HADITHA DAM, Iraq -- For more than six months, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment has brought stability to the people of western Iraq by training Iraqi Army soldiers and ridding the region of anti-Iraqi forces.
With more than 350 enemy weapons caches found and 12 counter insurgency operations under their belts, the Marines and sailors of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based battalion are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel – most of them will be back in the United States by early spring.
Although still focused on their mission of combing the streets of this once insurgent-heavy area, the Marines do occasionally think about their eventual return to southern California. Thoughts of home cooked meals and time with families and loved ones are beginning to creep into the minds of the more than 1,200 service members deployed here.
Lance Cpl. Casey W. Beeman of Fort Worth, Texas, can’t wait to see his girlfriend and family, he said – a thought shared by many in the unit.
“When you go from seeing them everyday to not at all for seven months, it takes a toll on you,” said Beeman, a mortarman with I Company in Haqlaniyah. “I just can’t wait to see them.”
During their tour in western Al Anbar Province, the battalion has spent their time stabilizing the region. In the past five months, they’ve captured more than 200 insurgents. What once was an insurgent hot zone is now a relatively quiet Euphrates River Valley region where people, in places like Haqlaniyah, play volleyball in the streets to pass the time.
“You can definitely tell a difference from the time we got here to now,” said Beeman. Before, no one would come out of their houses in fear of getting shot and now things are pretty quiet and people come up and talk to the Marines without fear of retribution from the insurgents.
But the Haditha Triad area along the upper western Euphrates Valley has not always been so quiet.
Before the Marines’ arrival, daily news reports of deadly insurgent attacks against coalition forces in this once-volatile area highlighted a need for new strategies. With that on their minds, the already battle-tested Marines, many of whom took part in Fallujah combat operations in 2004, set out to rid the area of insurgents that plagued the streets for months.
And they accomplished just that. Perhaps most notable of the Marines’ achievements here is the 36 captured insurgents and more than 25 IEDs netted during a two-week counterinsurgency operation they and Iraqi soldiers conducted in the Triad this past August, dubbed “Quick Strike.”
“Since we got here we’ve been able to neutralize enemy cells within the city and forced the insurgents to go somewhere else,” said Capt. Jeffrey S. Dinsmore, a Seattle native and target collections officer for the battalion.
The battalion’s operations have so far successfully cleared out insurgents in the “Triad” region - Haditha, Barwanah, and Haqlaniyah – and kept them out.
More importantly, the Marines have managed to maintain a presence in the area with support from Iraqi Security Forces. In fact, the Marine Corps-trained Iraqi Army soldiers have served alongside the Marines on every operation here.
“We have a permanent combined presence with Iraqi and American forces now in 15 towns throughout the region, where we had none when we came here a year ago,” said Col. Stephen Davis, commander for Regimental Combat Team-2 during a Pentagon press briefing earlier last month.
Some Iraqi forces in western Al Anbar are already conducting operations on their own, a sign of continuing progress, said Davis.
“You will not confuse them with United States Marines, but they are making good progress when you consider what it takes, especially to stand up a nation's military essentially from scratch in the course of a year, year and a half,” he said.
“The [Iraqi soldiers] are really good to have with you on patrol,” said Lance Cpl. Eric Zermeno, a rifleman with I Co. and Santa Ana, Calif., native. Zermeno has worked side-by-side Iraqi soldiers on everything from daily patrols to large-scale operations, such as Quick Strike. “They are really professional and know what they need to do out on patrol with us.”
Now, Marines and Iraqi soldiers are wiping out the last remnants of anti-Iraqi forces by targeting the enemy’s logistics capabilities and actively searching for weapons caches. In less than a month, the battalion has found and disposed of more than 300 weapons caches, ranging from assault rifles and other small arms to a variety of ordnance.
“Simply put, if you take away his bombs he can’t blow you up,” said 1st Lt. T. Ryan Sparks, a San Diego native and L Co. executive officer. “It takes a lot of money to buy stuff like that, and if we take it away from [the insurgents], it makes their whole structure collapse.”
While Marines here see the progress they’ve made in the area, the past five months have given some, like Beeman, a better appreciation for what they’re missing back home.
The battalion’s Marines will continue their daily patrols and other activities in the area, until it’s time to leave their Iraqi counterparts. Before they depart, they’ll be replaced by another Marine infantry battalion.
Eventually, the Marines and sailors of 3rd Bn., 1st Marines will return to the United States. Thoughts of the homecoming will become a reality - hugging children and spouses; traveling in regular, unarmored vehicles, going to the movies, and eating that “first meal” away from a military chow hall.
“Besides confidence and day-to-day practical skills, I’ve gained a lot of experience when dealing with the locals and realize how well we really have it in the States,” said Beeman. “I’ve gained a lot of great experience and will be able to use it when we deploy again.”