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Camp Pendleton Marines deploy for a 'hard year' in Afghanistan

February 28, 2012 | 10:03 am

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A contingent of Marines from Camp Pendleton is returning to Afghanistan as the U.S. seeks to wind down its involvement in that nation and train local forces to continue the fight against Taliban insurgents.

"I'm going to do my best to work us out of a job," said Maj. Gen. Charles "Mark" Gurganus, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward).

Within days, Marines from Camp Pendleton will assume command of western forces in Helmand province on the border with Pakistan, once a Taliban stronghold.

There is less fighting now, fewer headline-grabbing casualties, but the daunting task of helping the Afghan government win the support of the populace remains, including training the Afghan army and police and trying to convince farmers not to grow the poppy crop that feeds the heroin trade and provides income for the Taliban.

“It’s going to be a hard year,” Gurganus said.

Fighting the Taliban is only part of the job. Assessing the Taliban's strength, Gurganus quotes his predecessor from Camp Lejeune, Maj. Gen. John Toolan: "He [the Taliban] is on his butt in the southern part of the province, on his knees in the middle, and back on his heels in the north."

Much of the Marines' task is encouraging the Afghan government to provide services to the populace in Helmand. "There's been progress. I won't tell you it's huge progress," Gurganus said.

As the Marines waited to board buses Monday for the trip to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, there was time for last-minute discussion about how husbands and wives will stay in contact via  email and Skype and how spouses will cope with uncertainty.

“You stay busy and you never stop praying that the Lord will bring them all home safely,” said Grace Rodriguez, 31, as she cuddled her daughter Miia, born two weeks ago. Her husband, Master Sgt. Hector Rodriguez, 42, served in three deployments to Iraq.

Katy Gillen, 24, whose husband is Cpl. Jeff Gillen, 24, knows she will be busy. She’s six months  pregnant with the couple’s first child. She’s going home to Florida to be near her family, a common strategy among spouses.

Sgt. Clint Robbins, 27, wears a badge indicating he is trained as a parachutist. But on his second deployment to Afghanistan, he’s assigned to work as an accountant, overseeing construction projects.

“As we’re drawing down on forces, we need to make sure the money goes where it needs to go,” he said.

First Lt. Tom Allsworth, 25, will be in charge of building bridges and roads.

“He’s thrilled that he’s going,” said his mother, Pam Allsworth. “I’m less thrilled, but it’s what he’s trained to do.”

For some couples, this is their first deployment separation. Some of the Marines were not yet teenagers in 2001 when the U.S became engaged in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Lance Cpl. Jo Le, 20, was in elementary school in Houston when Marines landed in a desert outpost called Camp Rhino in November 2001 and then blocked Taliban fighters trying to flee to Kandahar.

"Now it’s my turn to go,” said Le as he and his girlfriend, Karen, said their goodbyes.

For other Marine families, the departure was nothing new.

This will be the eighth deployment for Master Gunnery Sgt. Tim Gerdes, stretching back to Operation Desert Storm. There will be no other deployments, said Gerdes, a Marine for 22 years and a father of six.

“My wife has given me the order: This is the last deployment,” he said as he headed for one of the buses rapidly filling up with Marines.

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-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

Photo: Marines load onto buses for March Air Reserve Base. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times

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