Thanksgiving in Afghanistan

Mangulzai, Afghanistan — As Americans turn off the lights in their homes Thursday after a day of celebration, a group of U.S. Marines and their families will just be starting theirs.

The first units of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines are scheduled to land in California Thursday night after nearly seven months in Afghanistan.

With the joy of reunion will be the satisfaction of knowing they made a difference, no little matter in a war in which skirmishes substitute for decisive battles and in which “progress” in winning over the local population is measured in small incremental steps.

The 500 or so Taliban in Helmand Province’s Nawa District — 400 square miles of desert and farms near the Helmand River — have in the main been driven out to other areas. Small Taliban cells remain and infiltrators are a problem, but villagers once terrified of being seen interacting with American and Afghan troops in any way now do so more frequently and increasingly provide live-saving information on hidden mines and suspicious persons.

“People have to know we (the Marines and Afghan forces) are not going to leave, that troops will stay to protect them,” said Capt. Brian Huysman, commander of Charlie Company, 1-5.

“We’re telling them that this unit is leaving but is being replaced by another. We’re putting out flyers saying the same and during the transition our Marines will be taking out some of the new guys and introducing them around.”

With increased security has come distribution of seeds to farmers for winter wheat. That wheat, the Afghan government hopes, may eventually help supplant the district’s traditional winter crop and a major source of funding for the Taliban — opium poppies.

Government aid projects for villages — better irrigation systems, schools and medical clinics — are now being planned with the direct involvement of village elders.

Proof positive for the Marines of their success in counter-insurgency came just prior to the start of what the troops call the “rip out.” Weapons Company’s 81 Platoon, operating from an outpost near the villages of Mangulzai and Baghrabad, rounded up 19 suspected Taliban terrorists in just a few days. Eleven of those men, after subsequent investigation by Afghan authorities, were deemed guilty of terrorist activities and sent to prison. Seven of those 11 were detained directly as a result of local villagers informing the Marines of their presence, activities and exact whereabouts.

“This has been a tremendous week,” 1st Lt. Clint Hall, commander of 81 Platoon, said. “It couldn’t have happened at a better time.”

First Battalion, 5th Marines are coming home. For those still on the isolated outposts in the Helmand River Valley Thanksgiving will be observed in their own special way, with brief thoughts of families at home, comrades lost and the camaraderie that keeps them going in between patrols.

“Now that it’s down to the wire you need to be thinking about here,” 1st Sgt. David Wilson told Marines on a Charlie Company outpost.

“You’ve have proved you can do the job, keeping these people safe. Slacking off is just not acceptable. Don’t give it up in the final two minutes of the last quarter. It’s too late in the game to be complacent, it’s too close to going home to get blown up.

“Stay focused,” he said.

For Marines here there won’t be dining halls with heaps of turkey that you’ll see on television news reports from large bases such as Bagram and Kandahar. The Marines of 1-5 will awaken shivering in unheated tents or on cots in the open (it was 25 degrees the other morning) and will eat their meals amid the hinterland dust.

Traditional holiday fare will be helicoptered and then trucked to them, but may not make it on time. Many outposts have already anticipated that problem. At outpost Green Nine, for example, there are three turkeys fattening up in their compound. The Marines, with the help of Afghan police sharing the facility, bought the birds from friendly villagers and will do the butchering and cooking themselves over an open fire.

At Combat Outpost Sullivan, chicken parts are being bought for cooking — as well as vegetables — from local merchants.

Home is just a blink away for them. But the war goes on.