Gates Visits Marines in Eastern Afghanistan

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)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter