1st Marine Regiment cases colors, ends mission in Afghanistan
By 1st Lt. Garth Langley
| Marine Expeditionary Brigade - Afghanistan | August 18, 2014
CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan - --
A blinding sandstorm swept across the desert floor surrounding Regional Command (Southwest)’s security-nexus, Task Force Belleau Wood, Aug. 15, 2014. During a brief pause in the storm, Marines with 1st Marine Regiment held a small ceremony to case the unit’s battle colors for the final time in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
The regiment deployed to southwestern Afghanistan during Feb. 2014 and led more than 3,000 U.S. and coalition forces charged with safeguarding the remaining International Security Assistance Forces in the region. First Marine Regiment transferred security lead to 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which will serve as the last Marine infantry unit during the Operation Enduring Freedom mission. By the year's end, RC(SW) will officially close its doors after more than five years of counterinsurgency and security force assistance operations and transfer full security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces.
READY TO FIGHT
First activated Nov. 27, 1913, in Philadelphia, 1st Marine Regiment was then designated as the 2nd Advanced Base Regiment. Since then, they’ve lived up to their motto as being, “Ready to Fight.”
As a swift and deadly amphibious force during the "Banana Wars," 1st Marine Regiment forayed across the Caribbean and waged decisive battles in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Vera Cruz, Mexico. At the end of the Dominican campaign, the regiment was redesignated as the 1st Marine Regiment.
During World War II, 1st Marine Regiment fought hard and suffered great losses across the Pacific including battles in Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Okinawa, Japan, under then Col. Chesty B. Puller, one of the Marine Corps’ most decorated Marines. During the Korean War, 1st Marine Regiment fought hard under chilling temperatures along the 38th parallel. The harsh and humid jungle terrain tested the regiment during the Vietnam War. Ultimately they were the last regiment to serve in Vietnam before the war's end.
The regiment's current generation of Marines have fought across the sandy deserts of southwest Asia in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom during the past 13 years of war.
Colonel Peter Baumgarten, a native of El Paso, Texas and 1st Marine Regiment’s commanding officer, said the opportunity to serve as the last regimental headquarters in Helmand was an honor.
“It’s really an incredible feeling to be with 1st Marines at this period of time as their commander,” said Baumgarten.
During his 26-year career, Baumgarten has deployed with Marine Expeditionary Units and commanded infantry units in Baghdad and al Anbar province, Iraq.
Shortly after assuming command of 1st Marine Regiment during June 2012, Baumgarten said he anticipated the regiment would deploy to Helmand during the drawdown of U.S and coalition forces.
“We knew we were being looked at and we were the regiment that was due for rotation into Afghanistan,” said Baumgarten. Despite that, “We didn’t know if we would get the call.”
During the summer of 2013, as the force structure for Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan was developed, the regiment was notified it would join the list of units to deploy during 2014. At the time, the regiment had participated in the multinational amphibious exercise Dawn Blitz with forces from Canada, Japan and New Zealand during June 2013.
Baumgarten said his Marines were excited for the opportunity to help close a significant chapter of Marine Corps history.
“They said, ‘you’ve got the mission to Afghanistan,’” said Baumgarten.
At the time, Baumgarten was prepared to deploy upward of 350 personnel for the mission. In previous iterations of OEF, regimental combat teams deployed a headquarters of that size to command multiple infantry battalions.
Baumgarten’s mission would be different, however. Due to manpower constraints, he would only get the opportunity to choose 45 Marines to command the sizeable Task Force Belleau Wood.
BAUMGARTEN’S FORTY FIVE
Baumgarten went to the drawing board in search of a very select group of Marines.
“I had an entire regimental headquarters who really wanted to go to combat,” said Baumgarten.
“It was very satisfying and heartbreaking. When we went from 350 Marines to 45, we had to go into a full mission analysis. We knew for sure we were not going to be the ground combat element for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, so we didn’t have to have the force structure to do that.”
Throughout 2013, the regiment conducted a series of predeployment training exercises to prepare them for the deployment to Helmand.
“We focused on base-line skill sets, including the command and control capabilities, understanding how to run a combined joint operations center for Task Force Belleau Wood, and the overall management of security structure,” said Baumgarten.
The unit also completed the Infantry Training Exercise aboard Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California. During the exercise, he and the staff observed Marines from across the headquarters. Ultimately, the Marines who “made the cut” were hand-selected by Baumgarten.
