“It’s like walking out of a movie half way…yet you know it’s going to have a happy ending”
Major General Richard Mills USMC perfectly summed up the feelings of those whose tour of duty in Afghanistan is about to come to end when he said these words at a ceremony to mark the transfer of authority at Camp Leatherneck on Saturday.
The ceremony saw Major General John Toolan, Commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) assume command of Regional Command South West (RC(SW)) from Major General Richard Mills, Commander of I MEF (Fwd).
The parade was overseen by General David Petraeus, Commander International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, who awarded Major General Mills the Bronze Star for his service in command of RC(SW).
US Marines stood on parade patiently and immobile for a considerable time in the growing heat as an impressive array of generals and VIPs arrived to take their seats and watch as the Colours of II MEF were unfurled by General Toolan and his senior Marine, Sgt Major Michael Jones.
The Commander ISAF Joint Command, Lieutenant General David M. Rodriquez addressed the parade and described how, since January 2010, Helmand had changed forever and for the better, noting how “General Mills – you brought ‘One MEF’ into the fight and at the same time assumed command of the newly created RC(SW).
“The Civ-Mil team you assembled – representing Bahrain, Denmark Estonia, Georgia, Tonga, The UK and The United States – soon operated as one team with our Afghan partners”.
He paid tribute to Mills’ command, describing how “shoulder to shoulder, this team, with the Afghan people, has accomplished much and laid a strong foundation for the future” and went on to recognise that the Marine’s greatest achievement “is that the Afghan National Army Kandaks are increasingly leading security efforts with less coalition assistance”.
In reply, General Mills speaking eloquently without notes, summed up his feelings and the thoughts of many of his staff, when he said it felt like he was walking out of a movie half way through. Looking at the Afghans in the audience he assured them that he knew how this movie would end and that the ending would be happy. But there were things that would happen on the way which he would like to have seen through himself.
He paid generous tribute to his second in command British Brigadier George Norton, his staff and his marines and exhorted General Toolan to carry on the work so ably started by I MEF.
Provincial Governors Mangal (Helmand) and Barahawi (Nimroz) as well as a number of senior officers from the Afghan Security Forces attended the parade. The Afghan media was well represented and journalists listened carefully to the speeches – simultaneously translating for the benefit of their audiences.
Speaking to many of the I MEF staff and marines afterwards one could sense a strong feeling of pride in a job well done but perhaps, and echoing their commander, just a hint of regret that their run was over and it was now time to let II MEF take on responsibility. However, as most of the American personnel had spent about a year in Afghanistan there was no denying their great urge to get home to their families.
Meanwhile the new arrivals are now just eager to take the reins, get on and make their mark on the campaign with General Rodriquez’s closing remarks ringing in their ears:
“In February 2010, the Taliban flag flew. Today, this land belongs to the people of Helmand and Nimroz. A job well done Rich, by you and your outstanding team.
“General Toolan, Welcome. We look forward to seeing you build on the momentum achieved by the team before you”.
Those of us fortunate enough to have worked closely with the US Marines of I MEF have been impressed by what a ‘swept up’ outfit they are and look forward to building equally strong relations with the men and women of II MEF.