Southwest, it’s obvious to me, has always and will continue to be the combined efforts,” said Maj. Gen. Gurganus. “This is a coalition made up of 10 coalition nations coupled with our Afghan National Security partners and friends. It’s also comprised of the Helmand (Provincial Reconstruction Team) and our regional platform. And lastly, and just as important, and probably more, is the leadership provided by our Afghan officials, led by Governors (Gulab) Mangal and (Abdul Karim) Brahui, who is not with us today. For everyone here, just understand that we intend to try and maintain those relationships.”

Maj. Gen. Gurganus went on to recognize the important role the Afghans play in continuing the successes II MEF (Fwd) and their coalition partners.

“That’s the key to being a team. But, the one partner that I haven’t mentioned, that is probably the most important partner to me, is that of the Afghan people. The people of Afghanistan,” said Maj. Gen. Gurganus. “Because it’s their choices that they will make in the future that’s really going to be the true measure of our success. And I think for those that would continue to fight to destroy the possibility for that better future, I think they should know that they also have choices and they also have opportunities to be a part of the better future. So, I would ask that they weigh their options carefully and make wise choices as well.”

II MEF (Fwd) focused on the development of the Afghan National Security Forces and transitioned to professionalizing the force by the end of their yearlong deployment. I MEF (Fwd) will continue the professionalization of the ANSF to enable the government of Afghanistan to deliver goods, services and provide security to their people and give legitimacy to the whole government.

“You know, the number one line of operation that we focused on was what we call ANSF development,” said Maj. Gen. Toolan. “ANSF development meant getting the people out into the areas and working closely with the coalition forces in sort of a partnering, mentoring role. That ANSF development started more than a year ago when we first got here. It was a matter of marrying them up with their equipment, getting them familiar with how to conduct patrols, how to give a five-paragraph order. Over this past year, what we’ve done is gone from ANSF development to ANSF professionalism. Now, we are in the process of training their (non-commissioned officers), trying to build an NCO corps. We all know that the heart of any organization, the heart of any army, is their NCOs. We’re putting them into training and mentoring them with our own NCOs.

“The sergeant major (Sgt. Maj. Michael F. Jones, II MEF (Fwd) sergeant major) has spent an untold amount of time working with their senior staff NCOs – really trying to get them to understand that if you want an organization to function properly, that the backbone is the NCO corps,” said Maj. Gen. Toolan. “That’s what professionalization is all about.”

The work of II MEF (Fwd) did not go unnoticed. The reviewing officer for the ceremony, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir William Patey personally thanked Maj. Gen. Toolan for his efforts.

“As I travel around Afghanistan, it is without doubt Helmand enjoys the highest reputation of the province that has made the most progress in the past year,” he said. “Children going to school. Farmers going about their business. Government officials going about their business without fear. This country will look back on this year and the contributions you’ve made. There is no doubt, in history, you will go down as a general who’s made a significant and outstanding contribution to this country and to Helmand in particular.”

The turnover between I MEF and II MEF began back in August 2011 as the I MEF (Fwd) staff formed, with their British partners, in Camp Pendleton, Calif. The staffs conducted predeployment site surveys, conference calls and video teleconferences so the transition was seamless to the coalition partners and Afghan forces. II MEF (Fwd) sent representatives from Afghanistan to California to assist with the Mission Rehearsal Exercise during December to ensure I MEF (Fwd) had the most up-to-date information and procedures from theater.

“Our II MEF brothers and sisters have set us up for success and we look forward to carrying on where they left off,” said Sgt. Maj. Harrison Tanksley, RC (SW) sergeant major who relieved Sgt. Maj. Jones. “I would like to see us take it to a new level. II MEF has done a fantastic job, but there is always room for improvement and under Gen. Gurganus’ watch there is no doubt in my mind that I MEF (Fwd) will take this thing to a new level.”

Now that I MEF (Fwd) has assumed command, Maj. Gen. Gurganus and his team will take to heart Maj. Gen. Toolan’s final assessment and continue to assist the ANSF in Helmand and Nimruz provinces.

“They know how to use their weapons, they still have some challenges with counter (improvised explosive devices) and part of that has to do with that it’s just a difficult job,” said Maj. Gen. Toolan. “The Afghan National Security Forces today have more casualties than we have, but they’re out there. They’re taking charge of their own country, and they’re learning as their going. They’re getting better every day. I’m convinced that as the professionalization of the Afghan National Security Forces goes up, the insurgency is going to go down. That sweet spot in the middle is what we are searching for because that’s where governance takes charge and that’s when the government of Afghanistan all of a sudden is capable of providing goods and services to its people. That’s success. ”

Story and photos by Lance Cpl. Mark Garcia

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — During a time of transition, provincial leaders from Nimruz province conducted a meeting March 9 with the outgoing and incoming commanders of Regional Command Southwest.

Topics discussed during the meeting included the governance, security and developmental successes of Nimruz within the last couple of years since International Security Assistance Forces started working in the region.