“I had sergeants who I hand-selected and they served in billets reserved for gunnery sergeants, and they acted and performed like gunnys,” said Baumgarten.
He said he chose the Marines based on their individual capabilities to ensure they could work seamlessly with U.S. and coalition forces in Helmand. When they arrived they partnered with forces from Bosnia, Georgia, Jordan, Tonga and the United Kingdom.
“I couldn’t have been more proud of the group we chose,” said Baumgarten. “One of the most exciting things was turning my team loose,” said Baumgarten.
Corporal Erick R. Maldonado, 20, administrative clerk and native of Plainfield, New Jersey, joined the Marines during 2011.
“I joined for the challenge and wanted to be the very first person to be a Marine in my family,” said Maldonado. His father served with the Guatemalan military before the family relocated to the United States during Maldonado’s childhood.
The deployment was his first. Married to a Marine, he said his wife knew the deployment was something Maldonado wanted and she supported his decision. Originally scheduled to deploy with a San Diego-based MEU, he said he was excited for the opportunity to deploy as one of the last Marines in Afghanistan.
He said Baumgarten selected him due to his performance during ITX.
“The commanding officer chose me, I would say, because of ITX,” said Maldonado. “It was me and another Marine who handled the administrative matters.”
During the deployment to Helmand, Maldonado managed the administrative requirements for the regiment as well as coalition forces.
Due to staff constraints, he also conducted security tasks including security tower inspections and ensured U.S. and coalition forces on posts were in compliance with OEF administrative rules and regulations.
“I never thought I would be called upon to conduct security operations,” said Maldonado. “I was excited to do something out of my military occupational specialty though.”
Maldonado said he left the office twice per week while balancing administrative responsibilities.
He said the deployment to Helmand fulfilled a longtime goal and served as an opportunity to work with higher levels of command.
“I always wanted to come to Afghanistan. I got the one deployment that I actually wanted,” said Maldonado. “It is an accomplishment and I realize that I am part of a unit that has history, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.”
Lance Cpl. Brandon Cook, 20, an intelligence analyst and native of Pulaski, Virginia, joined the Marines during 2012. He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps who enlisted in the Marines and then later became an officer in the Air Force.
Cook said he was eager to deploy when he arrived at the regiment. Because of limited spaces available, he wasn’t sure his name would be called.
To his surprise, he earned a spot.
“I didn’t really believe them at first,” said Cook. “I guess they felt I demonstrated the ability to perform well out here.”
Cook served with the regiment for approximately six months before he deployed to Afghanistan. Baumgarten said Cook was one of the youngest of his staff to deploy.
“We brought out four lance corporals in a staff of 45, the rest were officers, staff noncommissioned officers and noncommissioned officers,” said Baumgarten.
Baumgarten said despite his age and experience levels, he was ready.
“He showed some spark and talent, so we brought him out as part of the team and he absolutely tore it up.”
Cook worked in the CJOC and coordinated air and ground intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. He said it was “trial by fire” at first. Briefing senior enlisted and officers on a daily basis, Baumgarten said Cook’s maturity impressed the staff.
“You think you are talking to a senior noncommissioned officer or a young officer,” said Baumgarten. “He’s done a fantastic job.”
During the deployment, Baumgarten looked for opportunities to promote Marines.
“We brought out four, young lance corporals and managed to kick three of them to noncommissioned officers based on their superb performance,” Baumgarten said.
Baumgarten said Cook is the last lance corporal on his staff. With the end of 1st Marine Regiment’s mission and 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment in the lead for security now, Cook asked to stay a little longer in Helmand.
“The one guy who really wanted to stay was Lance Cpl. Cook, and 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines wanted him,” said Baumgarten. “So Cook gets to stay, and he is the last one of 1st Marines’ headquarters to remain.”
Jokingly, Baumgarten said the opportunity for Cook will be beneficial and hopefully propel him into an advanced rank.
“I told him he doesn’t get to come back until he picks up corporal,” said Baumgarten. “He needs to come back with his two chevrons.”
Cook said he was humbled by the opportunity to deploy with 1st Marine Regiment.
“It was a great experience to be put on the team to come out here,” said Cook.
Sergeant Bradley Cavrak, 27, an organizational automotive mechanic, and native of Monroeville, Pennsylvania, joined the Marines during 2005. He said family influenced his decision to serve, including one uncle who served as a Marine in Beirut, Lebanon, and two uncles who served in the Army. He has deployed to Iraq and Okinawa, Japan, during his time. Cavrak said he was not surprised and was ready for the deployment to Helmand with 1st Marines.
