Camp Pendleton Marines leave for Afghanistan in anticipation of Taliban counter-offensive
Smith, 35, who is making his eighth deployment, has no doubt Marines in the Sangin district will make good use of the rifles with the long-range optics and deadly accuracy.
After several bloody months last year, Marine casualty rates have slowed considerably in Sangin. Only one Marine from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, the main unit in Sangin, has been killed this year.
But Marine brass are expecting the Taliban to mount a counter-offensive in an effort to reclaim key terrain in Helmand province, the poppy-cropping center of Afghanistan. The poppy crop, which becomes heroin, provides the profits that fuel the insurgency.
"We look for a spike [in violence] by this summer," Smith said.
Sniper rifles will be used to take out Taliban fighters trying to bury roadside bombs under cover of darkness. Roadside bombs continue to be the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops and innocent Afghans.
Now the Three-Five is coming home to Camp Pendleton -- to be relieved by the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment. Officers, including the top Marine general in Afghanistan, have been blunt: The Marines of One-Five are in for a fight.
And the family members of the One-Five are in for a long, nerve-wracking wait.
In the predawn quiet, six buses were waiting to take the 150 Marines to March Reserve Air Base in Riverside for the long flight. Two large trucks took the gear, including the sniper rifles.
More Marines from the One-Five will take other flights in coming weeks until the turnover is complete.
Samuel and Madelyn Ortiz had come to Camp Pendleton from New Jersey to say goodbye to their son, Sgt. Jasen Ortiz, 25. The Ortizs know about Sangin, the numbers of dead and wounded, the prospects of more fighting.
"We don't talk about it," said Madelyn Ortiz, her eyes filling with tears, "but we know all about."
Military brass, including Gen. David Petraeus in his testimony this week to Congress, say that progress against the Taliban in Sangin and elsewhere has been substantial but remains "fragile and reversible."
Bianca Spiwak, 32, whose husband, Sgt. Kevin Spiwak, 33, is deploying, has her own description of Sangin. "It's heinous," she said.
The Spiwaks' children, Jacob, 4, and Jadyn, 5, came to the departure for a last hug with their father. Bianca is pregnant with the couple's third child.
Scott and Kathy Say from Orange County were on base with their son, Lance Cpl. Grant Say, 21. Grant's twin brother, also a Marine, is already in Afghanistan, but will be returning soon.
How do the Says plan to fill the time as they await the return of Grant?
"We're going to be counting the days," said Kathy Say.
Samantha Micale, 22, married to Lance Cpl. Michael Micale, also 22, does not see the progress in Sangin that others see.
"It just seems to be getting worse,'' she said. "But this is what he wants to do, and all I can do is keep faith as he does his job and hope that he comes home OK."
The young couple has two children: Naythan, 20 months, and Emmalyn, 6 months.
Sgt. Curtis Paul, 25, is making his fourth deployment. His wife Heather, 23, has a strategy for coping: Block out all thoughts of the war zone and what can happen there. The couple has three children.
"Don't worry until you get the knock on the door," she said. "No news is good news. It means he's alive."
John Dermody from Dallas was watching his son, Lance Cpl. Tim Dermody, 22, as he prepared to board the bus. The elder Dermody was a Marine during Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait.
"That was nothing compared to what these kids are going through," he said.
The sniper rifles are given special protection because of their value and fragility. Each Marine carried his own M-16, and each Navy corpsman his M-4.
Soon, 13 bomb-sniffing Labradors will join the One-Five in Sangin. The dogs were in individual cages near the assembly point on the sprawling base where the Marines were gathering their gear, waiting for the buses, and saying goodbye to loved ones.
Most of the dogs were sleeping. A couple were barking.
-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton
Photo: Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment, prepare to leave Camp Pendleton on Thursday morning for Afghanistan to relieve the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, in the Sangin district, where a Taliban counter-offensive is expected. Credit: Tony Perry / Los Angeles Times