“There used to not be any provincial reconstruction teams that existed in this region, and the people were really disappointed with their way of life,” said Qasim Khydri, the deputy governor of Nimruz. “The work that has been done here, including all the projects done since ISAF came here, is truly extraordinary. You have completely built the confidence and trust of the Nimruz people. All the people of Nimruz are happy for what you have done for them.”

During the meeting, Maj. Gen. John A. Toolan, the commanding general for RC (SW), praised the leadership and security efforts taking place in Nimruz.

“It was always obvious to me from the beginning days that the leadership in Nimruz is very good and that they have a really good handle on their security. We really just tried to assist in that area as much as possible,” Maj. Gen. Toolan said. “We’re finding out that as transition occurs, more and more Afghan police officers and soldiers are sacrificing in terms of injuries and deaths. It’s evident that it’s not an easy fight, but the Afghans are certainly stepping up and taking care of business.”

The meeting also provided the leaders of Nimruz the opportunity to say farewell to Maj. Gen. Toolan and welcome Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, who is assuming command of RC(SW).

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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.

Story by Cpl. Anthony Ward Jr.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The lack of medical care was rampant throughout Afghanistan five years ago, but with the steady and solid work of the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Security Forces, a complete turnaround occurred.

The task of aiding the ANSF and Afghan ministries of Public Health and Defense in Helmand and surrounding provinces lies with the Combined Medical Department for Regional Command Southwest.

“Four to five years ago, Afghanistan had the second worst medical system in the world,” said Navy Capt. Jeffrey W. Timby, medical director for RC(SW). “The leading cause of death for children under the age of 5 was diarrhea and dehydration.”

Fast forward to the present. Now, the Five Surgeons Shura is held quarterly between ANSF leaders, Ministry of Public Health leaders and NATO leaders in Lashkar Gah to discuss the improvements made to the healthcare system and how to establish even better counter measures to improve the quality of life among the population which is trauma care.

“The objective of the shura was to continue the dialogue that Capt. Timby initially established to gain the Afghan commitment to delivering a more integrated and coherent healthcare program in Helmand province,” said British Army Lt. Col. Ian G. Harper, deputy medical director for CMED.

This point of view allows better decisions to be made regarding each ministry and ANSF organization working collectively and pooling resources to do a much needed thing, establish emergency services, said Harper.

Kabul is the only city in the country that currently has an ambulance emergency service. Establishing one to service Helmand and surrounding provinces would greatly aid the mission of NATO and ANSF forces, said Timby.

“Ninety-five percent of the population can walk to a health clinic or health post within two hours of their front doors,” said Timby. “Establishing an ambulance care would be a huge feather in the cap for the ministries.”

The resources exist to provide Helmand and the surrounding provinces with an ambulatory system, they just need to be pooled together. The Ministry of Public Health possesses the hospitals needed for the ambulance service, with the ANSF and Ministry of Defense possessing the manpower and vehicles to transport casualties and provide point of injury and life support care to the injured.

“It’s a big job, but it’s important and coming together nicely,” said Timby.

As the drawdown of NATO forces nears, the Afghan forces will continue to assume more responsibility and provide care and security to their people.

Story and photo by Chief Petty Officer Leslie Shively

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — Not long ago, Taliban ruled the roads of Musa Qala, a town in northern Helmand province. Bands of insurgents brandishing soviet-made AK-47s and lugging rocket launchers, crammed themselves into the backs of pickup trucks and paraded through the town, shouting oppressive slogans and terrorizing its residents.

Today, the Taliban are gone and children are everywhere, their laughter and voices mingling with the calls of vendors in the bazaars.

Optimism about the future of Afghanistan is illustrated through the difference between Musa Qala then and Musa Qala now. Col. Timothy Mundy smiled as he recalled a recent visit to the once-tyrannized town.

Currently officer in charge of the Enhanced Assessments Group for II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) at Camp Leatherneck, Mundy’s group is composed of subject matter experts at the doctorate level, an assessments branch and the Red Team.

The Red Team writes alternative views, or interjects counter logic into the thinking and planning processes at the command element level.

Battling and defeating repression is not new for Mundy. As an infantry officer, he commanded the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, in Iraq during 2005. His unit led Operation Matador, one of the largest ground offensives since Fallujah, that cleared insurgents from the villages and towns in western Iraq.

Instead of frontline fighting, Mundy’s unit in Afghanistan eradicates insurgents via outside-of-the-box thinking.

The red-team idea is novel for the Marine Corps in a deployed environment and Mundy said he has learned a lot about making it work.

“These guys are here to step back and say now hold it, maybe this is something – an assumption. Maybe we’re all heading down the same road, when, in fact, we haven’t considered some other thing that we should have,” Mundy said.

“The Red Team is not so much thinking like the enemy,” Mundy said. “It’s thinking differently about every problem we face.”

Mundy’s biggest challenge during this deployment was finding ways to fit a diverse group of military and civilian subject matter experts into the right places in the command, while working together to find inventive solutions within a conventional parameter.