During the unit’s ITX in Twentynine Palms, California, he was selected by Baumgarten to deploy for his leadership. As a diesel mechanic, Cavrak served as a logistics chief for the regiment and communicated logistics requests from the regional command to the task force and coalition partners. He contributed to the mission by overseeing the movement of food, ammunition and medical supplies to the infantrymen within the task force’s structure.
Cavrak said working on a regimental staff came with a high learning curve and is vastly different than his previous deployments. “I like working at this level,” said Cavrak.
During his first deployment to Helmand in 2012, he served with Combat Logistics Regiment 15 and maintained military vehicles for more than 20,000 Marines during the height of U.S. forces here.
“The deployment was a unique challenge and being with high-caliber of Marines made this experience different than any other,” said Cavrak.
Sergeant Ian Merritt, 28, a field radio operator, and native of Delhi, New York, joined the military to fight for his country. Merritt said he was excited about the opportunity to deploy with 1st Marine Regiment.
A radio operator by trade, Merritt was pulled from his job to serve as a security advisor to the 4th Tolay, a quick reaction force of the 215th Corps, Afghan National Army.
Baumgarten and Merritt said the security advising mission was unexpected.
“Brigadier Gen. Yoo and the Task Force Belleau Wood team managed to get a company-sized force, a ‘tolay,’ from the ANA and Maj. Gen. Malouk,” said Baumgarten. “One of the things I recognized is that we needed an in with the 215th Corps, and we needed an in to understand the battlespace.”
To accomplish the mission, Baumgarten, along with Lt. Col. Phillip Ash, Capt. Travis Cooper and Merritt developed training plans to integrate with the Afghan forces. The team assigned personnel to train with the ANA on security patrolling tactics and procedures as well as combat lifesaver medical training.
Baumgarten said he wasn’t necessarily focused on his Marines serving as advisors.
“Instead, it was important for them to partner with the security forces who would be vital during the security transition process,” said Baumgarten.
Merritt said developing a friendship and partnership with the Afghan soldiers was a unique experience.
“It was an eye-opener working with different military forces,” said Merritt. “Actually working with the ANA and advising them; it was a privilege.”
Merritt said near the end of the deployment, he and the other Marines had worked themselves out of a job.
“After observing the ANA, the 4th Tolay soldiers were in front. They would lead the patrols,” said Merritt. “Eventually the ANA had it and our mission was complete.”
Sergeant Leonard Sloan, 20, a supply administration specialist, and native of Kansas City, Missouri, joined the Marines during 2011 in search of a real-world experience outside of the classroom. Sloan’s father and grandfather served in the Army and Air Force and influenced his decision to enlist.
He was eager to deploy and excited when 1st Marine Regiment gave him the nod. At the time he was serving with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. His supply chief, who previously worked with 1st Marine Regiment, recommended Sloan for the position.
“I always look for the challenge,” said Sloan. “Being the best at something is something you should always want.”
During the deployment, Sloan was charged with managing the regiment’s Theater Provided Equipment program. The program included equipment used to locate service members on the battlefield, security cameras for internal and external surveillance, thermal imaging devices and improvised explosive device robotic equipment.
“I started off with more than $30 million of TPE,” said Sloan.
During Feb. 2014, Sloan was meritoriously promoted to sergeant. “That was probably one of the best feelings,” said Sloan.
Sloan participated in numerous resupply convoys with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, and Combat Logistics Battalion 7 to forward operating bases. He also assisted in the retrograde of equipment the task force no longer required for security operations.
From April to May 2014, Sloan assisted Merritt in training the 4th Tolay security team aboard Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan. He said the training was vital.
“Being that we were working with the quick reaction force, they are the ones in charge of the perimeter and security when we leave,” said Sloan.
He said the Marines and ANA conducted foot patrols surrounding the expansive security perimeter of Camps Bastion and Leatherneck.
Sloan enjoyed working outside of his normal military occupational specialty.
“It’s an honor to be a part of the last regiment in Afghanistan, and in charge of as much as I was,” said Sloan. “It was a great opportunity to work with other people and different nationalities. I really got to branch out. You don’t get to experience these types of things in supply.”
