COMBAT OUTPOST EREDVI, Afghanistan - It’s the start of the rainy season, and Afghanistan’s fall chill blankets Helmand province.
The biting cold fell on Combat Outpost Eredvi with a two-day rainfall at the beginning of November, ending months of drought. The rapid weather shift was a mixed blessing for the combined Georgian and Marine team responsible for securing the small strategic nook north of Camp Leatherneck.
Fertile and aromatic, the fine soil gorged on the rainfall and grew firm with the cold. The chilly weather makes living conditions uncomfortable at the base, but it also improves the footing along patrol routes.
Elements of the Georgian Batumi Light Infantry Battalion and U.S. Marines with Georgia Liaison Team 10 conduct daily mounted and dismounted operations along these routes to maintain security around Eredvi and safeguard local roads.
The force is a cultural mixer. From the beginning, language and social differences challenged cohesion.
“It’s not only a language barrier,” said Georgian Maj. Misha Chkuaseli, the commanding officer of the Batumi Battalion. “It’s also a psychological barrier because working here with the Marines is working outside [our norm].”
The Georgian military is still heavily reliant on Soviet-style tactics and management styles. Balancing mission accomplishment with the day-to-day challenges of their own diversity is a matter of patience and trust.
“We built that trust,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Ferguson, an infantry mentor team chief with GLT-10.
Ferguson joined GLT-10 in January, when they paired with the Batumi Battalion for training in Georgia and Germany prior to deploying.
“We fostered the relationship in Georgia with them,” said Ferguson, a Los Gatos, Calif., native. “It was going out there and training with them: talking tactics, operations, and being friends. We demonstrated that an American Marine would run out into a field, pick up a Georgian soldier, throw him on his shoulders and carry him 200 meters back.”
LEARNING TO COMMUNICATE
The relationship is far from seamless as Marine advisors and Georgian soldiers don’t always see eye to eye. The back and forth is constant and mentally tiring, as the GLT-10 Marines will attest.
The Georgian battalion has English translators, but many of the Marines still learned the fundamentals of the Georgian language. From Eredvi’s motor pool and kitchen to the base’s combat operations center, a peculiar blend of Georgian, English and good old-fashion hand signals facilitate daily communication.
“Each individual Marine has to figure out a way to effectively communicate with their counterpart,” said U.S. Marine Maj. Jason Freeby, the officer in charge of GLT-10, who personally took to using Georgian words during his own operation briefs. “The counterpart is not always going to do what you want them to do or expect them to do. It’s about working through some of that friction and still accomplishing the overall mission.”
Whether it’s a frivolous debate over the digestive nature of the corn at the dining facility, or a discussion about upcoming patrols, communication is a matter of will and understanding. It happens every day, in every part of the base.
It breeds an atmosphere of compromise.
There’s a twinge of hilarity to everyday activities as professional soldiers use child-like pantomiming skills and simple English or Georgian to accomplish wartime activities, such as maneuvering through a field, planning patrol routes or repairing damaged vehicles.
In the maintenance yard, Georgian mechanics will call out for a “wrench,” while drawing out the desired tool number on the dirty sides of vehicles. In one of the administrative shops, a Marine finally gave in and used a Georgian interpreter to translate a simple message to his counterpart, “I’m tired,” before going to bed.
In the end, the give and take between the two forces provides life to an otherwise impossible development – a hybrid Georgian-Marine effort to offset Taliban operations in Helmand province.
“You never expect what you train to is what you’re going to have happen in the first firefight … It’s just not going to happen,” said Ferguson. “Actually getting out here and getting into contact with the Taliban … They’ve reacted extremely well.”
Both Ferguson and Freeby said the experience is equally valuable for the Marine Corps on a professional level. The skills honed with the Georgians have applications in other force-multiplier scenarios.
“Some of the things [Marines have] learned here will help in future advisor missions,” said Freeby. “It’s a capability the Marine Corps is very good at because we operate in small teams very well,”
MAKING AN IMPACT
Georgian personnel form the bulk of the force’s operational muscle. The battalion consists of more than 750 soldiers. The Marine GLT-10 shadow structure parallels the Georgian force.
The cadre of approximately 60 Marine advisors assists the battalion in a plethora of supply, communication and tactical procedures. They also help the battalion tap into coalition air assets, assisted by 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company’s joint terminal attack controllers.
The unique pairing generated noticeable success after less than two months of combat operations, noted Ferguson.
“We’ve been able to push the Taliban back in all directions,” said Ferguson, whose extensive infantry experience earned him the Georgian nickname “old man” from his counterparts. “We’ve given ourselves a good bubble and forced the enemy to be reactive instead of proactive. We’re pushing onto their territory and disrupting operations and what freedom of movement they had.”
Tasked with area security and assisting Afghan National Security Forces in Helmand province, the Batumi Battalion set to work improving COP Eredvi’s main gate and overall security posture in September and October.
They’ve also increased patrols to create a buffer around the base and vital transportation routes.
“In Particular, the battalion has increased security along Now Zad Road, which the Marines call Route Red,” noted Freeby, a Houston, Texas, native. Marine convoys and base personnel have noted a decrease in improvised explosive devices along the road, which connects Eredvi with various other installations.
The Marine-Georgian team met with noticeable success within the local community over the last two months as well.
Centralized urban centers are scarce in the Georgian area of operations, so teams of Georgian soldiers and Marine advisors venture out to interact with the population in scattered clusters of desert compounds.
“We are finding out what they are thinking about the local government, our security and [International Security Assistance Force] personnel,” said Georgian Senior Lt. Mamuka Surmava, a platoon commander with the battalion. “We are helping the Afghan government in the process.”
BUILDING LOCAL TRUST
Marines and Georgians move outside the protective barriers of the base nearly twice a day to keep up the pressure on the Taliban. Mounted and foot patrols can stretch on for five hours, longer when the enemy decides to put up a fight.
“We’re going out there and getting into contact, getting into firefights,” said Ferguson, after coming back from a patrol. “It definitely wears on your body. I’ve been doing this for 12 years. I can feel it in my knees and my lower back right now, but you don’t come to Afghanistan as an infantryman to complain about your knees.”
The security process is grueling but fruitful.
It’s become fairly common for local nationals to approach the base seeking medical assistance or to engage in shuras, an open dialogue with base leaders.
“[The population] is trying to cooperate with us,” said Surmava. “When they see us getting in touch with the local people, and they see we are supporting the Afghan National Army and security forces, they have some kind of hope. They see we are restricting the movement of the Taliban, and, if necessary, we are trying to eliminate the bad guys.”
Some residents even recognize individual Georgians from previous deployments and their extensive interaction with the community.
The battalion’s deployment marked the tenth rotation of Georgian units into Afghanistan, and nearly a third of the Batumi Battalion boasts prior service in the area.
The Georgians served several years with the U.S. Army in Iraq. By 2009, Georgia specifically requested to join the Marine Corps in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In the broader ISAF picture, the union of the two forces in an actual battle space is a real world test of their ability to work together.
Georgian leadership styles meld with years of Marine experience in Afghanistan. The knowledge on its own is beneficial to members of the Batumi Battalion as volunteer professional soldiers, noted Surmava.
“The Georgians came here to fight,” said Ferguson. “They cycle through the same predeployment training a Marine infantry battalion does.”
“All the little things we’ve been working on for so long, five months getting into their minds, getting them trained [for the mission],” continued Ferguson, “to see it come to light inside a combat zone has been very gratifying … They took our ideas and turned them into their own.”