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Capt. Jesse Hills, the team leader of Team 3, Civil Affairs Detachment 11-2, climbs a dump truck to inspect the contents during a patrol in Khan Neshin, Afghanistan, Feb. 29, 2012. The truck was carrying gravel to place over a culvert in the road. Afghans are currently paving a road in Khan Neshin, equipped with culverts to allow canals to pass though to the surrounding farms. The road is a civil affairs –initiated project to help the locals build an infrastructure on their own. Hills is a 28-year-old native of Terre Haute, Ind., who served as an intelligence officer with 11th Marine Regiment before detaching to the civil affairs team.

Photo by Sgt. Michael S. Cifuentes

Future of Afghan village kindled by Marines

5 Mar 2012 | Sgt. Michael S. Cifuentes

To a district in Afghanistan that was once overlooked by its government, 2nd Lt. Andrew McGann cares for it like a member of the community.

Khan Nehsin, a district of no more than 20,000 people in sporadic villages across southern Helmand province, is undergoing an overhaul. There are currently 13 civil affairs projects supervised by the Marines of Team 3, Civil Affairs Detachment 11-2.

Under the leadership of McGann, a 26-year-old logistics officer by trade who began his ride with civil affairs just shortly after entering the Marine Corps fleet, the Marines are helping Afghan construction workers make their mark in Khan Neshin by enabling the local community to service their own country.

McGann is second in command of Team 3. His assignment includes leading patrols and vehicle convoys to project sites, assuring the Afghan construction workers are building to specifics hashed out in their contracts, and speaking with local elders to get feedback on progress made in the district.

There are four major projects just in the heart of Khan Neshin: a new, all-boys school to replace the current one; a district center; a comprehensive health clinic; and a new paved road that runs through the village market.

Some of the Afghan construction workers are from Khan Neshin, and others are from towns in northern Helmand province or as far as Kabul.

"We get a week’s schedule from the construction workers, telling us generally where they see the project going into the next week. We actually go and inspect their work, make sure they’re on task, and keep the project moving in the right direction,” said McGann, a native of Longmont, Colo.

 McGann’s mission doesn’t stop at paying close attention to each project’s progress. He monitors and provides feedback to keep each project moving along.

“There’s a lot of positive words to be said about the Afghan workers, and we let them know they’re doing good work,” McGann said. “We also make sure the work they have done is done to a standard. If not, we’ll address it right then and there and recommend ways to remediate the work or how they can correct it.” 

The Marines of Team 3 are just a stone throw away from the four major projects in the heart of Khan Neshin. Based out of Combat Outpost Castle, a fortified compound of high mud walls that once housed a cell of insurgent fighters, the Marines continuously monitor the projects almost daily by conducting foot patrols to the project areas. The combat outpost shares a wall with the district center and the health clinic, the road project runs alongside Castle’s west wall, and the school is at the end of that road.

“A site survey allows us to put eyes on the projects that’s been initiated to help rebuild the district,” McGann said.  

Corporal Joshua Brooks, a Marine serving with Team 3, said sometimes site surveys service more than just an “eyes on.”

“Usually in the beginning of these projects, there’s always growing pains. But we build really great relationships with the Afghan workers. Sometimes we feel comfortable enough to relax with them and have tea. We’ve become really good friends,” said Brooks, a 28-year-old native of Celeste, Texas.

Recently, the Marines and Afghan workers shared a sense of success Afghan workers. A 300-year-old grand mosque was refurbished in Khan Neshin under Team 3’s supervision. The mosque, which was built to traditional standards in the desert village of mud and mortar, was deteriorating inside and out. The lack of attention to the holy building stemmed from intimidation from the insurgents before coalition forces arrived at Khan Neshin.

Now, the Afghan government confers with Marines to identify what projects are needed in the country. 

McGann said coalition forces often provide guidance to civil affairs projects, “because a nation like Afghanistan doesn’t always have the resources available to develop infrastructure and essential services in a rural area like Khan Neshin.”

Under McGann there are five Marines and one Navy corpsman serving with Team 3, not including Hills, the team leader, and Albi, the language interpreter. Since they’ve arrived to the area in September 2011, they’ve inherited nine projects from their predecessors, which four of those are now complete. Team 3 initiated four projects during their time here, and three of those are complete. McGann said they hope to see two more projects completed by the time their replacements arrive. 

“Right now the Marine Corps is pushing the insurgents out of their strongholds, and we’re trying to deny them terrain. But, if we don’t put something in place to fill the vacuum of power, the insurgents are going to come back once we’re gone,” McGann said. “We’re enabling the Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and we’re enabling the locals to provide services and gain the support of their villages. Civil affairs projects might be the reason why we don’t have to come back to Afghanistan.”

Standing at 6-foot-3 and “charismatic,” according to his Marines, McGann made some good acquaintances out in the villages during his time in Afghanistan. Usually Team 3’s patrols halted at the market in Khan Neshin, where McGann and his Marines bought bread, vegetables and eggs from vendors. He said the deployment has been “a very unique experience.”

The tour to Afghanistan was McGann’s first, and he said if the purpose was supposed to leave a lasting impact in the country, then he’s going home with a feeling of accomplishment.

Team 3, Civil Affairs Detachment 11-2, serve with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Khan Neshin District, Afghanistan, and are assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, which is a part of Task Force Leatherneck. 1st Marine Division (Forward) heads Task Force Leatherneck, the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest), and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.