View Full Version : With Special Operations Marines in Afghanistan

11-03-09, 03:28 PM
With Special Operations Marines in Afghanistan

Story by Stewart Nusbaumer

Persistence, a little hands-on demonstration and even a limited grasp of the local language promotes success for the MARSOC trainers working with Afghan soldiers. (Photo by Sgt Michael J. Nyeste, 19th Public Affairs Detachment, U.S. Special Operations Command)

This is no oasis. In winter it’s frigid, in summer, a furnace. Patches of scrawny pine trees, clumps of scraggly bushes and scraps of crab grass all desperately struggle to survive. They usually don’t. What thrives here is brown and desolate and often annoying. Windswept dirt and shifting dunes mashed into fine grain sand scratch your eyeballs red. Jagged rocks scattered about can cause you to twist your ankles. Craggy brown mountains perched on the horizon highlight the bleakness.

Herat province, gateway to the Masht-heart-Dago—the “Desert of Death,” slayer of foreign armies from the Persians in 500 B.C. to the Soviets in the 1980s—continues to be a nasty hotbed for ugly weather and dangerous people.

To the south is a stronghold of the resurging Taliban, its forces slipping into Herat province to harass and kill. To the west is Iran—no one knows what the Iranians are up to. To the north and the east is an impregnable wall, the Hindu Kush Mountains. Swarming throughout this harsh and brutal land squeezed between pressing Taliban and hostile border and towering barrier are gunrunners, opium dealers and smuggling gangs.

And smack in the middle of this nasty neighborhood are U.S. Marines. They’re Marines of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC).

The base unit consists of the 14-man Marine Special Operations Teams (MSOTs). In Afghanistan, Special Operations Marines deploy in company-size units, but today they are more often scattered around in small-unit teams—MSOTs—conducting distributed operations. I embedded with an MSOT from “Fox” Company, 2d Marine Special Operations Battalion in Herat province this past summer.
MARSOC With the Afghan National Army

Riding in several sport utility vehicles, the Marines pulled up abruptly, shooting a cloud of dust over the staging area. On the edge of an Afghan National Army (ANA) base, an Afghan platoon was weighed down with machine guns, belts of ammo and RPG-7 rocket launchers. They were packed for battle.

Although the patrol route was not necessarily dangerous, in Afghanistan not necessarily dangerous can turn very deadly in a flash. And there were rumors that Taliban “squirters” fleeing the Marine offensive down south had slipped into Herat. Two files of Afghans and Marines mixed and both wearing tri-color Afghan uniforms exited through a side gate and hiked at a comfortable clip down an asphalt road lined with lanky pine trees. Then the asphalt ended, the dust began, rocks worked on our ankles, and the sun inched higher.

The lead Marine advisor for these Afghan troops, a Herculean-built sergeant, said he views foot patrols as patrols-plus: the plus being an opportunity for Afghan soldiers to improve their patrolling skills— spacing, pacing, changing formations with changing environments … everything that can give a patrol an edge if it turns deadly. “We’ve been covering all this in classes and drills on the ANA base,” he said while scanning the barren landscape for movement, “but reinforcement and live conditions are crucial for their progress.”

Four days a week, the sergeant and other operators train and mentor an Afghan Army platoon in basic infantry skills: shooting positions, vehicle convoy security, mission planning, leadership and human rights. “But these are not Marines; you have to do extra things with them,” the sergeant emphasized. “Like march all the way back to their barracks with them, eat with them, drink chai with them. These things are very important to Afghans.”

We turned on to a dirt path, crossed an open area and headed down a gravel road with trees and several simple houses. The Afghan soldiers were alert and appeared to be in good physical shape.

The sergeant served three years in 2d Recon Bn, another three years in 2d Force Recon, and left the Corps to attend college. Afterward, he rejoined 2d Force Recon, which became 2d Marine Special Operations Bn. “I was out of the Marines for 4½ years, but returned because there was a war going on and there were still things I wanted to accomplish in the Marines.”

