HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James T. Conway, accompanied by the Corps’ top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, visited Marines and sailors deployed to Afghanistan, Aug. 18-20.
The visit was part of a tour of camps in southern Afghanistan where Conway and Kent addressed troops and met with commanders at multiple bases and outposts.
The leaders hosted town hall meetings and spoke to Marines about issues affecting the Corps. Conway began discussions acknowledging the successes, triumphs and hardships Marines have experienced during their deployment in direct support of what he recognizes as the long war. Conway said Marines shouldn’t be concerned about polls regarding popularity of the war.
“You’re probably seeing something to the effect of popular opinion changing,” said Conway as he addressed Marines at Camp Leatherneck. “That something less than 50 percent support the fact that we’re here in this Afghan war. You don’t need to worry about that because our country has matured a great deal.”
More than 20,000 Marines are deployed to Afghanistan. The area of operations expanded into two provinces in southern Afghanistan. While forces are drawing down in Iraq, Conway said Marines will have more work to do in Afghanistan.
“The Marine Corps completed their mission in Iraq,” Conway said. “The final Army brigade left the country today. We’re able to focus on operations here in Afghanistan. You should be very proud of all the hard work you have all been doing. Your country is proud of you.”
Master Sgt. Lillian McLaughlin, the Staff Judge Advocate legal chief for RC (SW) said learning about the time frame directly from the Corps’ top leader reassures her that Marines will maintain the course until the mission is complete.
“Deep down I knew it would be longer,” McLaughlin said. “But it’s what we’re here to do. It breaks my heart to hear of families suffering here. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an Afghan woman here.”
As Conway addressed current successes throughout the Corps he also gave Marines an outlook for the future. The Marine Corps expanded from 175,000 to 202,000 to ease the strain of deployments. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during a speech at Marines' Memorial Theater in San Francisco last week, as the troop increase to Afghanistan ends the number of Department of Defense personnel would reduce in size. A review is expected to determine the size of the Marine Corps. Conway said as the Marine Corps looks ahead to return to its amphibious roots, retention will continue to be a priority as well as seeking the highest qualified applicants to enter the ranks.
“The important items that I took away from the commandant and sergeant major’s speeches were the relief of knowing I have the ability to re-enlist without the fear of a massive force reduction that could hinder it,” said Gunnery Sgt. Dion Byrd, an assistance maintenance chief with G-6, RC (SW). “I also know that we can expect the Corps to continue the fight against terrorism with the full support of the American people and the Corps’ senior leadership.
Conway and Kent challenged the Marines to lead the Marine Corps and to challenge young Marines. They thanked all Marines of Regional Command Southwest for their hard work and contribution to the Corps’ war-fighting legacy, and addressed any questioned from Marines in attendance during the town hall meetings.
“Less than 3 million Americans wear the uniform of any of the services, far less than that wear ours,” said Conway of Marines. “Our country needs people like you. Our country is in crisis. Today we are responding to an attack of nine years ago, and when that happens, we need the greatest young men and women to step up. That’s what you folks represent.
“When you get home and step into that pub, theater, restaurant, that day or for the rest of your lives, just remember, you are the warrior class of this nation. You look around and there won’t be a lot of people that can say that. You take it to your grave. You be proud Marines, of who you are and what you are doing here today.”