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thedrifter
09-10-08, 08:05 AM
One step closer to home
Jacksonville Daily News
JENNIFER HLAD

The Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit transferred responsibility of the northern Garmser district in Afghanistan to British and Afghan forces this week, marking a major step toward the unit's homecoming this fall.

The unit deployed to Afghanistan early this year and had been working in the area, located in the Helmand province, in late April. The Marines originally planned to secure routes through the district center in order to move the battalion to the southern part of the district, but as the Marines moved in, the insurgents began attacks and continued fighting the unit daily for more than a month, spokeswoman Maj. Kelly Frushour said in an e-mail response to questions from The Daily News.

The attacks illustrated how important the district center of Garmser was to the insurgents, and International Security Assistance Force commanders determined the Marines would better disrupt insurgents by staying in that area, Frushour said.

"There really wasn't a need to push further south to do what we were very capably doing from the district center - which was disrupting the insurgents, their movement and their logistics," Col. Peter Petronzio, commanding officer of the 24th MEU, said in the e-mail response.

"It would not have made sense to give up what the Marines had fought so hard for, to go to a place more remote with less people. That's not where counterinsurgencies are fought, in unpopulated areas. You can't affect anything if you aren't out there with the people and getting to know them as well as you know the terrain," Petronzio said.

In July, the Marine Corps announced the 24th MEU's tour in Afghanistan would be extended 30 days at the request of ISAF.

Petronzio said Marines had mixed feelings about the extension.

"No one likes to be away from home and their family any longer than necessary, but extensions are a part of the military - especially when your mission is producing the desired effects," he said. "Being extended is equal parts flattering and equal parts sad."

Staying in the area after the fighting ended was an important part of the mission, Petronzio said.

"The tenets of a successful counterinsurgency are clear, hold and build. You can't just clear. If you don't hold, the insurgents come back and if you don't build then you really aren't making the place any better," Petronzio said. "You need to make the place better so the people can see the value of choosing government rule vice accepting insurgent intimidation."

Many families had expressed concern that the Marines' work would be for naught - that the group would not be replaced in Helmand province. But Petronzio said security will continue in the area.

"The British forces operating in Helmand province are extremely capable," he said. "Our hope is that this transfer of authority is transparent to the Afghan citizens on the ground, that there is no interruption to the security we were providing. The only change is the uniforms of the people patrolling."

Since the transfer, many of the Marines have returned to Kandahar Air Field to prepare for the return home. The move from remote Helmand province to the large, established base means more comforts of home and more opportunities to contact loved ones.

"I just got my first phone call from back at Kandahar (Monday) night in the middle of the night," said Brittany Blake, wife of Sgt. James Blake, of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. "It was kind of crappy reception, but ... nonetheless, it's awesome."

Blake said her husband had only been able to call every few weeks, which was extremely difficult for her.

"He's my best friend and my husband, and not being able to talk to him about our daughter, or even just a show ... it just taught me how much I value that in our relationship," Blake said.

Sarah Bautista, wife of Sgt. Chris Bautista of Combat Logistics Battalion 24, said her husband was able to call a few times a month, for a total of about 45 minutes a month. But it was what he missed at home that was the most difficult part, she said.

"I think the deployments themselves are not as bad as the things you have to go through by yourself," she said.

Though Bautista is concerned about her husband's trip back to Kandahar, she said she also is excited because it "means for sure they're coming home."

Donna Rivera, mother of Cpl. Daniel Rivera with BLT 1/6, said she spoke to her son Tuesday morning.

"He was so excited because he got to shower," she said. He told her he may take another shower that night, just because he could.

Blake said she felt much better having her husband back in Kandahar province.

"Hopefully I'll be able to sleep now," she said.

During the months the Marines were operating in Helmand province, Sgt. Blake was featured in numerous news reports, including a story in the Wall Street Journal about how the Marines were paying reparations to Afghan civilians whose property was damaged in the fighting.

Brittany Blake said she was glad her husband was able to have the combat experience and the opportunity to work with the civilians.

"Not every unit gets to go over and immediately see the good that they've done," she said. "They got to live there and interact with the people. ... A part of you is scared, but a part of you is overwhelmed with pride."

Contact interactive content editor Jennifer Hlad at 910-219-8467, or visit her 24th MEU blog at http://fromafghanistan.encblogs.com.

Ellie