It has been seven long months for the Marines and sailors of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, but they will soon return home from Sangin, Afghanistan, to be reunited with family and friends.
The Marines faced a difficult task at a difficult time in Afghanistan. During the summer fighting season, temperatures rose to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and tensions in the region became more intense with each passing day.
“Our primary mission was to develop the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces,” said. Lt. Col. David Bradney, 1st Battalion commanding officer. “The second part of the mission was to defeat the insurgency in Sangin, Afghanistan.”
The Marines worked with various Afghan forces, partnering with ANSF during training and operations. They continued the work of previous battalions, strengthening the ANSF.
“We are trying to develop the capabilities of the ANSF while beating back the insurgency to allow the government of Afghanistan to more proactively govern the citizens of Afghanistan,” said Bradney, a San Antonio native.
The battalion assigned more Marines to train the Afghan forces than any of the previous battalions in the area.
“Most battalions previously came with 60 to 70 Marines devoted to that mission,” said Bradney, referring to training the Afghan forces. “With 191 Marines specifically for that mission, we were able to work with the individual policeman all the way up to the chief of police.”
The additional attention helped the ANSF develop an independence from the Marines.
“They are able to plan and coordinate amongst themselves,” said Bradney. “We knew they were always able, but now they are more willing to conduct independent operations. Now they go out regularly by themselves.”
The Marines conducted operations with Afghan forces throughout Sangin and the upper Helmand River valley. They were involved in more than 300 direct firefights and found about 300 improvised explosive devices. The battalion had 39 casualties and six fallen heroes.
“The hardest part is coping with the casualties and the heroes,” said Sgt. Maj. Keith Coombs, 1st Battalion sergeant major.
Coombs had Marines construct a memorial – what he calls an honor garden – to honor the previous battalions that served in Sangin and their fallen brothers.
“I wanted to make sure the Marines that came before us would always be remembered,” said Coombs.
The Marines faced a difficult situation when they arrived in the spring. Not only were they deploying at the start of the fighting season, but they were arriving fresh off of the heels of controversy involving Marines being disrespectful of fallen enemy.
“We came at a critical time,” said Coombs, from Noble, Okla.
The battalion knew their actions would be under intense scrutiny, and they couldn’t afford any slip-ups.
“Our noncommissioned officers made tough decisions with the rules of engagement and all the things that come with having to make on-the-spot calls during firefights,” said Coombs. “That impressed me the most — NCOs making the right call and wanting to do it right every single day.”
As the Marines strengthened the ANSF and helped rid the area of insurgent activity, Sangin’s security and economy improved.
With battalion-level operations specifically designed to clear the city and the surrounding green zones, the Marines began to see changes.
“For the first time, I think ever, we have a very good security situation here,” said Coombs.
In addition to increased security, the local bazaar increased by more than 500 new shops.
“When we got here there were 1,000 stalls, and now there are over 1,500 stalls,” said Bradney, “It shows that people are willing to invest, and there are enough people to support the additional stalls.”
Improvements happened within the local government as well. Earlier this year, the government held the first election of a district security council. Bradney said the council works with the governor and relays the needs and wants of the Afghan people.
Now 1st Battalion passes the torch to 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines.
The new battalion will continue strengthening the ANSF and supporting the Sangin government. The Marines with 1st Battalion will return home after months of giving everything they had to the people of Afghanistan.