Local Marines Expect Counteroffensive In Helmand Province
What are the biggest challenges facing local Marines currently stationed in Afghanistan? We speak to Tony Perry of the Los Angeles Times about his recent trip to the Helmand Province, and discuss how things have progressed since his last visit to Afghanistan.
Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times
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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. While the head lines have been filled with the new U.S. military action in Libya, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan continues to be dangerous and often deadly. One group of marines soon to come home to Camp Pendleton has suffered the largest number of casualties of any similar size U.S. force in the war. Those have been stationed in Helmand Province, where LA Times reporter, Tony Perry, has visited on several occasions. And he joins us in our studios. Tony, good morning.
PERRY: Good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: So tell us how many local marines are currently based in Helmand Province?
PERRY: In the past year, up to ten thousand Camp Pendleton marines and sailors have been in Helmand Province. This is now a turnover effect from camp Lejeune North Carolina. They are now the command unit. So units from Camp Pendleton are coming home. There will still be units from Camp Pendleton, two to three thousand in the coming year, not the 10000 but a less are number. They will still be there, though, and they have drawn as Camp Pendleton units tend to, some of the most difficult assignments. In this case the deadly area called the Sangin district.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you told us the last time you were in Afghanistan in Helmand Province, you told us about the terrible threats and -- to our troops there and the fact that there were heavy fighting going on from time to time. What kind of progress has been made since you were there last?
PERRY: Well, significant progress has been made in prying the fingers of the Taliban off the throat of the local people. They have to a large degree either fled or gone underground, and now they will be reEnforced by folks from Pakistan who will smuggle in. A great deal of progress has been made, but the mantra is, and I think it's an accurate one, is that the progress is fragile and reversible. We haven't really seen the Afghan government step up to the plate and begin to establish a government in Helmand Province, for example. And of course the competency of the Afghan police while rising apparently is not yet to the point where they can take on the duty of protecting their own people themselves. The Marines are going to be there, as the former commandant just last August, he said the Marines are going to be there until 2014, 2015.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we have done a show, and that's been a lot written about the Camp Pendleton based third battalion 5th marine regiment. It's been hit very hard. I think it's suffered the largest number of casualties of any similar sized force over there, and it moved to the area last October. Can you tell us what this group of marines has faced in the last few months?
PERRY: They have face first degree the worst of it, frankly, from a combat perspective, they have had 24 killed, more than 175 wounded, and among those wounded, a dozen or more double amputees, and a couple of triple amputees. They crew the most difficult assignment. They drew that area that the Taliban was in control of for a number of year, and didn't want to give up, you know, and still doesn't want top give up. Now the thee five is coming home, and the expectation is that the Taliban will have a counter offensive a counter attack because they want Sangin back. And who is going to meet them? The first battalion 5th marines from Camp Pendleton, back by the third battalion 4th marines from 29 Palms. There is the expectation that there is fighting, further fighting ahead, and with furtherance of this foreign policy being hurt rather grievously.
CAVANAUGH: You wrote about speaking to one Navy corpsman in particular.
PERRY: 22-year-old Stewart Fuke, 22 years old, and he's out on patrol with them of the things he had seen make your hair fall out. He had a marine die in is arms from wounds during a fire fight. On another occasion, they were in a combat situation, and eye marine slid down a small hill, hit a roadside bomb, lost both legs and his leg, and Fuke was there to save his life. [CHECK] he was there when another core man had both legs blown off. He has seen it. He's 22 years old. And then ten days ago, he was out on a patrol. The one of the last patrols benefit that were to come home, and he was hit, he took a rather large caliber shot to his thigh, exited through his backside, it actually cook offend a unit, a round that he was carrying in his pocket, so he had that to deal with, and he was bleeding when I will an attack was under way, and bullets snapping oaf his head. His life was saved, his bleeding was stemmed by a buddy, a marine right behind him. He's now in Landstuhl, he was absolutely matter of fact about it, he's one of these young people, your jaw drops open when you meet them. What they have been thru, how they feel about it. It has nothing to do about the politics of the situation. But what they feel about can the [CHECK] it's very hard to not be impressed by that kind of young man?
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine so. You know, Tony, we have done a program about what Camp Pendleton is preparing for as the 3/5 returns. And they're about to mount a more intense post-combat support technique that may actually become a standard for the Marines across the board, and I'm wondering in your situation with this wonderful marine and also in other conversations, you think that's no, sir? That kind of support?
PERRY: I think it is. I think the things these young marines and Navy core men have seen are going to impact their life for some period of time. They're young and they're resilient and they have a lot of support. But they have seen some things that I think need addressing. And you're right. Preparing a support network unlike any -- more substantial, and they have done things in the past but more substantial this time. And the hope is that it influences the people coming home from this positively, and also can set a standard for others. 'Cause this thing isn't open, as I say, the first battalion 5th marines is gonna take the 3/5's place, and they'll be coming home some day too.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to let our listeners know if they want to join the conversation, please do, the number is 1-888-895-5727. You noted Tony that this Sangin area in Helmand Province is dangerous, deadly, and troops have been maimed this. Is anything being done to try to mitigate these IEDs that the Marines are so vulnerable to?
