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Camp Pendleton Marines Preparing For Troop Increase in Afghanistan

Audio

Aired 10/23/09

President Barack Obama hasn't made a decision about whether to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. While the debate continues in Washington, local Marines are preparing for additional deployments to the country. How will the upcoming runoff election in Afghanistan impact the president's decision to send more troops? And, how is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan different from the war in Iraq?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): And this is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. You’re back with us. And, by the way, since this is an abbreviated program today, you can post your comments on our website at KPBS.org and just look for Editors Roundtable. So if you didn’t get your phone call in, certainly let us hear from you as well on the Web. On to a new subject. President Obama has not yet decided about sending more troops to Afghanistan. Some believe he might be waiting for the contested presidential election in that nation to be resolved. Others believe Mr. Obama does not feel that troop strength will result in a more successful military and political strategy there. Still others agree that an infusion of troops on the ground is what is needed to beat back the insurgent violence, and others say we should give up on the task of trying to democratize nations that don’t want to be democracies. So, with that, whether the president will send the 40,000 requested by General Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, it’s still unknown but Tony Perry is going to Afghanistan nevertheless, but not to fight. So, Tony, what’s your mission this time?

TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Mission is, as it always is, go where troops from Camp Pendleton are, see how they’re doing, see what they face day to day, see the little picture of how these young men and women and the Marines and the sailors from Camp Pendleton are doing. And then maybe try to fit that into the larger picture, but it is the small picture that impacts this community because, as we have said many, many times, while Iraq and Afghanistan are large international stories, they are, because of Camp Pendleton, Miramar, San Diego Naval Base, they are local stories to us here in San Diego.

PENNER: Okay, so what – And I’m going to ask my fellow journalists here, if you have any questions of Tony, feel free to ask them. So what specifically are you looking for? Or at?

PERRY: Well, I’ll be in the Helmand Province, which is that – was once a Taliban stronghold. It’s where the poppies grow that turns into the heroin that feeds the habits of Western Europe, for example, and funds the insurgency. I was there 12 months ago with a group from 29 Palms, which is really a branch office of Camp Pendleton, if you look at it. So I know what it looked like 12 months ago and I know it was difficult 20 – 12 months ago. I want to see what it looks like today. How much progress, if any, have they made? What is the future in that area and then the larger area of Afghanistan.

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): What will you actually be looking for as far as measuring progress?

PERRY: How well they’re interacting with the locals. Do the locals seem to be working with the Marines and the Marines with the locals? Are the Marines able to sort of wean the locals away from the Taliban? Are they able to keep them secure? Are we, the U.S., finding a way to improve the living and security of the local population, because that, of course, is what is the basis of counterinsurgencies.

PENNER: Before you start, Barbara, I’m going to give our audience a chance. If you do want to ask anything of Tony as he prepares to go to Afghanistan, please feel free. You have a few minutes. 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Barbara Bry.

BARBARA BRY (Associate Publisher, SDNN.com): Tony, I’d like to hear about the living conditions. Where will you live when you’re there? Will you live in a tent? In a cottage? In an air-conditioned mobile home? Not that you need air-conditioning at this time of year over there.

PENNER: Or a foxhole.

BRY: Yeah.

PERRY: The Marines call them fighting holes.

PENNER: Oh.

PERRY: Only the Army would call them – we’re not foxes, says the Marine Corps.

PENNER: Oh.

PERRY: We’re fighters, we have fighting holes. All of those things. Probably more on the spare side because with counterinsurgency you don’t just stay at your nice air-conditioned barracks and large bases, you get out and about and you get out and live with the locals, and that’s what the Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of Camp Pendleton have been doing these last five or so months that they’ve been there. So I’ll try and get out and as close to them as I can. So I think we’re talking sleeping bags and fairly spare – spare conditions. There’s an outpost called Delaram, which is very austere, which the Marines call the – call Hotel Del after a certain hotel here, in the southern…

PENNER: Oh, I’m sure that hotel appreciates it.

PERRY: Yes, indeed. So it’ll be sleeping bags maybe not under the stars but probably a tent.

BRY: So you’re…

PENNER: How…

BRY: …out there. I’m sorry.

PENNER: I just want to check on one area we haven’t touched on. How are the families being prepared for the reality that their Marines might be going into dangerous combat situations?

PERRY: Well, the Marine Corps and the Army have done a lot to prepare the families. The days when it was if the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife, it would’ve issue you one, those days are gone. And now the mantra is ‘family readiness equals combat readiness.’ So they do a lot to bolster and then support the families while he or she is away. Is it perfect? No, it is not. We have not yet, from what I can tell, seen the uptick in those sociological factors, divorce, alcoholism, child abuse, etcetera, etcetera, that would indicate that the fighting force on the family front is falling apart. They’re having their stresses, no question about that. Reservists, for example, who may not – whose spouses don’t live close to a base, they’re outreaching to them. In fact, a local San Diego firm called Groovy Like A Movie, a production company, has done a video to tell reservists and their families what to expect when he comes home and feels disoriented when he tries to fit back into civilian communities.

PENNER: Barbara. Oh…

DONOHUE: Now you still do hear…

PENNER: Andrew, go ahead.

DONOHUE: You still do hear a lot of stories about soldiers coming home and the family problems and everything like that. Are you saying that those are just more isolated incidents and you’re not seeing an increase in statistics? Or how do you measure that?

PERRY: Very hard to measure and also remember that the United States military is not monolithic, that is to say the Minnesota National Guard is different than the active duty Army is different than the active duty Marine Corps. No, there are significant problems, no question about that. The question is how well they’re being addressed. And also, I think though you can over estimate, for example, post traumatic stress. I think there is a thought abroad in the civilian community that if you come home with PTSD, you have it the rest of your life. But the studies are showing that you can step it down from bright red, you know, all the way down to a much lighter shade. So we’re learning a lot on how to handle that. Now, people come home with physical injuries. God forbid, the amputations and such, those are going to take years and years of therapy. But the average soldier, there are support services. How well they address his individual needs and how well he falls into them is another question.

PENNER: Okay, we only have a few seconds left, Tony. What do the Marines at Camp Pendleton see as their main mission in Afghanistan?

PERRY: Well, there’s two groups of Marines. One group is training the Afghan army, trying to provide security, trying to win the hearts and minds. And then there’s a smaller group who are into locate, close, engage and kill the Taliban.

PENNER: Okay, well, I thank you very much. In fact, I thank all of the editors who have been with us today. Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times, good luck to you. Take care.

PERRY: Will do.

PENNER: Stay safe, and we’ll see you when you get back.

PERRY: I’ll be here.

PENNER: Okay. Barbara Bry of San Diego News Network, SDNN.com, thanks, Barbara, for being with us. And, of course, Andrew Donohue from voiceofsandiego.org. I want to remind everybody that tonight we will have more discussion on Tony’s trip and on some other local areas like the marine preservation plan, on San Diego Week tonight at 8:00. Thank you for being with us. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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