Sergeant Victor Farinas, 20, a field radio operator and native of Aiea, Hawaii, joined the Marines during 2012 to set a good example for his brothers and sisters and make a difference. A proven leader in sports, Farinas said he looked toward the Marines as an opportunity to expand his horizons.
Farinas said he was excited about the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. During May 2014, he was meritoriously promoted to his current rank.
By trade, Farinas serves as a radio operator. Baumgarten called on him to serve in the CJOC to coordinate common operational pictures and situational reports for incidents and ongoing security operations taking place on the battlefield.
“The challenge was trying to paint a picture,” said Farinas. “The operations center can get very busy. We get a lot reports, including the evidence of improvised explosive devices, small arms fire.”
Farinas said he was required to gather the information and display it quickly on computer systems for the task force and regional command to review.
“I had the direct task of building informational products for the commander to see,” said Farinas. “I tried to do my job as fast and efficiently as possible to get the job done and help build the commander’s situational awareness to save lives.”
Farinas also worked closely with forces from Jordan, Georgia, Bosnia, Tonga and the United Kingdom. He said despite the inherent language barriers, building relationships with coalition forces was key.
Farinas said strong family values helped him during the deployment.
“Ohana means family, and no one gets left behind," said Farinas. “It’s always about that one team, one fight."
He believed he made a difference serving with Task Force Belleau Wood.
“What did we do to make a difference?” said Farinas. “We showed that we can work as a cohesive unit with others to accomplish a mission.”
Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Raggio a native of Rancho Cucamonga, California, served as the communications officer for 1st Marine Regiment. Raggio joined the Marines during 1998 looking for a worldly opportunity. With deployments to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, he was relied upon heavily for his technical expertise to support the regiment.
Raggio first deployed to Afghanistan during 2009 as a watch officer aboard Camp Dwyer. Baumgarten selected Raggio based on his experience to serve as the communications officer for the regiment, a position normally reserved for an officer. He supported U.S. and coalition forces operating out of the CJOC and ensured the communications equipment remained operational for 24 hour a day operations.
“Coming here and being solely responsible for the communications officer role was a high learning curve,” said Raggio.
He said working on a regimental staff during 2014 was a change of pace and a highlight to his 16-year career.
“Because of the history of 1st Marines, and being able to deploy with my first infantry regiment, I think it is significant,” said Raggio. “I’ll always look back and on this deployment.”
Baumgarten said he relied heavily upon his Marines’ to work creatively with adjacent commands on overlapping security matters. With the lion share of the security forces reporting directly to RC(SW), Baumgarten said his staff moved away from doctrinal concepts and designed a layered security model that supported Task Force Belleau Wood’s mission.
“I called it a free chicken concept,” said Baumgarten. “We worked with the other commands on things we believed were relative to us and things we thought they could do to support the defensive mission. That became a daily and weekly activity, to work and interact on a staff level to get unity of effort on the ground combat arms side of the house.”
His staff’s abilities gave Baumgarten confidence early in the deployment.
“We were really relishing in the fact that we had 45 highly capable Marines,” said Baumgarten. “We were commanding and controlling a force of 3,000 U.S. and coalition service members, all assigned with the mission to protect the Bastion and Leatherneck complexes.”
One of their first accomplishments was expanding the Task Force Belleau Wood battlespace.
“That was one of the first things that we did,” said Baumgarten. “It allowed us to own and operate within those areas we were most concerned about.”
Overall, Baumgarten said his number one challenge was working with coalition forces.
“The greatest lesson that I learned here is you cannot ask something of your coalition partners that is beyond what they are capable or authorized to do,” said Baumgarten.
Despite the challenges, Baumgarten said he found creative ways to accomplish the mission.
“I had to tailor these things into the operational construct to maximize capabilities to benefit the overall mission,” said Baumgarten. “Those great relationships across the board were to the great benefit of Task Force Belleau Wood. It was something we had to work on every day.”
Baumgarten said national caveats also posed challenges to the manner in which he could employ coalition units.
“The Jordanian forces required a minimum of three Marines for every Jordanian to leave the wire,” said Baumgarten. “For that reason, they did not leave the wire very much.”
Other coalition partners sought enhanced security roles within the task force. Baumgarten said the Georgian Light Infantry Battalion conducted numerous security operations in the battlespace that provided him flexibility to eliminate enemy threats.
“They had good capabilities and leadership,” said Baumgarten. “Their commander had a vision on the level of the U.S. and the U.K.”
In the end, Baumgarten said the combined effort enhanced the security environment.
