- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2017

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — With multiple deployments abroad and new orders for another tour in the Afghanistan hot spot of Helmand, Marine Col. Matthew Grosz has become an old hand at telling his family when duty calls him away. This time, though, his wife balked.

“When I first told her, she said ‘OK, another deployment,’” he said, “Then, after a while, she was questioning, ‘Why? Why are we going back?’”

A recent visit to Forward Operating Base Ash, one of several training complexes here at the largest Marine Corps base in the country, finds the Marines uniformly willing to shoulder the burden of another deployment in America’s longest war, but the strains are more evident in a fight in which a very few are bearing almost the entire burden of the battle.

Col. Grosz, who spent a year in Monrovia in 2012 as part of the United Nations mission in Liberia, and the rest of the 300 other Marines assigned to Task Force Southwest are preparing to deploy to Helmand province this spring, The mission: to advise the Afghan Army’s 215th Corps and the 505th national zone police unit still struggling to contain a still-formidable Taliban insurgency. He will command the adviser team assigned to the 215th Corps.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Mercado, the army adviser team’s chief medical officer, recalls a similar talk he had with his wife when the orders came down, with hard questions over the need for American soldiers and Marines to keep going back to Afghanistan after 16 years of nonstop war.

“Me and my wife had that conversation. There was definitely [the question], ‘Why?’” he said at Forward Operating Base Sierra, another training complex on the sprawling base in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

It’s a conversation that many of these Marines have had multiple times, with still-undetermined impacts on their morale, their family relations and the emotional stability of those they repeatedly have left behind.

A survey of data from the Army and Marines last year found that nearly 100,000 servicemen and -women, many from special forces and other elite units, have been deployed four times or more since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began in the early 2000s. The strain of multiple deployments is so great that the military enlisted Sesame Workshop, the creative team behind “Sesame Street,” to create multimedia kits for home use “designed to support and equip families with young children with skills to address challenges associated with multiple deployments.”

“Multiple deployments and trauma-related stress don’t just increase the risk of depression in service members,” the website HealthLine.com reported last year. “Their spouses are also at increased risk, and their children are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems.”

Veterans of multiple deployments present some new challenges for Army and Marine mental health specialists. For soldiers and Marines on their first tour of duty in a combat zone, the data show that the risk of suicide is far higher when they are deployed in the field away from their families. For those who have been through multiple deployments, researchers say, the risk of suicide or mental health problems while on assignment are relatively low but much higher when they return home.

At FOB Sierra, FOB Ash and other locations here, the Marines went through the paces of the final mission rehearsal, a culminating series of drills and exercises before their deployment to southwest Afghanistan.

The training runs the gamut from preparing for mortar strikes and suicide car bombs to the subtle diplomacy of negotiating with senior Afghan military and police leaders. Expatriate Afghans role-played the local officials the Marines will soon be working with, and the rehearsal was designed to mimic as closely as possible the myriad scenarios awaiting the newly deployed Marines.

The upcoming deployment will be the first time Marines will have stepped foot in the Taliban heartland of Helmand since withdrawing from the province in 2014, a sign of the enemy’s resilience and persistence. U.S. and NATO commanders officially ended coalition-led combat operations in Afghanistan, moving to a primarily advisory role the following year.

The mission became more complicated — and potentially more dangerous — just last week when Taliban fighters captured a key southern district in Helmand province on Thursday. The fall of Sangin district comes amid the insurgents’ yearlong push to expand their footprint in the Taliban heartland of Helmand, The Associated Press reported.

The district’s police chief, Mohammad Rasoul, said the Taliban overran Sangin center early on Thursday morning.

For Afghan army adviser Maj. Paul Rivera, who is heading back to Helmand for the second time since 2012, his family’s reaction was much more subtle — and perhaps more resigned.

“They were just kind of shaking their heads” at the news, he recalled with a smile to his family’s reaction. “[But] when the job calls, you go.

“This is my profession, and I am going to go.”

Col. Grosz expresses virtually the same sentiment as he ponders the personal strain created by the pending deployment.

“This is part of what I do, and [my wife and family] accept that,” the colonel said.

As a senior Navy Corpsman who fully expected to have multiple tours to the Pacific or Persian Gulf under his belt — and not multiple combat tours in Afghanistan — Lt. Cmdr. Mercado said he views this upcoming deployment as a mix of fate and possibly the work of a higher power.

“In a war, it is like, ‘How the heck did I end up with the Marines heading [back] to Afghanistan? Is it a coincidence, or is it a higher plan God has for me?’” he asked, noting he had only been with 6th Marine Regiment a month before the unit was assigned to the Helmand mission.

Whatever the circumstances that led Maj. Rivera, Col. Grosz, Lt. Cmdr. Mercado and the rest of the Marines in Task Force Southwest to Jacksonville’s vast training grounds and to Helmand’s vast and barren countrysides later this spring, the mission now before all of them was clear.

