FORWARD OPERATING BASE NOLAY, Afghanistan -- The final Marines and sailors of Forward Operating Base Nolay exited the Sangin Valley, leaving the 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, Afghan National Army in full control of the FOB and the surrounding area for the first time without coalition forces in place since they first entered during 2006.
The Marines and sailors from Security Force Assistance Advisor Team 2-215 arrived at Camp Leatherneck following a seven-month deployment and a convoy out of Sangin Valley, May 5. On the same day the last Marines of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment departed FOB Sabit Qadam, also in Sangin.
The SFAAT 2-215 Marines and sailors were part of the last U.S. brigade-level advisor team in Regional Command (Southwest), which includes Helmand and Nimroz provinces, but the British continue to advise the 3rd Brigade in central Helmand.
The service members, who are now preparing to redeploy to their home units, expressed their feelings on leaving the FOB completely in the hands of 2nd Brigade.
“The 2nd Brigade has had the torch for some time,” said Capt. Joseph Dewson, a 28-year-old Marine reservist from Newark, Delaware, and an advisor with SFAAT 2-215. “We have been able to spend time with them and vested a personal interest in their success.”
Col. Christopher Douglas, the team leader for SFAAT 2-215, kept a “no interference” stance with his advisory unit. One of his goals was to rapidly allow the 2nd Brigade to stand on their own with as little advisory help as possible to ensure their capability to defend the Sangin Valley from hostile attacks.
By adopting this stance, the 2nd Brigade has developed sustainable “Afghan solutions to Afghan problems,” and in turn has become more confident in their problem-solving ability and ability to carry on the mission without coalition assistance. Many of the advisors believe the Afghan solutions work better than some of the coalition force solutions used in the past. Although the “no interference” stance was kept, the advisors gave feedback to the leaders of 2nd Brigade at every opportunity to reinforce their actions as well as to provide a positive learning environment.
“I feel honored to have been part of the legacy left by previous Marines and coalition forces,” said Douglas, a reservist from Ballston Spa, New York. “I expect to see them continue to focus on stability and actively opposing insurgent violence, to dominate and win every fight.”
For some of the advisors, this was not their first time aboard FOB Nolay. Gunnery Sgt. John W. Greene, who was shot in his shoulder while returning enemy fire during November 2013, conducted monthly visits to the base from February 2011 to February 2012 as the Division Utilities Chief for 2nd Marine Division. He expressed his feelings on finally leaving after his second deployment in the area.
“After being at FOB Nolay on my last deployment where it was all Marines to now where the Afghans run the FOB, it feels good that the ANA are doing so well,” said Greene, 36, from Greenup, Kentucky, and the utilities chief for SFAAT 2-215. “The 2nd Brigade has been running strong, planning hard and executing missions on their own for a while now. They’re doing a super job denying the insurgents free movement of control.”
Cpl. Robert Santiago, who was the squad leader of FOB Nolay’s security force, nicknamed “The Guardians of Nolay,” worked successfully to ensure the base was secure at all times. Although his role on the base did not allow him to directly advise the Afghans as much as others, he and his Marines were always present to provide security for the advisors.
“It feels good to see a positive result from all our efforts here,” said Santiago, 23, from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. “I’m expecting to see more of the same great work they’ve been completing the entire time we’ve been working with them.”
Maj. Paul D. Tremblay was the commander of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, on FOB Nolay from early July until mid-October 2011. From October 2011 to February 2012, he was involved in the major clearing operation that secured the upper Sangin Valley and the Kajaki district. This deployment’s end marks Tremblay’s second full deployment to FOB Nolay.
“I couldn’t be more humbled to have the opportunity to be lucky enough to find myself in this position to close the doors and shut off the lights on such a prestigious base in Helmand province,” said Tremblay, the deputy team leader for SFAAT 2-215. “We’ve definitely set a foundation that Afghanistan can take the rest of the way forward.”
The Sangin Valley is known by many as a hotbed for nefarious and illegal activities. It is strategic in its proximity to major corridors such as Route 1 and Route 611.
Drug runners and insurgents often use Route 1, which runs all the way through Afghanistan from Pakistan to Iran. The two routes are a crossroads for both trade and drug trafficking. Much of the Taliban’s funding comes from the profits of the poppy harvests. Black-tar heroin is extracted from the poppy plants and the drugs are shipped all over the world.
The Taliban control much of the heroine trade and are dependent on the industry. When the weather cools off, the insurgency turns toward facilitating the poppy planting. When planting begins, fighting almost instantly ceases.
When they first entered the Sangin Valley during 2006 after the resurgence of the Taliban, the coalition forces had the lead role in all combat operations. During the course of the campaign, the lead has steadily been turned over to Afghan forces as the coalition took on an advisory role.
Success in the region has not come easily. Many service members from coalition forces and the ANSF have paid the ultimate price to bring stability to the war-torn area.
One of the most profound examples that illustrates the 2nd Brigade’s eagerness to continue the fight and completely make it their own is the changing of the base name. Forward Operating Base Nolay is now known as Forward Operating Base Hamidullah.
FOB Hamidullah was named after Lt. Hamidullah, who was a platoon commander in the 2nd Brigade’s Reconnaissance Tolai. He was known for multiple heroics over the years and as one of the best platoon commanders and fighters in the 215th Corps.
“As soon as the brigade’s executive officer told me they’d decided to change the name, I got excited,” Tremblay said. “It’s proof that we’ve done everything we can to set the conditions for transition, the effectiveness on how the Afghans themselves have accepted the transition and are willing to take ownership of it, make it their own and take it to the next step and the rest of the way.
“The Afghans of the 2nd Brigade have chosen to name these positions after their heroes and warfighters who had a reputation above and beyond their individual sacrifice on any particular day,” he continued. “Guys who we would hold up on high as an example of honor, courage and commitment.”
“If the ANA had the equivalent of a Medal of Honor, Lt. Hamidullah would have earned at least three, maybe more,” said Col. Abdulhai Neshat, the executive officer of 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, ANA.
Lt. Hamidullah was killed during recent operation Oqab 144, which cleared the Sangin Valley south of FOB Robinson, which sits a few short miles from FOB Nolay, during February 2014.
“I had the privilege of meeting him,” said Tremblay. “The way he carried himself and addressed the younger soldiers, the way he wore his uniform and the way he spoke oozed of confidence, swagger and everything that we all strive to become as U.S. Marines. There wasn’t a soldier in the 2nd Brigade who didn’t know who he was.”
Forward Operating Base Robinson also received a name change. It is now known as FOB Rahatullah, named after Maj. Rahatullah, who was killed in an operation to disrupt enemy forces in support the April 5th presidential elections. The elections, along with the success of Oqab 144, were perhaps the biggest signs to the advisors that the 2nd Brigade was ready to successfully control the security of the area.
“The election was one of the most successful elections they’ve ever had in this country,” said Tremblay. “More particularly, the security situation up here shocked people because of what the Afghan National Security Forces were able to do.”
Within a few weeks, these Marines who have advised 2nd Brigade will be back with their families and home units with full confidence that they have left the Sangin Valley in good and capable hands.
“The focus should be maintained on the success of the 2nd Brigade and the ANSF pillars working together,” said Dewson. “It remains their country. We just provided an assist--hopefully an assist that keeps them positively highlighted.”
The confidence the 2nd Brigade has in their ability to maintain security can be seen in the eyes and heard in the voices of the leaders and soldiers of FOB Hamidullah.
“We already got this,” said Maj. Mhamaref, the education officer for 2nd Brigade. “The enemy can’t stand with us. They can’t stand and fight with us. They’re running away. We can make the achievement.”