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Task Force Leatherneck takes 'great first step' toward Afghan mission

Cpl. Aaron Rooks, 2nd MEB


The atmosphere inside the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade Command Operations Center was calm March 31, but something just wasn’t right.

The Marines and sailors inside were working calmly, gazing into their computer screens, listening for information. Yet a sense of urgency still permeated the area.

The silent tension was present because, less than five minutes earlier, the Marines and sailors received word that a mass-casualty event occurred when a suicide bomber drove a vehicle into a provincial district center in southern Afghanistan. That was all the information they had. They didn’t know who or how many were affected.

Then, unexpectedly, a commanding voice halted everyone and everything inside the operations center.

“Attention in the C-O-C!” said Maj. Byron Lawson, one of the brigade’s senior watch officers. “We are now receiving reports that 17 were killed and 58 were wounded in the district center explosion. Medical, what are we doing?”

“We are currently in contact with Regional Command (South) to medically evacuate the injured,” responded Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Shannon Dittlinger, brigade Patient Evacuation and Tracking watch officer.

“Were any Marines involved?” Lawson asked.

“No, they were all local Afghan nationals and Afghan military,” Dittlinger answered.

Lawson then turned to the ground watch officer, 1st Lt. Joshua Pogue, to determine if a quick reaction force was available to move to the district center.

“What do we have available?” Lawson asked.

“Second Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment is in the area and will provide a QRF, sir,” Pogue responded.

The brigade then added the mass-casualty event to the long list of incidents that day. They had already dealt with small arms, indirect fire and improvised explosive device attacks, an escalation of force incident, a vehicle accident and two complex ambushes, one of which involved a search for a missing Marine.

These scenarios, including others the brigade’s Command Element faced during the 2nd MEB Mission Rehearsal Exercise from March 29 to April 1, were all fictitious. But the scenarios featured in the MRX represent real events that could occur while 2nd MEB, nicknamed Task Force Leatherneck, is deployed to Afghanistan this spring, which raises the question: is the brigade prepared?

“This was a great first step for us, but it was only a first step,” said Lt. Col. Jay Bargeron, brigade current operations officer. “The next time we get to do this, we will be in Afghanistan. But from the teamwork and discipline that the C-O-C team demonstrated this week, I have no doubt that they will be ready the first day of operations.”

“The battle drills were designed to be challenging,” Bargeron said. “If you get complacent, the people more forward deployed than you are going to pay for it.”

Lt. Col. John Barnett, command element trainer, Marine Air Ground Task Force Branch, MAGTF Staff Training Program, said the purpose of the exercise is to train and prepare Marines and sailors in the brigade Command Element for the operations they will be conducting in Afghanistan.

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, 2nd MEB commanding general, voiced his confidence in the unit’s progress during the MRX. Nicholson said the Marines and sailors must not let go of that momentum, as the next time they meet, they will be working together in Afghanistan.

“We are hopefully the last ‘in extremis’ MAGTF to be formed for Afghanistan,” said Nicholson. “Task Force Leatherneck has been formed, manned, trained, equipped and (sent) out the door in about 75 days. My hat is off to every Marine and sailor in this organization and to all the folks across the Marine Corps who have enabled us to pull this off.”

Maj. Tom Clinton, the brigade’s other senior watch officer, said the MRX was a valuable learning experience for everyone.

“You have to be vigilant,” said Clinton, who, along with Lawson, is responsible for the orderly and effective operations of the C-O-C. “We manage the battle space. We are always overseeing every aspect of the MEB. There’s a tremendous amount of information to process at one time, with a very small amount of time to do so.”

Clinton said the success of the C-O-C came down to how they performed as a team. Through every scenario, in most cases, everyone was involved in some way.

Scenarios begin with the senior watch officers, then work their way down to from engineers and counter-IED Marines to the Civil Affairs Group, Staff Judge Advocate and communication network specialists.

And everyone agreed that the experience working as a team was the most crucial advantage gained.

British Army Brigadier James Cowan, who will assume command of Task Force Helmand later this year, visited the brigade during the exercise to meet the command staff he will be working with while in Afghanistan. While here, he was able to see the Marines and sailors in action, and stated that he left confident in the “joint” mission awaiting them in Afghanistan, where Task Force Leatherneck will work in close coordination with Task Force Helmand.

“What I like about the Marines is their tight-knit, family attitude,” Cowan said. “I feel that had a lot to do with their success in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, and I believe they will be able to apply that same success to Afghanistan.”

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