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Marines from Camp Pendleton depart for Afghanistan -- again

February 27, 2012 |  2:26 pm

Grace Santmyer, 6, hugs her father, Major William Santmyer, as he prepares to leave for Afghanistan

Under a cold, gray sky, Marines departed Camp Pendleton on Monday for Afghanistan, more than a decade after Marines from the same base toppled the Taliban government.

“Daddy is going to Afghanistan to help protect people,” said 2-year-old Adrianna Dimmer, the daughter of Warrant Officer Jorge Dimmer.

This mission is different, though similar to the task in late 2001 when Marines from the base were the first conventional U.S. forces into Afghanistan: Defeat the Taliban and support friendly Afghan forces. Within days the contingent from Camp Pendleton will assume command of western forces in Helmand province on the border with Pakistan, once a Taliban stronghold.

PHOTOS: Camp Pendleton Marines headed to Afghanistan

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,” said Major Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus, an Iraq veteran who will deploy as the head  of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), the command structure for forces from the U.S. and nine allied nations in Helmand.

As the Marines waited to board buses 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, with 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.

The jobs assigned to the Marines suggest how the conflict has changed as the U.S. looks to decrease its troops and leave the country by the end of 2014.

Sgt. Clint Robbins, 27, wears a badge indicating that 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.

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 to regroup.

"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: Grace Santmyer, 6, hugs her father, Major William Santmyer, as he prepares to leave for Afghanistan. Credit: Christina House / Los Angeles Times