LT. COL. JASON MORRIS: Okay. Good morning, 3/5 [3rdBattalion, 5th Marine Regiment]. Oo-rah!
SERVICE MEMBERS: Oo-rah!
LT. COL. MORRIS: Just very briefly, it's my honor to introduce the 22nd secretary of defense and former president of Texas A&M University to you here. He's come specifically to Sangin to talk to you guys and to tell you what a great job you're doing.
So with no -- without further ado, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. GATES: Thanks, Colonel.
Well, it's an honor to be here in Dark Horse country and to see for myself the dramatic turnaround that you all have brought about here in Sangin.
I'm mainly here not to give a speech -- I'm sure you'll appreciate that -- but really just to thank you for your service, for what you've done; and then to get an individual photograph with each of you and hand out a bunch of coins.
Before you arrived here, the Taliban were dug in deep. And as the British before you can attest, this district was one of the most dangerous not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world.
In the five months since you've arrived here, you've killed, captured or driven away most of the Taliban that called this place home. And in doing so, you've linked northern Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces, a major strategic breakthrough.
Your success, obviously, has come at an extraordinary price. Our nation owes you an incredible debt for the sacrifices you have made. Since October, 3/5 has suffered the heaviest losses of any battalion in this 10-year-long war.
Every day, I monitor how you're doing. And every day you return to your FOB [forward operating base] without a loss, I say a little prayer, and I say a prayer on the other days as well.
Alongside your Afghan brothers, you've written a new chapter in the Marine Corps roll of honor with your sweat and with your blood. Against the toughest odds and the most difficult terrain, alongside the legends of Guadalcanal, the Chosin River -- Reservoir and Belleau Wood will forever be added in Marine Corps history the legend of Sangin.
So I would like to just end on a personal note. I'm the one that signed the orders that sent you all here. I visit your wounded brothers at Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center]. I write the condolence letters to the families of your fallen. And so I feel a tremendous personal sense of responsibility for each and every one of you. And I will, for as long as I'm secretary of defense.
I feel your hardship and your sacrifice and those of your families' more than you can possibly imagine. But I also relish your victories, take pride in your achievements and take satisfaction as you strike fear into the hearts of the Taliban.
Ever since I took this job, going on four and a half years ago, I've considered it my responsibility get our troops -- give our troops everything they need to be successful in their mission and to come home safely.
So we're going to have a little Q&A here. And if there's anything you need at all, anything I can do to help you, don't hesitate to ask. So, again, thank you, God bless each one of you and your families. Semper Fidelis. Now let's go get some.
COL.: I punted that one. I was supposed to ask you if you had questions. So bring it in. This is your first and probably last time to go right to the top. So if you've got a question that's eating you up, you need to ask it here and now.
SEC. GATES: So just to give you some examples of some of the questions I've gotten at FOBs and comments, I was at one where -- in (inaudible) where all their dryers were working, but four of their five washing machines were out. Got that fixed.
And another one where their wireless had been down for a few weeks and they were still being charged for it.
Got another one where the crotches of ACUs weren't working very well, tearing out. I think we're working on that.
So, I get a full range. And so anything you need, any editorial comments you want to make, anything you think we ought to be doing better, now's the chance. Everybody's got a full pardon. Even with that assurance, anybody?
LT. COL. MORRIS: Raise your hand. Speak up. (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: Here.
Q: Sergeant (inaudible), sir, of -- (inaudible) -- Company -- (inaudible). My question is that a lot of the -- (inaudible) -- were wondering -- (inaudible) -- and RC Southwest -- (inaudible) -- Marines Corps -- (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: Sounds like a good question to me. I'll go find out the answer and get back to you.
Q: (Off mic.)
SEC. GATES: Doesn't seem very fair to me.
Now let me get this straight: 24/7 you guys walk around here telling each other how wonderful everything is? (Laughter.) Nothing's wrong. Not missing anything. Now that's discipline.
LT. COL. MORRIS: Sir, if I can throw one in, ask some of the Marines -- talk about the -- some balloons and ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], what do those do for you? There's (inaudible) my company commanders and my battalion staff -- (inaudible). (Laughter.) (inaudible) -- where are you? GMC? They were at Camp Johnson.
Q: Sir, the ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] Force -- (inaudible) -- my forward operating base, it's really been a game changer for me. I can watch the Marines. I can watch the locals. It helps me develop a pattern -- (inaudible) -- make better targets. And instead of always relying on local national tips, it allows me to kind of go directly to wherever we're seeing people, put IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the ground and -- .
SEC. GATES: Well, we've gone from about a dozen of those aerostats five or six months ago to -- I think we're pretty close to having 60 or 65 around the country. I want to put a bunch more in. I'm just waiting on the Congress to reprogram the money so I can do it.
Q: (Off mic) -- thank you.
SEC. GATES: Anybody?
We are continuing to push as much more ISR out here as we possibly can and not just the aerostats but fixed installations around the FOBs that provide better FOB protection, that can give you 24/7 visibility. There are a lot of other things -- airplanes and so on -- that we're putting in place. And we'll just keep pumping it out here as fast as we can get the manufacturers to deliver it.
I'll let you guys get in out of the sun. Thanks again for your service. And my final message that I have is just to elaborate on something I said earlier. You couldn't be here if it weren't for the support of your families back home. So I hope that the next time you're in contact with them that you will tell them how much I personally thank them for their contributions they make to the contribution you make. You couldn't do this without them, and we couldn't do this without you, and we recognize their importance. And we're doing everything we can to take as good a care of them as possible.
So thank you all very much.