Marines from Camp Pendleton relinquish command of key Afghan territory
Amid praise for a job well done, the Marines from Camp Pendleton on Saturday formally relinquished responsibility for leading the fight against the Taliban in the insurgency's longtime Afghanistan stronghold of Helmand province.
“In February 2010, the Taliban flag flew high here in Helmand,” said Army Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the international joint force. “Today, this land belongs to the people of Helmand.”
Haji Abdul Manaf, governor of the Nawa district, was blunt: “This has been a very good year. We want more good years.”
Their comments came at a ceremony marking the turnover of command responsibility from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Progress in Helmand has been costly: 136 Marines have been killed in combat since March 1, 2010 -- 61 of them from Camp Pendleton.
The hardest-hit combat unit was the Camp Pendleton-based 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which suffered 24 killed in action and more than 175 wounded since relieving a British unit in early October in the Sangin district.
One of the most recent of the regiment's wounded is Navy corpsman Stuart Fuke, 22, of Honolulu, wounded in the thigh during a foot patrol a week ago. A Marine buddy stopped Fuke’s bleeding with rolls of gauze as sniper fire snapped overhead.
In six months of patrols, Fuke, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan, has provided emergency battlefield care to numerous Marines shot by Taliban snipers or wounded by buried bombs.
Fighting the Taliban, Fuke said, “is like fighting ghosts.”
“It’s like the gangbanging school: shoot, shoot and run away,” said Fuke, now recuperating at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before being airlifted to Naval Medical Center San Diego for additional surgery.
“These guys are quick,” he said. “It’s hit-and-miss, they don’t stand and fight.”
In one skirmish, Fuke had a Marine buddy “die in my arms” after being hit; in another he was able to stem the bleeding and save the life of an agonized Marine who lost both legs and his right arm; and in yet another incident, he watched in horror as a Navy corpsman had his legs blown off.
Marines say conditions in Sangin have changed greatly since fall, with more cooperation from villagers and increasing competency of Afghan security forces.
More bomb-sniffing dogs are being deployed, and the U.S. has advanced technology to catch Taliban fighters or their sympathizers burying bombs under cover of darkness.
But for the Marine grunts and the Navy corpsmen, one thing will remain the same in the coming year: Every foot patrol in Helmand province is perilous.
“You never know when you’re going to step on death,” Fuke said from his hospital bed.
Our best wishes to HM Fuke and ALL of the Darkhorse Wounded Warriors for a speedy recovery! Thank you and Semper Fi.