by: Rick Leventhal
from the Marines Combat Outpost in Tahgaz, Afghanistan:
There is much Fox News can’t report about the valor and heroism of the most recent casualty in Afghanistan, a U.S. Marine with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. It’s just too soon.
But after spending time with his unit, Alpha Company of the 1st L.A.R., two things are clear: this Marine’s loss is being felt deeply by his brothers in uniform and his unit has not wavered in its mission to bring peace and stability to the Helmand River Valley.
The Marine’s base at Tahgaz is the furthest south and west in the country and some platoons are stationed even further out in the remote desert and surrounding hills. While L.A.R. Marines are used to working out of their Light Armored Vehicles (LAV’s), the Marines at Tahgaz are primarily patrolling on foot, for eight to ten hours a day or more.
They’re led by Captain John Bitonti, a combat veteran who I met while embedded with his unit, the 3rd L.A.R., during the invasion of Iraq. He went back for another tour in Fallujah in 2004. Now he leads well over 100 men in sometimes hostile territory.
“The enemy is out there” the Captain told me. “They’re watching, they want to kill us. The key is that we need to be more vigilant than them and be prepared to stop them before they stop us.”
I asked him about the fallen Marine, who is the 1000th U.S. casualty in Afghanistan since troops first arrived here in late 2001. He told me the men were out on foot patrol and spotted a lone figure across the river who didn’t move, despite the sandstorm. After waiting and observing the man, they decided to resume their patrol and an IED exploded from a berm, killing one of the Marines and seriously wounding two others.
“For me to lose him? Yeah, absolutely, it tears me apart, it hurts inside, but we have a mission to continue and I’m gonna get more marines hurt if we don’t continue with our mission, which is exactly the reason the night of the incident we pushed patrol literally right afterwards. That patrol was getting those marines out, another patrol was already patrolling the same area. We can’t let them know that they got the best of us and I know after that attack, they’re watching us to see what we’re gonna do… and they know if they try to do that again, we’re gonna be ready this time.”
“This marine, yeah, he’s not with us physically, but he’s with us in spirit and I haven’t given him a leave of absence yet… so he’s still on patrol, he’ll be redeploying back to the states when we do.”
Captain Bitonti spends much of his time meeting with locals, trying to convince them the U.S. is here to help. It was his unit that was first made aware of a six year old local boy who’d been bitten in the face by a deadly Viper snake. They called for the airlift that saved the boy’s life.
“In a counterinsurgency fight, the center of gravity is the people, and that’s who we’re fighting for right now. It’s between us and the Taliban… and we gotta show them that the Taliban are the bad guys and that we’re the winning side.”
Is it hard to keep fighting after suffering such a loss?
“For me to continue? No it’s not hard, because my job is to go get these guys. My job is to hunt down the enemy so we don’t have to be here any longer.”