During college, the Marine veteran worked as a mental health technician in a lockdown facility for abused kids, ranging from age 7 to 18, with psychiatric prob*lems. “It’s amazing how much you can learn from human beings with mental dis*orders,” he said while studying a motorcycle kicking up a trail of dust on a parallel road. “You have to really listen to understand them. You have to reach those people on their level. That takes a lot of patience. That’s where I learned to have patience.”

We entered a village of low buildings, the main road lined with tiny shops selling basic food and household items. The residents stared, some with icy glares, others with smiles—the children all smiled. In 10 minutes we were out of the village and humping across a broad open area—another potential ambush area. We then looped back to the ANA base.
At the staging area, after the three-hour patrol, the sergeant addressed his Afghan platoon: “Everyone did a good job. You did a good job on security, on pace, and on changing formations.” Then the Afghans hiked back to their barracks and the Marines drove back to their base—except for the sergeant, who hiked with his Afghan platoon.
MARSOC Marine Qualities

Riding back to base with the leathernecks, I asked them what personal qualities make for a good Special Operations Marine. “Physical and mental toughness,” said the team chief, a gunnery sergeant. “No selfishness,” said a staff sergeant, the team’s communications chief, adding, “… take extreme pride in what you do.” Another Marine said, “The ability to mesh with a changing environment.” The one attribute every team member mentioned was “maturity.”

The staff sergeant explained: “Operating at this level requires a Marine to have a certain level of life experiences and Marine Corps experiences. We need guys who can make quick life or death decisions without any hesitations. The more mature you are, the less your senses get overloaded during a crisis, and you can make sound decisions. If you have a young guy out of boot camp, you are going to have to supervise him, and that can’t always happen [on a team]. I would say the a lot of experiences, and we work together and can get through any situation.”

With classified information and clandestine missions and sensitive information, loose talk and immature boasting is dangerous. The staff sergeant added, “That’s something that cannot be tolerated. Operators live by the motto, ‘Silent Professionals.’ ” Operators also spoke a great deal about being “adaptive.” Being a small unit operating far from “Big Marine Corps” support and working closely with locals—troops, leaders and civilians in their local culture—flexibility and adaptability are crucial. There is not one way to do things here. Nor, is there one job for every Marine.

“Everyone has several duties,” the team leader, a captain, said. “All of us have many skill sets to learn,” the team chief added.

For this team, they work on foreign internal defense several days a week, training Afghan soldiers. Yesterday they had a direct action mission. Soon there will be a special reconnaissance assignment. Today was a civil affairs project. For Special Operations, change is one of the few constants. Maturity and adaptability, with other qualities, are what make a good Special Operations operator.
MARSOC Marines and Civil Affairs

Several hundred Afghans, in anxious anticipation, huddled against the shiny whitewashed wall for shade. In the rising morning sun, the bright-white structure contrasted sharply with the village’s dirt-brown buildings and the surrounding desolate desert.

At a few minutes after 9 a.m., a group of 10 women, including a distraught woman carrying a screaming baby; a frail, elderly woman assisted by a young teenage girl; and a tiny girl with disheveled hair and a big case of sniffles, was escorted inside to a waiting room where they sat on brightly colored rugs. Then 10 men, including a middle-aged man hobbling on wooden crutches, an old man with a long white beard being pushed in a wheelbarrow and a sneezing teenage boy, were directed to a long wooden bench in the courtyard.

The old and feeble and young yet sick are all dirt poor in one of the poorest countries in the world with nowhere to go for medical care. Nowhere, except, to the weekly MEDCAP (Medical Civil Affairs Program).

On every Thursday, Special Operations Marines with Army Special Forces join Afghan Commandos and soldiers for a public medical clinic. The Afghans furnish two female nurses, a doctor and physician assistant, two pharmacists, and Army and Commando medics. The Americans contribute two Navy corpsmen with MARSOC and two Army Special Forces medics. The local population furnishes 300 to 350 patients, more than 4,000 in the last three months.

The Afghan doctor, with trimmed white beard, said he treats “lots of mental problems, and intestinal and kidney problems.” I asked him what is needed most, expecting to hear expensive equipment and trained health personnel. “What is needed most is health education. Why people should wash, how often, why dirty water will make them sick.”