“This is the longest war the United States has been in, and it is hard to realize we would need to be there [even] longer,” Col. Grosz said. “[But] this is a good mission for the Marine Corps. It is almost natural for us to go back and do this.”

Marines’ DNA

Task Force Commander Brig. Gen. Roger Turner sits on a box of Meals Ready to Eat in the shadow of one of the converted Conex shipping containers that make up the majority of the structures inside FOB Sierra. Whatever the strains from past deployments, he said, he had no doubt his Marines would bring the Corps’ legendary gung-ho attitude to the mission once on the ground in Helmand, dealing with what many here see as unfinished business.

“Speaking to most Marines that I talk to, the feeling is that we would have liked to have stayed and continued to work with our [Afghan] partners over there,” he said.

Helmand is “kind of part of the Marine DNA,” the task force commander said. “We’ve got a lot of history there, we have got a lot of Marines who have served there, [and] I think a lot of guys are champing at the bit to get over there.”

This Marines’ spring rotation into Helmand will be the second for Gen. Turner, who also served three combat tours in Iraq.

In Helmand — as in places like Tarawa, Chosin, Khe Sanh and Fallujah — the Marines paid a bloody price to earn that piece of history in southwest Afghanistan.

Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province were the key targets for the Marines as part of the Obama administration’s 2009 strategy to withdraw from Iraq and surge U.S. forces into Afghanistan. By the time the Marines and British forces handed over their main bases in Helmand, Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion, respectively, to Afghan control in 2014, over 380 Marines had been killed, according to Pentagon figures.

Of Marine Corps casualties beginning in the surge years 2009 and 2010 up until the Marines’ withdrawal five years later, Helmand accounted for nearly 18 percent of all U.S. combat fatalities across Afghanistan and over 90 percent of all Marine Corps casualties since the beginning of the war in 2001.

In 2010 alone, 165 Marines were killed in combat operations in Afghanistan, mostly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

“I hear everyone’s stories about Helmand,” Lt. Cmdr. Mercado said. “But I want to go in with the same positive mindset” he had on his first deployment to eastern Afghanistan in 2008, attached to a U.S. military adviser team in Khost province along the Pakistani border.

That being said, he acknowledged, “We lost guys when we were there. I’m not going back in as naive as I was the first time.”

In the years since the Marines’ departure and the creation of the 215th Corps, the Afghan government has struggled to maintain the gains achieved by U.S. and coalition forces. Reports of units in the 215th Corps refusing to conduct security patrols, abandoning or handing over military checkpoints or falling asleep at their positions during operations are seen as having played a key role in the Taliban’s recent gains.

Army woes

As such reports reached a fever pitch in 2016, Kabul was forced to sack the 215th Corps’ commander and rebuild the entire unit with a new commander pulled from 209th Corps in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. But by then, the Taliban held sway over 80 percent of Helmand and were threatening to overrun the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The Pentagon sent in Task Force Forge, an Army adviser team, to help stop the bleeding, Gen. Turner said.

The Army unit “kind of got shot out there” to keep the 215th Corps and Lashkar Gah from falling further apart, he said. “To see [Helmand] deteriorate was really difficult for us, so when we got the call that we were going to be going back I literally [had] Marines standing in line” to gain a slot on the team, the one-star general added.

With the 215th Corps and their Afghan police counterparts in the 505th Zone Police now stabilizing, the Marine Corps task force can now focus on building on the progress made by the Army task force they will replace this spring.

“I think the mechanisms are all in place now” for the Afghan corps to be successful, Gen. Turner said, but noted there remains personnel and other problems within the unit that have left it lagging behind other Afghan units.

“It’s kind of a geography problem, isn’t it? Helmand is kind of the end of the line,” he said. “A lot of the Afghan soldiers, they [just] do not want to go to Helmand.”

Col. Grosz said his Marines are well prepared for the new mission.

“This is not something new to the Marine Corps,” he said, with the only difference being the task force is going in with much less combat power than it had in the past.

“Ensuring that we are combat-ready is just as important as understanding the area and the cultures we are going into,” he added.

The Marines’ previous experience in Helmand will likely give the task force “a leg up on certain things” as they prepare to head back into southern Afghanistan, said Col. Grosz.

“That may be one of the most important ‘X’ factors we can bring to this problem set,” he said. “If you are not familiar with that [history] and you’re trying to sort out what the Afghans are telling you, and what the intelligence is telling you, you’re gonna be kind of lost.”

But in a country where shifting battle lines, centers of gravity and political and tribal alliances change seemingly monthly, an over-reliance on the past could prove dangerous, Gen. Turner said.

“Everyone’s experience is kind of date-stamped to the time that they were there,” the general said. “Past experience is dangerous in a way, when you start to imagine a situation that no longer exists.”

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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