Marines with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, walk through a field in the Sangin district of Helmand province, Afghanistan, during a clearing mission in July 2010. The Marines closed the last of their forward operating bases in Sangin in early May. Members of 3/7 were the last to go. (Cpl. Ned Johnson/Marine Corps)
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FORWARD OPERATING BASE SABIT QADAM, AFGHANISTAN — Within this small outpost to the west of Sangin village, simple placards dedicated to the units who fought here once lined a stone-walled courtyard. In the final days before Marines left Sabit Qadam for good, all but one of those unit monuments had disappeared, shipped back to parent units in advance of the Marines’ departure.
The last unit marker remaining at Sabit Qadam, the colorful emblem of Regimental Combat Team 7, returned to Camp Leatherneck in the care of Capt. Alistair Howard, commander of Charley Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. Howard, who plans to hand-deliver the placard to 7th Marine regimental headquarters aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, said it was appropriate that a unit from 7th Marines would return to Sangin to finish the work the regiment had begun in 2008.
That year, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, entered Sangin in what would become the first of many hard-fought and costly deployments for the regiment. The unit sustained more than a dozen casualties in Helmand and Farah provinces during that period, and one member, Lance Cpl. Richard Weinmaster, received the Navy Cross for heroism in Sangin.
The three battalions within 7th Marines would each rotate through Sangin multiple times in the years that followed. And Howard saw three of those deployments first hand, serving as an adviser with the 3/7 civil affairs team in 2010 and returning as a police adviser with 1/7 in 2012 before returning this spring to oversee the unit’s final exit from the region.
“It hasn’t been lost on me that I was one of the first to come in, and I’ll be the last to leave,” Howard said. “So, I really love that. I get to bookend Sangin.”
For all the region’s complexity and violence, Howard said he had been heartened to return to Sangin and see his unit’s work enduring. During his deployment with 3/7, the unit created a district operational command center for the Afghan National Security Forces; when he returned in advance of this last deployment, he found the center standing, and maps that he had fixed to the walls still in use. He greeted Sgt. Maj. Mohammed Hassan, sergeant major for the Afghan National Army’s 2nd Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, with a warm embrace.
For Howard, the Marines’ Sangin exit will mean leaving a place he has learned to call home.
“We were the owners — 3/5 was here, 1/5 was here, but we owned Sangin. That was a 7th Marines thing,” Howard said. “And I think the fact that I was with more than one battalion here, that’s pretty cool.”