PERRY: [CHECK] $17 billion looking for technology to detect and detonate these roadside bombs before somebody steps on them or drives on them bout much success, 17 billion dollars, without much success. The best ways to detect [CHECK] some very good Labradors are over there. I saw 13 of them at Camp Pendleton ask, that'll be shipped over there soon, they were barking and jumping up and down and ready to get over with their handlers, or the sharp-eyed young lance corporal, and indeed there have been studies that show there are two kind of young enlisted who are particularly good at this, one, good old boys who grew up in a nice rural trompin' through the woods kind of background shootin' squirrels, they know when something looking strange, or guys who grew up in the hills who know innately to make a threat assessment, and what doesn't hook right. But technology has yet to find a way to guard our troops against the bearing of these, and now of course to make it even more difficult, in Sangin, in Helmand Province, there are places where the big vehicles really can't go, the soil doesn't support it. So the Marines have to get out and walk, they also get out and walk to show the locals, hey, we're here, we're not just drive-bys. Well, that puts them at greater risk. And there's a in the number and rate of double amputees and also the number and rate of urogenital injuries.
CAVANAUGH: What about that outreach to the locals and their help in trying to make sure that these roadside bombs are not being planted? Is there progress being made there?
PERRY: I think this is progress, but the Afghan, particularly the Helmand province Afghans, have seen a lot of war in the last three decades. He saw the Russians and the Mujahadin, and the Taliban, and the Brits, and now the Americans, and he is just waiting to see who the toughest tribe is, really. And so they're wary. They're wary of throwing in their lot. They don't want know if we're going home next week leaving them to the mercy of the Taliban. So they're reluctant. Some very bravely come forward. And of course the Afghan forces come [CHECK] helping from the Afghans, but yet why many of the Afghans being afraid to throw in their lot with the Americans.
CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Tony Perry from the LA Tomes about this most recent trip over to Afghanistan, and visiting the Landstuhl regional medical center in Germany. Welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning Maureen. I didn't call with a question. I just called with a comment. I wanted to thank Tony for his willingness to repeatedly go into the war zones and the hospitals and seeing these young men and to make this war real to us. I feel that so often it's hid Ken and we don't want hear about the consequences and Tony, your repeated to rays, and your willingness to come back and talk about it so generous is greatly appreciated. Thank you.
PERRY: Well, thank you, that's a very nice thing for you to say. I appreciate it. It is I local story, the numbers alone make it a local story, we mentioned the three/five, 29 if you add five more from battalions who were assigned to help the 3/5. Overall Camp Pendleton troops in the last 12 months, there have been 61 killed and hundreds wounded. You put those several dozen that are outside that one year time frame, and you've had a lot of young men and some young women from Camp Pendleton hurt grievously, killed in this war, and it makes it for us here a local story.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Ben is calling from Poway. Good morning, ben. Welcome to these Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I wanted to thank Mr. Perry for reflecting from the war as it is back to the United States. Usually we're presented with a vision of war that is not consistent with what's actually happening on the ground. What I was going to ask confuse, apparently I heard from people who have come back that it some problems with 35's gung-ho leadership, not respecting the, procedures keep people from getting injured, and also they didn't coordinate very well with the explosive ordinance device people. So one of the reasons that casualties were so hire was because of this. And I was wondering if he could comment on that.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Ben.
PERRY: I can't knowledgeably. Those are common rumors in any infantry battalion. Leadership could have been better, coordination could have been better. It is one of the things and there are several things like that that I'm looking at. I can't confirm anything, what you're saying, as an actual fact. But those kinds of rumors are very common.
CAVANAUGH: I want to end, Tony, on discussing a little bit more about this idea of the progress in Helmand province being fragile and reversible 678 if you could expand a little bit Marine Corps on what you mean by that, and also some things that we've been hearing about May and the opium crop and how that might make another assault by the Taliban.
PERRY: Sure. Fragile and reversible. School have now been opened, clinics have been established, all of that could go away, if the Americans and the Afghan forces move out or are not competent enough, the Taliban had thrown their flag over Helmand in many years, had conducted summary executions, had taxed the people, much of that is now ended. If the Americans go away, and the Afghan forces aren't capable of stepping up, that could come back. Schools for girls are now if being opened, which of course is anathema to the Taliban. That could certainly go away. Now, why is Helmand important? It's a long way from cabal, culturally and geographically. It is the center of the poppy crop. The poppy crop turns into heroin they need that money. They were running low on funds, U.S. officials say, they need to reestablish themselves in Helmand, get backing into that intimidation mode with the farmers, and get that crop that can be processed right there in Helmand. Or take it to western Europe [CHECK] doesn't fight as much in the winter. It's cold, and for whatever reason, they go away. However, in the spring, when the poppy crop is planted, it is said that they then go back and start their intimidation campaign with the farmers. I understand they're already place a number of roadside bombs or attempting to, in the fields [CHECK] they'll be victimized by it. We're looking at some tough months. No one is saying otherwise. This is some key terrain for them, and while the Marines from Camp Pendleton by all accounts have done a marvelous job in forcing them out, forcing them to tree or did underground, [CHECK].
CAVANAUGH: Tony thank you so much.
PERRY: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles. If you would like to comment, please go online.