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Last Camp Pendleton Marines Return From Afghanistan

Colonel Daniel Kazmier greets his youngest daughter, Cici, along with his wife Michelle and children Ben and Alena, after returning from a seven month deployment in Helmand Province. Kazmier was part of the Headquarters Unit of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade that closed down Camp Leatherneck as the Marines pulled out of Afghanistan. Nov 6. 2014
Alison St John
Colonel Daniel Kazmier greets his youngest daughter, Cici, along with his wife Michelle and children Ben and Alena, after returning from a seven month deployment in Helmand Province. Kazmier was part of the Headquarters Unit of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade that closed down Camp Leatherneck as the Marines pulled out of Afghanistan. Nov 6. 2014
Last Camp Pendleton Marines Return From Afghanistan
Last Camp Pendleton Marines Return From Afghanistan
Last Camp Pendleton Marines Return From Afghanistan GUESTSAlison St John, North County Bureau Chief KPBS Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief LA Times

Our top story on Midday Edition, a ceremony at Camp Pendleton at this hour is welcoming home the last Pendleton Marines and sailors to serve in Afghanistan. The Marines formal mission in that country ended late last month with the closing of headquarters at Camp Leatherneck. An estimated 6000 Marines served in Afghanistan during the 13 year conflict. Many of them serving multiple deployments. The Pendleton third Battalion fifth Regiment suffered the highest casualty rate of any unit serving in Afghanistan. One Marine en route back to Pendleton spoke for many others about being happy to come home. [ AUDIO FILE PLAYING ] NEW SPEAKER: I'm ready to go. I got an eight month old little boy at home that I missed seven months of his life so far. I'm ready to never be here again. [ END AUDIO FILE ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Joining me to mark the homecoming at Pendleton is my guest, Tony Perry. Allison St. John is also here, she is at the ceremony. ALISON ST. JOHN: Hello Maureen, there's a lot of activity going on up here, the returning Marines are about to arrive in five minutes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if the ceremony is going to be upbeat today, is that right? ALISON ST. JOHN: Absolutely. There are a lot of families, kids with balloons, a lot of Marines in uniform who have been involved in this campaign of the last 13 years. This is a historic day for the base. This symbolically marks the end of the Marine involvement. The headquarters unit of the brigade is returning. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The Brigadier General and his headquarter staff closed down camp leatherneck, they will be at the ceremony today. Do you feel that this is the end of an era? ALISON ST. JOHN: Exactly, that is what I am being told. And a sense of relief, and accomplishment. There are questions about what will happen and what will be left behind. But they tell me that they have done their very best and trained the Afghan forces who are in the lead and taking over Leatherneck. They feel that the Afghan forces have come up along way. They have really improved in last few years. However, they are saying that there are going to be some challenges. We have heard today that the number of Afghan forces killed this year is 4600, which is up from last year. When you look at the number of Marines that died, in the entire 13 years, it is actually about 1000. That is one of the issues, the Afghan forces have to be able to carry on and about their own skills, so they can cut down the fatalities and do their job. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Alison will be bringing us a full report on the ceremony today on radio. Thank you for your time. Back to Tony Perry in studio. It is hard to remember what the expectations were at the start of this combat mission in Afghanistan. No one was talking about 13 years. TONY PERRY: No. The expectations were that the US would go over and find the people connected to 9/11. They did that. Not just Osama bin Laden, but the other folks as well, so the they would never again be a sanctuary. That mission kind of morphed into the phrase nationbuilding. Now the question is, will the Afghan forces be able to do it alone, without us? Have we trained them sufficiently? Do they have the morale? They have had a lot of casualties, and can they continue to lose that many as they fight the Taliban? It is a good question. There are conflicting reports. One day it will look like the Taliban is retaking the province where the Marines have fought and bled and pushed them out. Another day it will look like the Iraqi forces have acquitted themselves well and maybe winning and that part of the world, they tell time with the calendar. We tell time with a stopwatch here in America, so you have to be careful. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When did you first inbed with the Marines in Afghanistan? When did that start, how often were you over there? TONY PERRY: I made seven trips. The first was right after 9/11. The Marines were the first conventional forces into Afghanistan. The special forces and the seals from Coronado were there. We have them places and do not admit it. The first conventional forces where the Marines from Camp penalty and. They came in in November. I came in a few days later. I was with them at Camp Rhino. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The focus on combat in Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban forces, the hunt for bin Laden, all of that was overshadowed for years by the conflict in Iraq. A lot of people think that was a mistake. Do the Marines feel that way? That what they were doing was in essence more important? TONY PERRY: I think they did. In late 2001 when bin Laden and others were holed up in the Tora Bora mountains, we knew where they were. The Marines were loading onto helicopters. I was watching them go to go to Tora Bora, and they were going to go cave to cave and either catch or kill him. As it got darker, on those helicopters the word came from higher, certainly not from the Marines, probably from the Pentagon. Stand back, we have to let the Afghans to it. But the Afghans did not do it and he escaped to Pakistan. He was on the loose until the seals ended that. I think there has always been a sense that we did not push it when we had it in terms of wiping out the insurgency. Of course, we have never have the cooperation from text and that we would like. Pakistan plays both sides against the middle. They recognized the Taliban government when it was running Afghanistan, one of the few countries in the world to do that. They have always laid both sides against the middle. Friendly to the Taliban and the United States, which supplies them a lot of money. They have provided a sanctuary for fighters to go kill Americans or Afghan forces and go hide in Pakistan with their leaders. