CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- Thomas Paine once said, "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it." As the nation honors Independence Day during patriotic celebrations across the nation, deployed U.S. service members with Regional Command (Southwest) paused briefly to honor America, July 4, 2014.
Independence Day is a time to reflect on U.S. sovereignty and serves as an ever-present reminder that freedom is not free. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. service members are hard at work ensuring the mission in Helmand is accomplished by the end of 2014.
Helmand province has been the deployed home for thousands of U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. forces were first called to Afghanistan after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. In 2006, U.K. forces first forayed into Helmand to quell a boiling insurgency. During 2008 and 2009 U.S. Marines deployed to Helmand to assist.
In 2010 RC(SW) was formally established under the International Security Assistance Force and partnered with developing Afghan National Security Forces in the region. Together forces occupied key terrain along the fertile green area surrounding the Helmand River Valley in places such as Sangin, the birthplace of the Taliban, to eliminate terrorist sanctuaries. The battles were some of the bloodiest and costliest to coalition and Afghan treasure.
Over time the mission has changed though. The transition from coalition-led combat operations to Afghan-partnered operations turned an important page in the security environment. Afghan police and army demonstrated the ability to secure the area and protect their people. During the past two years, the transfer of lead security to the Afghans has allowed coalition advisors to hone in on the institutional development of the ANSF. Now more than 100 advisors serve under the Combined Corps Advisor-Team. The advisors are partnered with headquarters staff officers of the 215th Corps, Afghan National Army, at neighboring Camp Shorabak and tied into the institutional development processes of the ANSF.
Reaching a high of more than 21,000 Marines in 2011, now, there are 5,000 U.S. forces remaining in Helmand. The forces are closely focused on advising, developing and supporting the ANSF while simultaneously preparing to redeploy equipment and personnel by the end of 2014.
Security operations are ongoing in Helmand. Since the end of the poppy harvest and the start of the fighting season, the ASNF have been tested in northern Helmand and Sangin. The ANSF have battled in skirmishes against the Taliban in key district centers once held by ISAF, and prevailed.
In the dark hours on the eve of the Fourth of July, Marines with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, headed outside the wire near Camp Leatherneck to patrol, conduct reconnaissance, and eliminate enemy threats to the coalition in the area.
Across the flight line aboard Camp Bastion, Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 467 spent the day on alert in their mission to provide immediate close air support to infantry units engaged in the fight.
In the early afternoon, AH-1W Super Cobra pilots and crew headed into the daily operations update brief. The pilots and crew are the first to fight when ground units take contact from the enemy and require close air support. With the sound of a single alarm in a moment's notice, the squadron's AH-1W Super Cobra's and UH-1Y Huey helicopters can take off into the hazy skies over Helmand and secure the area.
Capt. Christopher Smith, a native of Lake Worth, Florida, and pilot with HMLA-467, flew the squadron's prized helicopter on the Fourth of July. The AH-1W Super Cobra includes a subdued paint job of the New York City skyline that includes the shadows of the World Trade Center Twin Towers and white lettering that reads "Never Forget."
The helicopter joins other patriotic aircraft stationed at Camp Bastion, such as, "VMM-America," the flagship Osprey helicopter with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261. VMM-America is painted with a subdued image of the iconic flag raising on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima. Both aircraft are subtle reminders to Marines serving 8,000 miles away from U.S. soil of the daily sacrifice they make and the ultimate sacrifice their fellow Marines have given in the defense of the nation.
Smith and other Marines were on standby during the Fourth of July. They recorded video messages to be sent to their loved ones over the internet wishing them a happy Independence Day. Smith said, "It is an honor and privilege to serve and carry the American flag 238 years after our independence."
Within minutes after recording the messages, twenty-five foot sirens began blaring. Helicopter close air support was needed to support infantry Marines on the ground. The Marines with HMLA-467 darted out the squadron's doors, donned their helmets and took off into the skies to back up the infantry Marines.
Across Camp Leatherneck, other Marines paused from their daily routines to reflect on the American sacrifice here. Capt. James R. Smith, a native of Torrington, Connecticut, and advisor to the Afghan National Army said, "It is an honor to serve with Marines anywhere in the world during the Fourth of July, especially in Afghanistan. Today is an opportunity to remember all of the Marines who have preceded us and to reflect on the principles that make America a nation worth serving. It will be one of the more memorable Independence Days in my life."
Colonel Joseph Whitaker, a native of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and commanding officer of Redeployment and Retrograde in support of Reset and Reconstitution Operations Group and his staff put together a unit gathering in a dusty warehouse aboard Camp Leatherneck to recognize the Fourth of July. Whitaker and his staff organized a special lunch with, fittingly, a menu of chicken, sweet potatoes, creamed corn, hot dogs and a special birthday cake for Old Glory.
As the footprint of U.S. and coalition forces in the region has decreased during the past two years, military commanders have prepared to posture their forces as well as inventory of equipment to meet a 2014 end-of-mission requirement. R4OG was tasked early in 2012 with the immense challenge to receive and clean-up millions of dollars in unused military equipment and redistribute throughout the Department of Defense where it is needed.
Whitaker and his Marines have been hard at work during the past year moving thousands of pieces of gear out of theater ranging from uniforms, surveillance equipment, to Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, used during the past decade of conflict here. Whitaker said they are ahead of schedule and have about 10,000 items to get out of Helmand by the end of the mission.
Today he wanted the Marines to take the time to honor the nation and their efforts in Afghanistan. "I couldn't be more proud than being with Marines on the Fourth of July in Afghanistan," said Whitaker.
Regardless of their role, U.S. service members deployed to Helmand province, Afghanistan, during the past decade of war can be proud of their contributions. On days like the Fourth of July, we are reminded that Americans have always been called upon to defend liberty, whether it is on our own soil or in a foreign land. As we look back and reflect, we are forever reminded that freedom is not free and it often comes with a heavy price. We remember those individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice as we celebrate our independence.