By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 7, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today visited two remote outposts being built here to accommodate incoming troops and thanked the men and women in uniform who provide the security foundation he said is needed for the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy to succeed. The visits were part of a packed schedule that kept the secretary hopping from one session to another. Gates also stopped in Kandahar to check out facilities there, and he visited a classified intelligence fusion center and a sensitive-site exploitation lab.
But the main focus of the day, Gates told reporters before arriving here, was to talk directly to the troops. He held an outdoor town hall session with Marines at the massive new Camp Leatherneck facility being built at a frenzied pace outside the primarily British Forward Operating Base Bastion in Helmand province. From there, he choppered into Forward Operating Base Ramrod, an outpost about 50 miles west of here, where the Army's 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, is based.
At both stops, Gates emphasized the importance of the Afghanistan mission and told the troops he's got their backs and will work to get them everything they need to get the job done.
"I feel a very deep, personal responsibility to each and every one of you," Gates told newly arrived members of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Marine Wing Support Squadron 37 and Marine Combat Logistics Battalion 3 and others who gathered in the bright sunlight at Camp Leatherneck. "My job, it seems to me, is to get you what you need to be successful in your mission, and to do everything possible to get you home safely."
Gates noted new capabilities and protections he has championed for deployed troops: more intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets and more mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, including the all-terrain models designed specifically for Afghanistan.
About 2,500 of the modified MRAPs are in the theater now, with at least 2,000 more to come soon, he told the group, assuring them he plans to "get them out here as fast as we can."
Before meeting with the group, Gates got a firsthand view of the modified Generation 2 vehicles from Marine Sgt. Brandon Cooper. "I told him they take very little effort, with little or no maintenance," Cooper said. "We rely on them heavily, and they are definitely saving lives."
Gates told the group he's also committed to getting more medical support beyond the 10 additional medevac helicopters and three field hospitals already fielded. The goal, he said, is "to provide the 'golden hour' here in Afghanistan that we have in Iraq," referring to a standard that gets troops to advanced-level treatment facilities within 60 minutes of being wounded.
"We hope we don't need it for any of you," Gates said of the additional medical capability. "But I want it to be there if it is needed."
During his visit, Gates walked through the forward surgical facilities at Camp Bastion, where U.S. and British medical staffs work side by side in two surgical wards and a four-bed intensive care unit. The unit has performed 820 surgeries or life-saving procedures.
The secretary also heard from Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Barnett, commander of the 34th Weapons Squadron, about enhanced medevac capabilities now available. "It's all about that speed of response," Barnett told the secretary.
Gates assured the Camp Leatherneck group that Defense Department officials are "trying to do whatever else we can" to fill any other gaps.
"And one of the reasons for my coming out here in addition to thanking you," he added, "is finding out what else you need and what we can do to try to make you successful and get you home safely."
The secretary echoed that message at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, telling the soldiers there he wants to make sure they've got all they need. "That's our job," he said. "You've done your job, so it is up to us to do our part."
Gates took a peek at the massive Camp Leatherneck project, which will house about 6,000 of an estimated 10,000 Marines slated to deploy to Afghanistan when it's completed. "The brigade is still flowing in," Marine Lt. Col. David Jones told reporters traveling with Gates, with nearly 5,000 "on deck now," and about 200 more arriving each day.
Navy Capt. Jeff Borowy, commander of the 25th Naval Construction Regiment, which is leading the massive effort, said the big challenge is "trying to get the job done in time for the warfighters coming in," particularly in light of logistical challenges.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Mason, a Seabee supporting the construction effort, gave a big thumbs up to the living facilities being assembled: Force Provider tents with latrines and shower facilities. "I've had worse conditions on field exercises," he said.
As he opened his troop talks, Gates thanked the servicemembers for volunteering to serve. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate what you do," he said.
Then he took the extra step of asking the troops to extend his thanks to their families as well. "They have put up with a lot of sacrifices as well while you are over here, and we know how much sacrifice they have to make for you to be able to serve," he said. "So the next time you talk to them or write to them or e-mail them, tell them I said 'thanks.'"
At FOB Ramrod, Gates presented awards to six members of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, a unit that's been deployed since June. Army Commendation Medals went to Pfc. Michael Kehrer, Pvt. Alexander Hayes and Sgt. Justin Chaney. Bronze Star awards with valor went to Spc. Kevin Tibbett, Cpl. Justin Skotnicki and Staff Sgt. Anthony Roszko.
Across the board, the servicemembers expressed appreciation that Gates had paid them a visit.
"It's kind of inspiring for him to come out," said Marine Cpl. Anthony Castro, deployed here from Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. "It's great to have him come out here and say he appreciates what we're doing."
Marine Lance Cpl. Jonathan Fuqua, an artillery mechanic so fresh at Camp Leatherneck that he couldn't remember if he'd been there for two days or three, said he, too, appreciated hearing that that leadership values his service.
"I just got back from Iraq in February, and I volunteered to come here," he said. "I was happy to come."
Castro said he has no doubt about the importance of the mission ahead. "It feels great to be the ones on the front line," he said. "We're the ones laying the foundation for the rest of the mission in Afghanistan."
Army Spc. Michael Gumbert, an infantryman who's been deployed since June helping to build FOB Ramrod, shared the sentiment.
"I definitely feel like we've made a difference here," he said, citing relationship-building that's created a new level of trust between the soldiers and local people. "We're establishing a presence here so the units that come here after us can build on the relationships that we have created."
During a news conference upon returning to Kabul, Gates said the busy day gave him good insights into the situation in Afghanistan and the efforts being undertaken by U.S. and coalition nations in partnership with the Afghan national security forces.
"They are doing an extraordinary job in difficult and dangerous conditions," he said.