HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Last year, Now Zad was a ghost town. Helicopters and vehicle convoys purposely avoided the Taliban safe haven of Marjah. Nobody ventured as far south into Helmand province’s village of Safaar.
That changed once Regimental Combat Team 7 arrived.
After a full year of conducting counterinsurgency operations in support of the Afghan government and Afghan forces, the Marines and sailors of RCT-7 are returning home to Twentynine Palms and Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The Marines have seen the first full-sized RCT stand up in Afghanistan, achieving strategic objectives throughout their yearlong deployment through combat and counterinsurgency operations, and working alongside the people and government of Afghanistan.
“It feels great coming off a yearlong deployment, knowing that we made significant impact and changes within the operations here in Operation Enduring Freedom,” said Sgt. Esequiel Romero, a platoon sergeant for Headquarters Company, RCT-7, from San Antonio.
The Marines had individual expectations as they deployed to Afghanistan, but as a whole the regiment understood that their biggest expectation was going to be seizing the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, said Capt. Brad E. Whited, an operations officer with RCT-7.
“When we came out here we set out to do a number of things,” said Col. Randall P. Newman, the commanding officer of RCT-7. “The overarching one was to improve the security that we provided to the Afghan people, and also with that security, enable the governance, reconstruction, development and economic development of Afghanistan to progress.
“Tactically, our desires were to eliminate enemy strongholds that existed at that time in Now Zad, Marjah, and down in the Safaar Bazaar,” said Newman. “We just finished up the Safaar Bazaar, achieving what we felt was the last tactical objective we needed to address before we left.”
Throughout the year, RCT-7 led operations removing Taliban strongholds and forcing the Taliban out of key locations. Third Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment was the main effort of Operation Cobra’s Anger in December 2009, which restored governance and security to Now Zad. In February 2010, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment; 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, alongside their Afghan counterparts, conducted Operation Moshtarak, gaining control of Marjah.
In July, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment conducted Operation Roadhouse to eliminate Taliban presence and improvised explosive devices from the Safaar Bazaar.
“The facts speak for themselves. A lot of people like to point to the negatives of Marjah and all the kinetics that are still ongoing,” said Whited, from Parkersburg, W.Va. “The fact is that in February, we understood Marjah was a Taliban stronghold, we were uncertain of the area so we wouldn’t even fly over that area.
"Now we have Marines and Afghan national security forces and Afghan government officials inside of Marjah. We have schools that have been established, and some clinics and we are making progress.”
In September, the regiment witnessed the provincial elections, and helped open the doors to the first day of school throughout the Helmand River Valley.
“We’ve seen the atmospherics in Nawa and Garmsir improve over the year,” said Whited. “Those districts in particular have become less kinetic, and we have made great strides to help those people and those villages understand who we are and why we are here.”
Marines understand why they were here for a year and can see how far they have come since their arrival in October 2009.
Anxious to get home to their families, they know that their job is almost done and that they made a difference for the people of Afghanistan.
“What we see is progress throughout each of our portions of our area of operations that equate to an operational success throughout,” said Newman. “The Afghan people are taking advantage of the bubble of security to really redirect their life towards a direction they haven’t seen in 30 years, where they call the shots.”
RCT-7 used to mean the battalions of 7th Marine Regiment, but that is no longer the case, Newman said. Marines need to remember that there are many people reflected when they use the term RCT-7, including the Marines, sailors, soldiers, civilians and Afghan national security forces who have made this deployment a success.
“None of what we have done in the year would have been possible without all those guys contributing,” said Newman.
When the Marines of RCT-7 head home, they need to remember that this fight is not done and will be carried on by other units for the years to come, said Newman. They can look back and see how far the regiment has come over the past year and take pride in their accomplishment.