“It feels good to help these people,” said a broad-shouldered corpsman—a hospital corpsman third class. “It also lets them know that we are here to help them. I give them meds, mostly for headaches, sore throats, worms, pains ‘in their bones,’ and lots of baby formula. Some are dehydrated. They drink strong black tea all the time.”

The corpsman’s training included the Basic Reconnaissance Course at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga.; and Navy Diving and Marine Combatant Diver training in Florida. In Special Operations, corpsmen need to be prepared for anything.

“It worked out that 2d Marine Special Operations Battalion needed a corpsman, so I was lucky enough to receive orders here.”

Old Breed, New Breed: The Marine Breed

There are many reasons why Marines and sailors volunteer for an assignment to MARSOC, although from my experience with this team, the reasons can be boiled down to three. Foremost is the personal challenge. Highly motivated and driven to excel, Special Operations, especially for those who were in Force Recon, was their next logical challenge. A second reason is they felt restrained, held back by the “Big Marine Corps,” its bureaucratic rules and regulations. In unconventional warfare, there is more freedom of action. Finally, with the struggle against Islamic radicalism, these Marines and their corpsmen wanted to be in the middle of the fight.

And in Special Operations they are challenged, have greater autonomy, and are in the middle of the fight. Plus something every Marine relishes: they have intense camaraderie. In small units, Marine comradeship flourishes big-time.

Inside the clinic—on other days the building is used to train Afghan Army and Commando medics—patients were directed to one of five treatment rooms. Immediately their seats in the waiting room and on the bench were filled. After visiting a medical practitioner, patients were directed to the pharmacy at the end of the hall. It’s all well organized, with a stern-faced Afghan directing the steady flow of patients.

If the leathernecks’ reasons for joining Marine Special Operations are clear, MARSOC is less so. When you think Army Special Forces … Navy SEALS … Air Force Special Operators … you have a clear idea who they are—superb culture warriors, first-class direct action operators and daredevil fliers. But Marine Special Operations? Well, nothing, beyond Marines.

“We’re [MARSOC] still in our infancy,” the team chief said. “We haven’t settled into a niche yet,” another gunnery sergeant added. Other Special Operations components have been in SOCOM for more than 20 years. Some units have existed for more than 40 years, while MARSOC has existed for a little more than three years. It takes time to develop an identity, or maybe just a cliché.

Some Marines have called the MARSOC Marine “a new breed of Marine.” Yet these MARSOC Marines disagree. “We’re not new,” said the lead advisor sergeant. “We have a lineage that goes back to World War II with the Raiders.” At the other extreme, some leathernecks have expressed a concern that Special Operations Marines are no longer really Marines. “We are Marines first!” every MARSOC Marine insisted.

The Marine Corps, more than any military service, has a long and rich history in unconventional warfare. During the “Banana Wars” of the 20th century, small units of Marines engaged in pacification programs and direct action.

In the early, dark days of World War II, Marine Raiders battled behind enemy lines and spearheaded main-force Marines. Joint Assault Signal companies executed special reconnaissance, and under horrific conditions directed air and naval gunfire. Leathernecks in the Amphibious Reconnaissance Bn scouted enemy beachheads right under the eyes of Japanese soldiers.

In Vietnam, Force Reconnaissance became the premium deep recon and direct action unit, and pioneered new insertion methods. Combined Action Platoon Marines lived in Vietnamese villages and organized local defense units.

In Herat province, these Special Operations Marines are not a new breed. They are the latest of an old breed. A breed that for more than 100 years has fought in small units separated from the main force and used unconventional tactics—unique reconnaissance, lightning raids, assisting civilian populations, counterinsurgency programs, precision assaults and training local militaries. And they are, like the Ma*rines before them, excelling at this different type of warfare.

Editor’s note: Stewart Nusbaumer, wounded in Vietnam while serving as an “Amgrunt” (amphibian tractor Marines reorganized into infantry companies), was retired medically as a corporal. He has embedded with numerous Marine units in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Leatherneck appreciates the MARSOC Marines who supported the Stewart Nusbaumer embed.