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I remember from your report how frustrated the Marines in Afghanistan might have been from time to time, because of the things that they were allowed and not allowed to do. Your reports always made it very clear that they were always on mission. They did not let that kind of stuff affect them. TONY PERRY: Foreign-policy means nothing. The enlisted and the officers are aware of foreign policy, they are smart guys. But when you put boots on in the morning, you're looking to find your enemy and kill him and protect the Marines to your left and right. Foreign-policy discussions are few and far between when you are deployed in a war zone. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Like in Helmand province, it was the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan. Remind us what it was like. TONY PERRY: Helmand province on the western edge of Afghanistan is the home of the Taliban for Afghanistan. For demographic reasons it is also home of the poppy crop, poppies that make heroine that provides a lot of profits to the criminals and the surgeons. Also close to Pakistan, it served as a sanctuary. It was very tough. The Marines, at their insistence, was assigned Helmand, the toughest assignment in Afghanistan and Iraq, Anbar. Marines are like that. I have seen 422 Marines killed, about a quarter from Camp Pendleton, Okinawa and etc. They took the hardest places. There were some very large set battles. The third Battalion fifth Marines suffered more dead and wounded than any other battalion, but they pushed out the insurgents. They gave the Afghan government a chance, an opportunity to come and set up the government and win hearts, minds, and loyalty. The Afghan forces, they trained them up to continue the fight. Is it going to be enough? We will find out. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: From your reporting and interviews, what kind of situation are the Marines leaving in Afghanistan? TONY PERRY: Better than they found, but careless and we do not know where it will end. The Taliban are making a concerted effort to plant themselves in Helmand. The poppy crop is there, and psychologically they would like the victory when the Americans and the British leave as they have. It is going to be tough. They were pushed out of other places. They were pushed back in many cases to Pakistan to reorganize and charge across the border once again. It is better than it was, you could not drive down any major road without facing combat. On the other hand, some things, for example, repairing the hydroelectric dam, it was a long project and could have been a great sign from the American point of view that we are bringing you irrigation and power and light, in a way that what is the Taliban going to offer? It never got done, that is still a project to be finished. Can the Afghan government finish it? I think that is beyond their capability. Much better than it was, not what we expected and hoped for. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What impact do you think the last 13 years and these conflicts have had on the Marine Corps? Is it a changed force? TONY PERRY: I think it is a changed force, you cannot go what they went through and not be changed. On your hand, it is my perception that they have remained very cohesive force. They know they are very adroit at reinforcing their own culture internally. I think they have done a good job we have been out of Iraq for four years. I think within the next two years you will be hard-pressed to go within Pendleton and find someone who went to Iraq. The force turns over. Most of them are very young enlisted. They know about Iraq but they were not there. As time goes on, fewer and fewer will know what happened and learn the lessons. They have survived. I think the Army, to a lesser extent, they have also survived. This idea of a spent force is overstated. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the things that happened because of the wars, and because of the return of the third Battalion fifth Regiment, is a new mental health screening, counseling, and a new attitude towards taking care of veterans we have returned from conflicts and multiple deployments. That has been a change, hasn't it? TONY PERRY: It has, and in the important studies are being done here by the Navy. They have amped up services for those folks who suffered amputations. In terms of the Marines themselves, it used to be that you come home from seven months deployment and you were out the gate, buying your Harley-Davidson. But now, you come back from a combat assignment, you will be on that base for 30 days. They will let you cool down, they will look at you, they will see what your situation is. They are going to offer services and maybe require them in some ways. As you know, all ranks Sergeant or below are required to live on the base. That is actually a new rule. They want to stay cohesive. They do not want a rerun of what happened after Vietnam to all military. And for different reasons that we are currently facing. But there was a great deal of internal disarray after Vietnam. Historians who study this will tell you. I do not think that is occurring here, and I think they have anticipated it both medically, psychologically, and institutionally. I think that have weathered this horrible decade in terms of casualties rather well. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tomorrow, Camp Pendleton will mark another event, the 10th anniversary of the battle of Falluja in Iraq. One of the bloodiest battles the Marines engaged in during the war. What have you heard from Marines who fought in Iraq about what is happening in the country? The advance of Isis and the determination of the Iraqi government. TONY PERRY: It would be unnatural if the Marines and the family members were not heartsick about what is going on. On the other hand, that does not really take away from their sense of a compass and. They were given a very hard mission, and they went in to the sanctuary of the enemy, to Falluja, and Anbar province, and fought the bloodiest battle since Vietnam. Thousands of insurgents were killed, hundreds of Marines. But they were pushed out, captured or killed. In that case, the Iraq he government in Baghdad was given the opportunity to create a sense in Falluja that they were building a country. Did they waste that opportunity? There is a good bit of information that would suggest that the prime minister wasted that, and that is why things are as bad as they are now. I do not think to a large degree it takes away from the pride that the Marines feel. The families of the fallen, that is a tough sell, a very tough sell. They're going to try to not emphasized the fact that rings have gone to pieces in many ways, But rather the idea that these sons and daughters were given a very, very hard task, and they accomplished it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. TONY PERRY: My pleasure.

