Patriot Profiles: ‘We were seriously alone and unafraid up there’
This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.By Jeanne McKinney
Before sun up on Patrol Base Dehana, Afghanistan, a 22-year- old Marine Corps Infantry officer was busy planning and gathering manpower for his platoon’s mission. Before 6 a. m., Lt. M.G. Spiese faced administrative, training, operations, logistical, and maintenance needs and had to fight with competing interests of fellow Marines. He executed his plan day and night, leading 40 Marines to eliminate Taliban controlling the lives of farmers, tradesmen, and others in six villages throughout a 40 -sq.-kilometer area.
The former lieutenant, now Capt. Spiese, deployed to Afghanistan from February-October 2011, after a challenging pre-deployment workup. He was able to, “learn about all my guys — their strengths, their weaknesses,” Spiese said. They conducted live-fire and non-live-fire training, as well as tactical decision games. They held discussion groups on counter-insurgency to understand what kind of mindset was needed to approach the mission. About trusting his Marines and them trusting him, he adds, “It’s not a science at all.”
“You don’t walk into [a unit] and say ‘Hey, I’m in charge.’ Everyone knows that. It’s through experiences — more than anything on the tougher days when mistakes are made on either part where you start covering those gaps — that’s when trust is built.” He puts emphasis on leadership control and allowing subordinates to do their job properly. “That is the basis of how trust was made until we actually deployed.”
“You can’t be everywhere at the same time in counter-insurgency operations,” says Spiese. This was never more clear than in Now Zad, in the northern most district of Helmand Province.
“The reason we were spread so thin, was our 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines was covering two districts [concurrently], Spiese said. “Traditionally, battalions would have one district to themselves. [It was] decided that this is where we could have a smaller footprint and our company was the one designed to be out on the fray.
“We were seriously alone and unafraid up there. We didn’t have embedded training teams the other guys did.”
It was Spiese and his men, the local police and the Afghan National Army (ANA). “We were all living in one location, so we were very centralized. We needed to protect a major route that ran through our district that connected Now Zad to Musa Kala for trading, security, and a host of other reasons,” Spiese said.
He arrived in-country short of boots on deck, resources, and with no pre-set campaign strategy. Having a blank canvas as a platoon commander was both an opportunity and a challenge.
“The mindset was to disrupt enemy operations and then develop the local population as much as possible and governance that we could,” Spiese said.
According to Spiese, being a new 2nd Lieutenant with a political science degree didn’t set him up for success to work with a bunch of tribal leaders that didn’t have a lot of connection with their district government.
With limited assets and miles of ground to cover, Spiese had to get creative. “I had ‘Joe rifleman’ gathering a lot of Intel, analyzing what we had and developing a lot of products for me to set the tone for what we were going to do,” Spiese said. “We decided to push out and disrupt enemy operations. With the six villages, the Taliban had a bunch of safe and secure routes they’d use to intimidate people, collect taxes, as well as impose their will. That was not acceptable to me.
“Our first couple of months were extremely kinetic before things started tapering down. We had firefights that would range anywhere from a couple minutes to 12 hours, come back, stay on post, get a little rest, and do all things we had to do to keep ourselves safe on the patrol base.
“We would set up ambushes in the foothills as well as the mountains in different areas. We would fight the enemy pretty far away from the road and from other villages, so they didn’t feel comfortable when they could maneuver. It worked brilliantly for a good while. They were so set in their ways for how things were working…They kept using the same routes and we were able to continue to ambush them and ambush them. We were able to move freely between villages.”
“People were coming out of their homes more, because they felt comfortable with the situation. We saw the Bazaar come to life.”
With the Taliban eliminated, “they were able to go get their goods from Kandahar to come back and sell.”
Success gave Spiese some leverage with the villagers to start working with their government at the district center to accomplish more things. “That was a difficult problem,” remembers Spiese, due to having to force the District Governor to participate in government meetings, so Spiese could deliver on projects they were doing for them, such as schools, clean-ups, and building wells.
“I rode in there thinking I was a knight in shining armor on a white horse — that these guys are going to be OK.”
Spiese says a “callousness” develops seeing the way the Afghans dealt with sacrifices the Marines and their own people were making. He saw a mother, father, and three kids who had somehow piled up on a motorcycle get blown up by an IED on a road deemed safe.
“My intent was we use the same roads the [Afghan] people did because they’re going to tell the Taliban don’t use that.” He relates he’s only lost his cool three times in his career, “I couldn’t believe it. We were the ones fighting for them — they weren’t pushing the Taliban out.
“My responsibilities were to train the police that trained the army and get them to do their jobs, which was not easy. It was developing them to be able to handle it on their own.”
Spiese had to be careful with the police. “There’s no doubt in my mind some guys were working with the Taliban to some degree.
“One of the greater parts of that deployment was seeing guys you wouldn’t think would be able to expand their capabilities, but when it was time to work, they did work,” praises Spiese. He credits four of his squad leaders as “awesome.”
“I could position them 5 miles down the road and not think twice about the decisions they were making. You have to emotionally invest yourself in your Marines. If you’re not doing it, things aren’t getting accomplished — trust isn’t built.”
Born in Chicago, Ill., Capt M. G. Spiese is named after his father, Melvin, a retired Marine Corps Major General.
“Conventional wisdom would have thought my ‘old man’ was the one that led me to it, but he was surprised the day I actually decided I wanted to [join].”
M.G. Spiese was working a summer job on base at Manpower Reserve Affairs, with access to computer casualty trackers. When the first female officer was killed in Iraq, he thought about his sister, an officer deployed there.
“We had no contact with her for a couple days.”
He relates he felt angry — helpless to do anything. From there, “It was the simplest of decisions.” Spiese credits his dad. “He let me be my own man, make my mistakes and learn from that.”
Spiese empathizes with Marines on the officer side of the house who signed up and went through the processing system a couple of years ago, thinking they would get their chance to go to war. ”Now they’ve lost their opportunity and they don’t feel whole. They absolutely don’t.
“It’s not like you show up and fight for a few months and the war is over,” Spiese said. He sees no crowds “throwing flowers at you while you’re walking down the street.”
In a reality far removed from America’s shores, “What drove me every day was being able to show the Marines what they were doing really mattered – they were making gains. It’s so hard to see in a counter-insurgency environment.”