SAN DIEGO — A Southern California Marine Corps unit trained in special operations led the first wave of a ground campaign designed to root out Osama bin Laden and his terror network in Afghanistan.
Members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton were the first of about 500 Marines to land in southern Afghanistan Sunday night near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. They seized an airstrip and encountered no resistance.
Lt. Col. Christopher Bourne led the Camp Pendleton Marines in the deployment, dubbed Operation Swift Freedom.
“They started this fight and you are going to finish it,” Bourne, 41, told his troops before boarding a helicopter aboard the San Diego-based USS Peleliu, the lead ship of the attack force.
The arrival of the Marines marked a new level of engagement in the campaign, which had been dominated by bombing runs against Taliban and Al Qaida targets and special operations troops on the ground.
President Bush said the Marines would assist in hunting down terrorists linked to the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States. But Bush cautioned Monday that as the war enters a new phase, “America must be prepared for loss of life.”
The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, about 40 miles north of San Diego, is trained to handle a variety of missions, including mountain warfare, special operations, peacekeeping and counterterrorism.
The unit’s motto is “anytime, anyplace.”
“As far as our thoughts here at Camp Pendleton, Marines always train at a high state of readiness. It’s our job to always be ready,” said Lt. Mamie Ward, 26, of Crystal City, Mo., a spokeswoman for the base.
Members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a similar unit based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., were also sent in to Afghanistan.
About 1,000 Marines were expected to take part in establishing the initial ground base at the Kandahar airfield.
The 15th MEU is comprised of 2,200 Marines and sailors, anchored by a battalion of 1,150 Marine infantry troops. The infantry is supported by groups of attack and transport helicopters with an aviation squadron from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, nicknamed “Evil Eyes.”
Last month, the unit took part in the recovery of a downed Army Black Hawk helicopter along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, according to an account provided by the Marines.
The Marines came under fire during a refueling stop at an air base in Pakistan. They were in the back of a helicopter eating when they heard “a whistling and cracking sound,” Sgt. Anthony D. Ritacco, crew chief of a transport helicopter, said in the account.
The Marines returned fire out the windows of the helicopter with M-16s and a .50-caliber machine gun. No Marines were injured in the fighting.
“All the training the Marine Corps has provided us paid off at that moment,” Ritacco recalled. “There was no time to get scared. Things just kicked in automatically. We did what we’ve been taught.”
They were forced to leave without the Black Hawk, but the unit returned later with a security force and completed the recovery mission.
This month, Marines with the 15th MEU flew Harrier attack jets from the 820-foot flight deck of the USS Peleliu and dropped 500-pound bombs on Taliban and Al Qaida targets over Afghanistan, according to the Marines.
The expeditionary unit left Camp Pendleton in August for a routine six-month deployment to the Western Pacific, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Since Sept. 28, the Marines have been waiting in the Arabian Sea south of Pakistan on the USS Peleliu and its support ships.
They are scheduled to return to San Diego in February.