COMBAT OUTPOST HANSON, Afghanistan (AP) — A turkey trot it was not.
The U.S. Marines’ top general, James Amos, sprinted up and down the Helmand River Valley in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, visiting frontline Marines at nine remote outposts to share Thanksgiving and applaud their gains against the Taliban in a region where al-Qaida hatched the 9/11 plot a decade ago.
Traveling mostly in an MV-22 Osprey, the hybrid that flies like an airplane and takes off and lands like a helicopter, Amos began shortly after daylight and finished 14 hours later — and, improbably, managed to confront just one turkey dinner.
At one point the 65-year-old Amos referred to his unusual daytrip as the "Bataan death march," a reference to the gruesome forced march of American POWs in the Philippines during World War II.
Amos shook hands with hundreds of Marines, all veterans of tough fighting in Helmand Province, which has been a focal point of the U.S.-led strategy to counter the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The Marines have vastly improved security in Helmand over the past year, but with President Barack Obama having ordered 33,000 U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by next September, the prospects for sustaining those gains are uncertain, and the subject of debate at home.
At each stop Amos struck similar themes in pep talks to his Marines: they are coming close to winning, and when the Marine Corps leaves Afghanistan it will shift its focus to the Pacific, where he said "a whole lot of opportunities" will await a Corps no longer bogged down by land wars in the greater Middle East. He also said Thanksgiving is a time for Marines to reflect on "the unique fraternal bond" among men and women at war.
Marine Sgt. Maj. Michael Barrett, the top enlisted Marine, who accompanied Amos, said that for most troops Thanksgiving was just another day at war — until they finished their work.
"Then they’ll have a meal of a lifetime," he said.
The feast was finally set for Amos when he arrived after dark at Camp Dwyer, the southern-most stop on his trip. He helped heap plates with roast turkey, baked ham and prime rib — with all the traditional fixings — and then sat amongst the troops to finish it off.
Amos said "Happy Thanksgiving" at each Marine outpost, but the troops did not seem in a festive mood — at least in the presence of their commandant. The business of war does not take a holiday. When he asked the Marines what was on their minds, they asked about the future of the Corps, the latest of Washington’s stalled budget debate, the possibility of seeing some of their retirement benefits go away, and internal Marine issues.
Some conveyed a sense of confidence that Afghanistan would soon be behind them.
At Combat Outpost Hanson, one member of the 3rd battalion, 6th Marine Regiment asked, "Who do you want us to fight next, sir?" Amos said he did not know, but he reassured the Marine that there would be no shortage of security crises in the years ahead.
At Combat Outpost Alcatraz, in Sangin district where fierce fights against the Taliban have waned only recently, the top overall commander of the war, Marine Gen. John Allen, joined Amos for a pep talk to several dozen Marines.
Allen said Marines will "go home under the victory pennant," but he stressed that the struggle to degrade Taliban influence and build up Afghan security forces — in Helmand and throughout Afghanistan — is far from over.
"As big as this is, and as hard as it has been, we are going to be successful here," Allen said. "We’re going to win this. We’re going to liberate these people, we’re going to set this country up to be a free country in one of the toughest regions in the world."
There are now about 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. All are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014.
Amos clearly relished the chance to see so many combat Marines, but his trip was no joy ride. His itinerary was a closely-held secret, and the aircraft on which he flew was heavily armed.
As a CH-53 helicopter lifted off from a barren field across a dirt highway in the northern Helmand village of Puzeh, with Amos and part of his entourage aboard, a bearded special operations Marine quipped, "Cross your fingers." And then, as the chopper rose above a billowing wall of powdery dust, the Marine added, only half jokingly, "Whew! Getting the commandant shot down at your (outpost) would not be a good thing."