CAMP PENDLETON — Artillery rounds from a training exercise nearby exploded in the hills of Camp Pendleton.
“The sound of freedom,” said Col. Peter B. Baumgarten, as the resounding thunder of a shell hitting its mark rolled overhead.
Baumgarten and more than 40 other Marines and Sailors from the 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division had, only moments before, disembarked from one of the white buses that brought them to their families.
It was six months ago they deployed to Afghanistan as a task force to safeguard Camp Bastion/Leatherneck in the Helmand province.
“It wasn’t bad at all,” said Cpl. Andrew Guzman on his first deployment. In the Marines for three-and-a-half-years, Guzman, who’s from Walnut, Calif., said it was good experience and an honor to finally go and to close it out.
The base is being downsized and the reduction of combat powers are underway, signaling the end to the longest war in U.S. history.
“It’s interesting,” Baumgarten said on being a part of the war. “You stop and you think about it — 13 years in Afghanistan — and I always reflect back on 2001. I was a Major, a staff officer at Headquarters Marine Corps and somebody called me to the television and said, ‘Hey, you’re not going to believe what’s going on.’”
It was just that morning, he explained, that he was thinking the world was quiet — that his Marine Corps career was quiet.
“For the next 10 years nothing is going to happen,” he said. “And then the whole world got turned on its ear on Sept. 11, 2001.”
To be the last regiment after 13 years of combat in Afghanistan, it’s really an important feeling for the Marines, Baumgarten said.
Though originally thinking that he would be taking 300 Marines on the deployment, things changed, and Baumagarten, who assumed command of the 1st Marine Regiment in May of 2012, was only able to take 45.
“So these 45 are very special Marines and they did a fantastic job. And I think the pride that they have in being a part of that history and contributing to that history is really important,” Baumgarten said.
Samantha Newbern waited with excitement for her husband Sgt. Nicholas Newbern to get off the bus. Waiting with her was their 3-month-old son William, whom Nicholas hadn’t yet met.
“It’s definitely not been easy,” Samantha said of her husband’s first deployment and their first child. “I’ve had a lot of support, and my husband has been fabulous throughout,” she said, noting that she’s videoed and photographed every moment of William’s life.
Still, Samantha said she expected to start crying on reuniting with her husband.
“There’s this strange phenomenon where you finally allow yourself to realize just how hard it is,” she said. “Until that point, with the self preservation, you just don’t. And so yes, they’re happy tears, and it’s super exciting, but you also let yourself fully realize just how hard it was.”
Another Marine, Cpl. Eric Candelario met his 4-month-old son Liam also for the first time since deploying.
There are still 4,500 Marines from Camp Pendleton deployed to Afghanistan. With the troop drawdown announced by President Barack Obama on May 27, 2014, 9,800 American troops will remain there until the end of the year. It’s expected that half of those troops will be pulled out by the end of 2015, with the remaining troops pulling out by the end of 2016.
Baumgarten described the interactions between the coalition forces and Afghan people as, “very positive right now.”
“So it’s positive right now, in terms of the dynamics…the real question is, after we leave, how much is the support they’re getting from Kabul — the ministerial support, the logistics, the medical, the maintenance — all those things. How do those work to keep them sustainable over time,” he said.
Yet, while in Afghanistan, Baumgarten said he was watching what was happening in Iraq with the militant group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) seizing territories in the country, saying that it was “very disheartening.”
“To be in a deployed environment — and I’ve lost friends in Iraq — every Marine who has served in Iraq has lost friends in Iraq. And to watch…ISIS take over territory in a matter of weeks that we worked years to hold and maintain and build — it was disheartening,” Baumgarten said.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, speaking at a Department of Defense press conference on Aug. 22 said that the U.S. military is operating in a manner of support of Iraq, but that it was a fight that the Iraqi security forces have to take on.
“Ultimately, the answer is going to be found in good governance,” Kirby said. “Now, I know…that doesn’t offer everybody… the immediacy that they may want to have in dealing with this threat, this very serious threat — but ultimately, it’s defeating the ideology through good governance.”
Having deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan, Baumgarten said he really tries not to draw parallels between the two countries.
“It’s different,” he said. “And I think they (Afghans) have the opportunity to draw their own future. And I think Iraq is a cautionary tale to the leadership in Afghanistan. And I’m confident, given the next couple of years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, that we can create the conditions to prevent something like Iraq.”