Multiple mounted patrols totaling 174 tactical vehicles with approximately 700 service members entered Camp Leatherneck’s North Gate during the early morning hours and throughout the day, May 5. Tactical vehicles driving through a gate on the Marine Corps’ central-Helmand base is a regular occurrence; however, this was a significant occasion for Marines, coalition forces and their Afghan counterparts.
The armored vehicles were returning from Sangin, Afghanistan, an infamous battleground in northern Helmand province, and a village that will be remembered in Marine Corps and British history.
The Battle for Sangin
During September 2010, there was a reorganization of ground forces throughout Helmand province. A more than 1,000-strong British Battle Group based in the northern portion of the province transferred security responsibility of Sangin District to U.S. service members. Marines with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, who had been fighting alongside British service members since May 2010, took command.
Sangin is a small city of approximately 14,000 that sits on the Helmand River roughly 60 miles northeast of Helmand province’s capital of Lashkar Gah. It was infamous for Taliban influence and played a significant role in the poppy cultivation and opium trade in southern Afghanistan.
More than 100 British troops were killed in the region, which accounts for approximately 25 percent of their fatalities throughout Afghanistan.
A month after the Marines took charge in Sangin, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, arrived to begin their six-month deployment in an area at the time known as the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.
From October 2010 until the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines’ deployment concluded during April 2011, 25 of the battalion’s Marines were killed in action, with more than 200 injured. Despite their losses, the “Darkhorse” Marines were able to improve security in the area.
Marines operated out of more than 35 bases in the Sangin area since 2010. Working together with their 2nd Brigade counterparts from the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps along with Afghan National Police, the Marines had closed or transferred all but Forward Operating Base Nolay and FOB Sabit Qadam by the beginning of 2014.
Forward Operating Base Nolay housed the 2nd Brigade headquarters as well as a team of approximately 40 Marine Corps advisors, while FOB Sabit Qadam was home to ANA infantry soldiers and a company of infantry Marines with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
On May 5, Marines at both remaining FOBs said goodbye to their Afghan counterparts and left the two bases as well as the security of the region in the hands of the capable and credible Afghans.
The MAGTF Retrograde
Beginning during the late hours of May 4, Marines at FOB Nolay and FOB Sabit Qadam began to load their vehicles and drive out the gates for the final time. Prior to a long convoy down a highway once riddled with improvised explosive devices, Marines across Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan as well as soldiers with the 215th Corps worked together to plan and prepare for a successful retrograde.
Aircrews with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466, a Marine Corps Air Station Miramar-based CH-53 Super Stallion squadron, began flying equipment and personnel out of northern Helmand weeks prior to the final departure. Marines with 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion left two days prior to the retrograde to ensure the route Marines would use to return to Camp Leatherneck was cleared of any IEDs. Infantry Marines with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, posted security along the route to ward off any would-be attackers looking to strike the Marines one last time as they left the area. And Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 7 arrived at both remaining FOBs a day before the retrograde to load up last-minute gear and equipment to be driven back to Camp Leatherneck in central Helmand.
In addition to Marine assets throughout the Marine Air Ground Task Force, ANA soldiers from the 215th Corps’ 2nd and 3rd Brigades also provided layered security throughout the region and along the route. They also sent a team of soldiers to clear the route Marines took.
Final planning for the retrograde of Marines out of Sangin took place May 1 when Brig. Gen. Daniel Yoo, the commander of Regional Command (Southwest), Maj. Gen. Sayed Malouk, the commander of the 215th Corps, and their respective staffs came together aboard Camp Shorabak, an ANA base adjacent to Camp Leatherneck, to conduct a Rehearsal of Concept exercise.
Success of Sangin
The success in Sangin has not only been seen in the city, but heard around Camp Leatherneck following the Marines’ return from the region. Marines like Sgt. Troy Garza, a squad leader with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, who was in Sangin during the most intense fighting the Marines saw in northern Helmand.
Garza previously served with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, during 2010 and 2011. He remembers the long days of patrolling, the high kinetics in the region and the intense firefights. However, during this deployment, Garza and his Charley Company Marines only saw outside the confines of their small forward operating base while standing a security post. Their ANA soldiers were patrolling the region and keeping Sangin secure.
Many Marines with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines and the 2-215 Security Force Assistance Advisor Team tell similar stories of the difference four years has made in Sangin.
Another sign of success in the city nestled on the Helmand River was the tremendous turnout of local citizens for the April 5 elections. Afghanistan held its third democratic election and the first one where current President Hamid Karzai’s name was not on the ballot.
During the previous 2009 election, only 177 votes were cast. This year an estimated 5,000 votes were cast in the Sangin District, according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. Not only did the locals come out to vote, they came out knowing their country’s own security forces were keeping the polling cites secure and safe, a testament to the change in the local populace’s confidence in the Afghan National Security Forces.
Despite the Marines’ departure from FOB Nolay and FOB Sabit Qadam for the final time May 5, Sangin will forever be etched in Marine Corps history.
For four years Marines fought tirelessly to rid the city of enemy fighters and not allow insurgents a safe haven in Sangin. More than 50 Marines paid the ultimate sacrifice fighting for Sangin and hundreds were seriously wounded.
Marines had bittersweet feelings when arriving back to Camp Leatherneck after the more than 60-kilometer journey. They were happy to be leaving the area that claimed the lives and limbs of so many of their brothers-in-arms, but sad to leave their newfound brothers of the ANA and Afghan National Police.
May 5 marked the end of an era for Marines in northern Helmand province, but started a new chapter for the Afghan National Security Forces and the local Sangin civilians, and the Marines are confident the soldiers and police will continue to succeed in Sangin just as they did.