It’s that time again: Marine Corps Times is heading back to the Sandbox.
In coming days, I’ll be embedding with Marine forces in Afghanistan with Colin Kelly, a senior videographer and photographer on staff. It’ll mark the third trip for each of us to Afghanistan, and my second in Helmand province this year.
It’s a key time to visit the war zone for several reasons, as pointed out in this new story I put together after interviewing several deployed general officers. In recent days, the U.S. has completed its drawdown to about 68,000 troops across Afghanistan, ending a two-plus year surge in forces that was ordered by President Obama in late 2009. As a result, there are now somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 Marines deployed in Helmand, down from a peak of 21,000 in 2010 and 2011.
There’s also a shift in mission. U.S. forces are now actively involved in security force assistance, rather than partnered operations. Afghan units now frequently run their own missions, calling in coalition troops only when needed. Americans deployed in security force assistance adviser teams provide guidance and a link between Afghan units and coalition forces as needed.
In the spring, photographer James J. Lee traveled across northern Helmand, spending substantial time in Kajaki and Sangin districts. We posted dozens of updates here on Battle Rattle, covering everything from the humorous (hello, MRAP toilet) to the scary (wandering around in Sangin district’s “Fish Tank,” for example).
Among other things, we expect to embed in coming days with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., after spending time at Camp Leatherneck, the nerve center for the Corps in Afghanistan. Elements of 1/1 are distributed across Helmand province, augmenting other infantry units from Kajaki to Marjah.
We’ll also take a look at the evolving mission and what Marines will do now that their forces have been reduced. That’ll mean spending time talking to everyone from seasoned general officers to wise-crackin’ lance corporals living in the dirt. Each posted will be categoried “Embedded Journalism,” and available here.
For me, it’ll be a chance to see the continual evolution in Helmand, the austere province where tens of thousands of Marines have deployed — and hundreds have died — since 2008. My first embed came in spring 2010, when photographer Tom Brown and I joined 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., as they faced regular firefights with the Taliban in Marjah.
This will be Colin’s first embed with Marines, but he embedded with Army units in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011. Those trips took him to Paktika, Kunar and Kandahar provinces, among other locations.
As always, your thoughts, comments and questions on this blog will be appreciated. You’ll also be able to find some updates on Twitter, where I post under the account @DanLamothe.