A ceremony Thursday at Camp Pendleton welcomed home the last local Marines and sailors to serve in Afghanistan. The Marines' formal mission in that country ended late last month with the transfer of Camps Bastion and Leatherneck in Helmand Province to the Afghan National Army.

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The members of the Headquarters Unit are the first ones in and the last ones out, so their return marked the symbolic end of this final Marine deployment to southern Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo said he’s optimistic the Afghan forces the Marines helped to train will be able to take over security.

"This transfer is a sign of progress," said Yoo, the Afghanistan commander of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade. "It's not about the coalition. It is really about the Afghans and what they have achieved over the last 13 years. What they have done here is truly significant."

He said the Marines fought many fierce battles in Helmand Province.

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"I think it’s an historic deployment for the Marine Corps," Yoo said. "I think places like Marja and Sangin, Kajak, Lashkar Gah, all those will go down in the history of the Marine Corps. We’ll still have Marines participating as individual augments and maybe some special forces, but as of right now we won't be going back.“

Col. Grady Arnez Beliuh said when the troops left Camp Leatherneck, it looked like a deserted town.

“It’s time for us to be out. The entire year we were there the Afghan forces were already in the lead," Beliuh said. "You know, it’s their country, they have to learn how to sustain and survive on their own. So we have to come out at some point, whether it’s two years ago or two years from now or whether it’s now, like it is.”

An estimated 76,000 Marines served in Afghanistan during the 13-year conflict, many serving multiple deployments. Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, suffered the highest casualty rate of any unit serving in Afghanistan.

Almost 2,000 Marines were wounded in Afghanistan over the past 13 years. Almost 1,000 were killed. Around 100 of those who died were from Camp Pendleton.