By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan, July 10, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen based here today that the “most important thing to do now is to continue this fight” against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The secretary also told service members that their service is making a difference for both Afghanistan and America.
Panetta made his first trip as defense secretary just a week after taking office. He arrived in Kabul on Saturday, and left for Baghdad today.
“It was important for my first trip to be able to come out to the war zone to meet with the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line on behalf of our country,” Panetta told Marines at this desolate base in Regional Command Southwest. “Thank you for your service, for your sacrifice and for your duty.”
The secretary arrived at the base this morning after meeting with Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, Interior Minister Bismullah Khan, International Security Assistance Force Commander Army Gen. David Petraeus and Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander of the NATO Training Mission to Afghanistan. The men discussed a range of issues from the training of Afghan soldiers and police to how to affect the transition to Afghan security control by 2014.
At Camp Dwyer, the secretary met with the commanders of Task Force Leatherneck Regimental Combat Team-1, Brig. Gen. Lewis Craparotta and Col. Dave Furness. He had an off-the-record lunch with junior officers.
Panetta visited with an Army medical evacuation crew and the staff and patients at the 115thCombat Support Hospital before moving to the other side of the airfield and observing Afghan army training.
He spoke to more than 250 Marines and sailors at the base chapel.
“Everything I’ve seen here proves to me that you are making a helluva difference in terms of the fight that we’re conducting here,” Panetta said. “You have done everything the president of the United States has asked you to do.”
The base is deep in Helmand province – once a strategic stronghold of the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies. The security bubble has grown to include most of the province, although the Marines and their Afghan allies still face tough fighting in and around Sangin.
Still, Marines leaders told Panetta that they had “neutralized” the Taliban in the area. An Afghan commander in the area told the secretary that he was more worried about infiltration from Pakistan than from local insurgents. The Marines and their Afghan allies have given the people of the province the opportunity to choose their own leaders, Panetta said.
And the Marines are working to build up the Afghan army and police so ultimately they can take over security.
Panetta told the Marines that the effort in the country is headed in the right direction. “You have my commitment that we will continue to head in that right direction until we have accomplished this mission,” he said. “Too many people have given their lives, too much blood has been spilled – both on the Afghan side and the American side – not to apply the effort to accomplish the mission for which they gave their lives.
“You have my commitment that we are going to stay,” he continued. “We’re going to continue to move forward, we’re going to continue to try to accomplish the mission of transitioning to the Afghans.”
The secretary also committed to protect those who protect the country.
“I will do everything in my power to make sure that you have the best support possible – best equipment, best training and best support for your families,” he said. “You deserve no less for putting your lives on the line.”