“To get all of the efforts associated with the coalition marching to the beat of the same drum was our enduring challenge, and I think we met the mark,” said Baumgarten.
2014 was a nostalgic year for 1st Marine Regiment. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the regiment, Baumgarten organized a series of events during 2013 and 2014.
“We held a battle rededication ceremony during 2013,” said Baumgarten.
He recalled a nervous moment while looking at historical paperwork.
“I looked down and realized 1st Marines came into existence during 1913 and had the realization that we were hitting the 100th anniversary that year,” said Baumgarten.
While the unit was preparing for their deployment to Helmand, they organized a centennial celebration at the regiment’s headquarters aboard Camp Horno during Jan. 2014.
“We invited all of the former commanders and the Marines who served with the regiment,” said Baumgarten. “One of the very special times while in command was talking to the former commandant of the Marine Corps and commanding officer of 1st Marine Regiment who got my invitation but could not attend,” said Baumgarten.
The Marine was retired Gen. P.X. Kelley who served as the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1987.
First Marine Regiment's deployment during the Helmand drawdown shares historical significance with the end of the Vietnam War. During the final year of operations in Vietnam, 1st Marine Regiment was the last regiment to leave before the war's end.
At the time, then Col. P.X. Kelley, served as the regiment's commander. Baumgarten said Gen. Kelley called him before deploying to Afghanistan.
"It was also nostalgic to talk to Gen. Kelley and share some of his wisdom from serving with the final Marines in Vietnam," said Baumgarten. "I saw the parallels between the end of Vietnam and Afghanistan."
During a phone interview from Afghanistan, Gen. Kelley reminisced about his final year in Vietnam.
"I knew that I would be the last regiment to leave Vietnam," said Kelley. "A lot of the colonels were vying for the spot. I was very pleased and honored to command the 1st Marine Regiment and to be the last ones to leave Vietnam."
"When I left Vietnam, I packed the colors of the regiment in my suitcase, and that's how I carried them all the way back to Camp Pendleton," said Gen. Kelley. "When I got back to Camp Pendleton, the SNCOs took the original colors and presented me new colors as a gift."
He kept the colors for a number of years until he presented them to the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, who returned them to the regiment.
General Kelley said he is proud of his time in the Marines and even more so of his time as the commander of 1st Marine Regiment.
"I've always said that the 1st Marines had that number because they are the first," said Gen. Kelley. "I've always considered it the best regiment."
More than 40 years later, he said it is suiting that his former regiment is also the last to leave Afghanistan.
"It is a nice legacy for 1st Marines to have," said Gen. Kelley.
When Baumgarten served as the battalion commander of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, during Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2007 to 2008, he said one of his greatest fears was losing a Marine.
“We were one of the first, then, to come back with all of our guys,” said Baumgarten.
Tragically during 2014, Task Force Belleau Wood suffered the loss of a Marine. Four days after arriving in Helmand, Cpl. Caleb Erickson with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, was killed by an insurgent attack.
“We lost one young Marine with Task Force Belleau Wood,” said Baumgarten.
“You have that weight on your shoulders at this point in the campaign. Corporal Erickson gave his life, and I think about him all the time. I think about all of those others who sacrificed their lives and made the commitment to serve.”
Baumgarten and the Marines of 1st Marine Regiment are heading back to Camp Pendleton with a sense of accomplishment.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” said Baumgarten. “At the end of the deployment, you have about 40 of them you want to pin medals on.”
He said the regiment will be in a state of transition.
“We are going to get back and reconstitute our headquarters,” said Baumgarten.
During September, Baumgarten will transfer command of the regiment to Col. William McCollough, who recently served in Helmand as the officer in charge of the Afghan National Police Advisor Team in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.
Baumgarten said the regiment will not sit idly. In the coming months, 1st Marine Regiment will take part in large-scale amphibious exercise Steel Knight and has their sights set on future contingency operations.
“I don’t think the regimental headquarters will be short on a future deployment, in contingency or crisis response,” said Baumgarten.
He said he is proud to contribute to the legacy of 1st Marine Regiment, just as Lt. Gen. “Chesty” B. Puller and Gen. P.X. Kelley did so many years before his time.
“I carried the flag of 1st Marines out here, and the thought of being a part of Marine Corps history is a great honor,” said Baumgarten. "We are proud to have been the last regimental command element to deploy to Afghanistan during the past 13 years of war.”