SOLDIER STORIES: Passing the torch.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Roger Merritt, a 26-year-old squad leader with the 81mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and native of Horn Lake, Miss., stands with Afghan National Army Sgt. Shabaz while clearing houses of insurgent activity. Drawing on nine years of experience and three previous combat deployments to Iraq, Merritt is focused on teaching ANA sergeants how to fulfill their duties and leadership responsibilities.
(Photo and article by Corporal Reece Lodder, 6 FEB 2012.)
This is the third installment in a series featuring members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and the Marines and sailors serving with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during their 2011-2012 deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Many are infantrymen, others are combat support, but each is the face of a historic transition in the making. They are the unique ingredients in a melting pot of servicemembers devoted to preparing the ANSF to assume lead security responsibility in Garmsir district.
BANADAR, Helmand province, Afghanistan — A jagged line of boot prints ends at the edge of a dusty field tended by Afghan farmers, signaling the Marines have halted their patrol.
Armed with his interpreter and a warm smile, Sgt. Roger Merritt amiably greets the men. They casually discuss farming and local education, alternating between Pashto and Merritt’s smooth southern drawl. His men spread around him, take a knee and provide security as their squad leader converses with the farmers.
On the furthest edge, Lance Cpl. Garrett Reed embeds himself in the dirt and grips his machine gun. He slowly scans the outlying fields, his eyes concealed behind a dark pair of ballistic sunglasses.
The two Marines are far apart in rank, billet and experience, but on their first — and likely last — combat deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, they’re part of a historic transition in Garmsir district.
During their seven months spent here, Merritt and Reed, mortarmen with the 81 mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, are working to quell insurgent activity and mentor members of the Afghan National Army. These men are among the growing Afghan forces that will soon take the lead in securing Garmsir on their own.
The stern, battle-hardened Merritt exercises leadership over a squad of 12 Marines. He’s labored through three combat deployments to Iraq, maturing through heavy combat and furthering his skills mentoring the Iraqi Army.
Between his deployments, the 26-year-old from Horn Lake, Miss., devoted three years to training new Marines as mortarmen at the School of Infantry—East aboard Camp Geiger, N.C. He’s grown as a leader over nine years of training and combat, and now uses his experience to teach his men.
“As their leader, I need to be disciplined and strict with them,” Merritt said. “But I also have to mentor them to think on their own and take initiative … to help them mature and become leaders. In some time, they’re going to find themselves in a position of responsibility. For now, it’s up to me to see they grow up to be good ones.”
Though he is still a junior Marine and doesn’t yet hold a leadership billet, Reed also fills an important position within his squad. On patrol, he serves as the squad automatic weapon gunner. When the situation requires it — such as a detainment or weapons cache find — he performs a tactical site exploitation to collect information and document the scene.
“Despite the little leadership responsibility I have in our squad, I’m ready at any time for what Sgt. Merritt needs to get done,” said the 22-year-old Reed, a native of Plano, Texas. “I always need to be prepared to take on more than has been assigned to me.”
As Reed progresses in his service and experience, he’ll step into a billet where he has Marines under his charge. He’s led his peers in high school and college sports, but acknowledged leading Marines in combat was very different.
“A leader’s decision can be the difference between bringing his men home or not,” he said.
During his time spent under Merritt’s charge in both garrison and combat, Reed is developing his own style by drawing on his squad leader’s experience and example.
“Even though this is his fourth deployment and he’s very senior to us, he’s not afraid to ask our opinions on things,” Reed said. “He always tells us, ‘Your Marines don’t work for you; you work for them.’ He goes out of his way to take care of us, whether this in the battle zone or back at home.”
The two Marines’ responsibilities differ greatly in their squad, but they share the task of mentoring their Afghan counterparts. At their small position, Patrol Base 00, they live and operate with ANA soldiers.
“Marines like Sgt. Merritt and Lance Cpl. Reed are teaching and mentoring the Afghan forces, not just telling them what they need to do and stepping back … they want the Afghan National Security Forces to be successful,” said Sgt. Maj. Andrew Cece, their battalion’s senior enlisted leader. “They’re giving everything they’ve got to provide the Afghan forces with the tools to be a strong military force once the Marines are gone.”
While Merritt is called to be a mentor and example to his Marines, he carries his leadership across the fence to mentor his Afghan counterparts. He uses the knowledge he’s gained training the Iraqi Army to prepare ANA sergeants to fulfill their duties and leadership responsibilities.
On the infantry side, he leads them through immediate action drills, escalation of force procedures, combat hunter training and mortar classes. From an administrative perspective, he mentors on properly creating watch rosters and tracking logistics statistics.
Though he deals with a wide array of ANA soldiers, Merritt focuses on teaching the ANA sergeants to understand their role as a professional leader.
“My challenge is teaching them how to lead in the absence of their superiors,” Merritt said. “Their soldiers won’t do anything wrong if the commander is around, but they should feel the same way when a sergeant is there … and the sergeant should hold them to that standard.”
When partnering on security patrols and operations, Reed uses his knowledge to mentor ANA soldiers on patrolling techniques and the conduct of vehicle checkpoints.
“When I’m working with them on my level, they can see there are important tasks I have to manage,” Reed said. “Even though I don’t have a leadership billet, there are still essential roles I need to fill to help keep our squad safe.”
In the relatively quiet Garmsir district, Reed’s day-to-day activities are much different than what he had expected on his first deployment. The partnered efforts of ANSF and coalition forces have rooted out insurgent activity, rendering firefights and improvised explosive device attacks both infrequent and unsuccessful.
Regardless, Reed said he is proud to serve in Garmsir and aid in transferring the district’s security responsibility back to Afghan forces. Shaped by further experience and a similar perspective, his senior leader agrees.
“Our mission isn’t going out and getting into firefights every day; it’s helping the Afghan forces and their people to stand up on their own,” Merritt said.
Though on different levels of leadership, Merritt and Reed are making their unique mark on a growing force of Afghan soldiers. They have passed the halfway point of their deployment but their work is not yet complete.
“The most important thing leaders like Merritt and Reed can leave with the Afghan forces are the leadership traits and principles Marines live by every day,” Cece said. “If the Afghan forces can grasp this focus, all the other attributes of a strong military force will prevail.”