FORWARD OPERATING BASE SABIT QADAM, Afghanistan, March 8, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today visited with Marines fighting here in what the secretary said was one of the most dangerous places in the world before they arrived.
On the second day of his 13th trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary, Gates flew to Sangin district in eastern Helmand province for his visit here at a base formerly known as Forward Operating Base Jackson.
The base and its surrounding outposts are home to Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, whose unit symbol and call sign is “Dark Horse.”
“It’s an honor to be here in Dark Horse country and to see for myself the dramatic turnaround that you all have brought about here in Sangin,” Gates said. “Before you arrived here, the Taliban were dug in deep, and as the British before you can attest, this district was one of the most dangerous –- not just in Afghanistan, but maybe in the whole world.”
The secretary said in the five months since the Marines arrived, they’ve killed, captured or driven away most of the Taliban who used to call Sangin home.
“In doing so, you’ve linked northern Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces, a major strategic breakthrough,” he said.
Their success has come at a heavy price, Gates said.
“Since October, the 3/5 has suffered the heaviest losses of any battalion in this 10-year-long war,” he said. “Every day I monitor how you’re doing, and every day you return to your [base] without a loss, I say a little prayer. I say a prayer on the other days, as well.”
Defense officials say 29 Marines in the battalion have been killed, and 150 others have been wounded.
The battalion and its partnered Afghan forces have written, in sweat and blood, a new chapter in the Marine Corps’ roll of honor, the secretary said.
“I visit your wounded brothers at Bethesda,” the secretary said, referring to the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. “I write the condolence letters to the families of your fallen.”
Gates said he feels their hardship and their sacrifice, and those of their families.
“I also relish your victories, take pride in your achievements, and take satisfaction as you strike fear into the heart of the Taliban,” he added.
During the question-and-answer period the secretary conducts during troop visits, a Marine captain stepped forward to thank Gates for increasing the use of surveillance balloons and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment at the battalion’s outposts.
The surveillance capability allows him to track his troops on mission, to observe patterns of behavior among the local population, and to identify insurgent activity, the captain said.
“That balloon up above my forward operating base has been a game-changer for me,” the captain told the secretary.
“We’ve gone from about a dozen of those aerostats five or six months ago to … 60 or 65 throughout the country,” Gates replied. “I want to put a bunch more in. I’m just waiting on the Congress to reprogram the money so I can do it.”
Gates, dressed in khaki pants, a blue and white striped shirt and a baseball cap emblazoned, “Maneuver Center, Fort Benning,” gave a commemorative coin and had a photo taken with every troop who’d gathered to see him.
Marines paced toward him one by one, many in muddy boots and all carrying what appeared to be well-broken-in weapons.
The secretary shook each one’s hand, passing a coin with the handshake, then placed his other hand on each one’s shoulder as they turned to face the camera. All got a pat on the shoulder from the secretary as they stepped away.
Gates ended his visit with a request to the troops.
“You couldn’t be here if it weren’t for the support of your families back home,” he said. “So I hope that the next time you’re in contact with them, that you will tell them how much I, personally, thank them for the contribution they make to the contribution you make.
“You couldn’t do this without them, and we couldn’t do this without you,” Gates said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)