“We have sewn together multiple attributes with many different capabilities within the EAG,” said Capt. Tim Merkle, an operations research analyst with the group. “We find more ways to dissect data to provide rigorous analysis from different perspectives.

The assessment team keeps current with the state of affairs throughout the area of operations, appraising the progress the coalition is bringing to Helmand and Nimroz provinces, so Mundy often visited places like Musa Qala.

Mundy said his visits made tangible the hope he has for Afghanistan and its people. “We’ve made a difference here and the Afghans seem to understand that. We’ve got (Afghan) police patrolling the streets, and people committed to trying to keep (Taliban control) from happening again.”

“We were stopping at the bazaars,” he said. “I had candy in my pocket and was handing it out to the kids. We had the provincial governor with us . . . other people, business owners, police. It was a very memorable contrast. We were walking down the street, an action that would have been contested the minute we stepped out from behind the HESCO barriers (three years ago).”

But, he cautioned that there are still days when violence leads in the headlines.

“Most of the news you see about Afghanistan tends to be the high-profile events such as an attack on some compound, or some truck bomb that goes off,” Mundy said.

The colonel counters the headlines with his firsthand experience. He has seen Afghan forces stepping up to confront violence, and finding and arresting criminals involved with insurgent activities. He said he has met innumerable people pledged to Afghanistan’s continued improvement.

Mundy is also aware of the cost of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He said he witnessed several dignified transfers, but one particular ceremony had special significance. A Marine from 1st Bn., 6th Marines was killed Sept. 9, 2011, two days shy of the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

“We’re here because of that event,” Mundy said. “Seeing a casket carried at night and put on a plane drove home the point that it is the families who have to bear the sacrifice. It reminds you of what all of these great, young men and women do on a daily basis out there.

Having had the opportunity to command and see Marines in action is always very inspiring to me. These are by and large young men and women who volunteered knowing exactly what they would get into.”

Supporting his staff and keeping a family atmosphere is important to Mundy, especially during the holidays. He made a point to get his group of military and civilians together to celebrate Thanksgiving, sitting and eating together at the dining facility.

“That was a good day,” Mundy said. “None of us has family here, so we’ll make each other our family.”

“From a British perspective, it was an absolute pleasure to work for him,” said British Royal Air Force Flt. Lt. Richard Turner, an assessments officer in Mundy’s group. “Characters like him are few and far between in my usual line of work.”

“As we’re winding down and getting ready to leave, you can really see what everybody else has contributed,” Mundy said. “I didn’t personally go out and clear the streets of Musa Qala, but certainly I’m proud of what the coalition forces have done here.”

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Story and photos by Sgt. James Mercure

COMBAT OUTPOST PENNSYLVANIA, Afghanistan – If someone saw how fierce Sgt. Phil Farmer is during a firefight, they would never guess he only has one fully functioning lung.

Farmer is a squad leader with 3rd platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment and on his third combat deployment. He leads his Marines on patrols, finds improvised explosive devices and has partnered with Afghan National Security Forces to help make Afghanistan a safer place.

On his second deployment, Farmer, a 30-year-old Matawan, N.J., native, had his observation post in Ramadi, Iraq struck by a suicide bomber driving a dump truck laden with explosives and chemicals, releasing a noxious cloud of gas after the massive explosion.

After the blast, a complex ambush ensued.

“I fired my .50 cal machine gun as the truck drove toward my post, and after it blew up, they fired volley after volley of rockets on our position, disabling my .50 cal. So I ducked down, grabbed an M240 Bravo machine gun, and me and my guys opened up on the insurgents. We didn’t stop fighting for another three and a half hours. It was chaos.”

Two weeks after the attack, Farmer coughed up blood, but he felt fine after and continued to push on with his deployment.

“When I got back to the States, the doctor thought I had asthma until he walked in with an X-ray and said my lung had essentially sealed off like a burnt cigarette wrapper during the deployment,” Farmer said. “My only real concern throughout the whole process was being able to still serve as a Marine.”

Farmer now has the symptoms of Bronchial Inflammation Disease and must use and inhaler from time to time, but the Marines he serves with wouldn’t have known about the issue unless he told them.

“We served together as instructors at the School of Infantry, and he’s working for me again here,” said Staff Sgt. Adam York, platoon sergeant, 3rd platoon Bravo Co., 1st Bn., 8th Marines, and a 30-year-old Plymouth, N.H. native. “After he was injured in Iraq, you would think that would make someone take it easy, but Sgt. Farmer hasn’t stopped, he hasn’t slowed down, and he refuses to quit his Marines or himself. It’s his ability to lead from the front that sets him apart. For example, if his squad finds a suspected improvised explosive device, he verifies the find instead of sending one of his junior Marines.”

For Farmer, the reason he has been able to carry on in stride despite having one lung is his training as a Marine.

“It’s the Marine mindset that allows you to conquer anything,” Farmer said with a faint New Jersey accent. “The stories I read about Marine amputees still deploying or winning marathons motivates me, and if they can do it, I have no excuse not to keep moving forward.”