Panetta Visits, Commends Georgian Troops in Afghanistan
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
COMBAT OUTPOST SHUKVANI, Afghanistan, Mar. 14, 2012 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited the Georgian 31st Battalion here today and read troops a letter from their former commander, who was wounded and is undergoing treatment in the United States.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addresses Georgian soldiers deployed to Forward Operating Base Shukvani, Afghanistan, March 14, 2012. DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“I wanted to come here and thank you for your sacrifices,” the secretary said.
Georgia has contributed troops to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force mission since 2004 and currently has more than 900 service members in Afghanistan, mostly in Regional Command Capital and Regional Command South.
In all, 15 Georgian troops have been killed in Afghanistan.
The battalion works with the U.S. Marines in Helmand province, and their combat outpost is located alongside Camp Leatherneck. Georgian Lt. Col. Alex Tugushi commanded the battalion, and led the unit in Afghanistan from its deployment in October until a roadside bomb wounded him in December.
Tugushi lost both legs, but is recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where President Barack Obama visited last week.
The secretary read a letter he said Tugushi had given him for the battalion. Dated March 12, the letter read, in part: “It has been an honor to serve with you. You are Georgian heroes. … The Armed Forces of Georgia, serving together with international forces in Afghanistan, are making a large contribution.
“It is a great honor to serve shoulder to shoulder with the United States in one of the most troubled regions of Afghanistan,” the letter continued.
“Unfortunately, I could not complete my service with you. But I am proud of all of you -- those who have fallen and those who continue to serve. You are all heroes who will go down in Georgian history.”
When the secretary finished reading the letter, he said it expressed his own feelings about the accomplishments of Georgian troops over the past eight years as part of the 50-nation coalition.
“You are an example of that international partnership, fighting for stability in Afghanistan,” Panetta said.
Noting the Georgian plan to add another 700 soldiers this year to the nearly 1,000 already deployed, Panetta said, “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your service to your country and to Afghanistan.”
Marine Corps Capt. David Blossom, an intelligence officer with the Georgia liaison team here, said the 31st Battalion moved from a training role to a partnered role with Marines about three weeks ago.
“They are responsible for a portion of battle space within our battalion battle space,” Blossom said.
The liaison team consists of nine Marines, specializing in intelligence, logistics, communications, medical care, operations, and command and control, he said.
The team is “embedded” with the Georgian battalion, and went through predeployment training in Georgia beginning last July. The team deployed with the battalion in October, and will redeploy with the Georgians when they finish their rotation in June, Blossom said.
The two biggest challenges the liaison team and the Georgians face in their day-to-day work together are the language barrier and continually improving their understanding and application of counterinsurgency principles, which is an ongoing process for all forces in Afghanistan, the captain said.
"Their military has made great strides forward in the past two decades, especially with the experience and training they've gained working alongside U.S. Marines in Afghanistan," he said. "And they continue to improve and adapt in a complex and challenging environment."
Blossom said he believes the liaison team model “definitely” offers the best approach to successful multinational military partnering. “They need us … not just teaching and explaining, but actually showing and working with them,” he said.