15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), Marine Task Force-58, KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - -- Nearly 50 sets of headlights illuminated the cratered streets here as the heavily-armed, lightly-armored vehicles of Marine Task Force-58 rolled into the former Taliban stronghold securing the city?s airport on December 13, 2001.
Light Armored Vehicles and Combined Anti-Armored Teams from the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units (Special Operations Capable) launched from Marine Forward Operating Base Camp Rhino traveling over rugged, desert terrain for almost two weeks before reaching the city.
Scattered fires and the city's few streetlights revealed armed men and packs of dogs roaming the streets. Virtually ever man and even children toted deadly, assault weapons as the long convoy rumbled through the late hours of the evening.
"It was crazy seeing people standing around with AK-47s and RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenade-launchers)," said Lance Cpl. Randy S. Starks, 19, a Scout with 15th MEU (SOC) and Sacramento, Calif. native. "We were briefed that these were the good guys, but we were ready for anything. No one was going to relax that night."
The convoy maneuvered around bomb craters, over rubble from recently shelled buildings, and in between decimated vehicles. Evidence of the recent battles for the city were visible everywhere.
"It looked like Tijuana (Mexico) on a real bad night. The craters were big enough to swallow a LAV (Light Armored Vehicle), and there were a lot of burnt out cars in the street," Lance Cpl. Jason A. Haislar, an LAV driver with 15th MEU (SOC) and an Edwardsville, Ill. Native. "Obstacles like that create a high-risk because you never know who or what is waiting for you in a hole or around a car. I had to keep the LAV moving fast - speed is our best security in situations like that."
A distinct aroma of Afghani cooking drifted past the vigilant Marines who sat atop the vehicles carefully watching for any sign of trouble. Flashing neon signs lit their stern faces. A frigid wind nipped at any exposed skin swelling bare fingers wrapped around their M-16s.
"There were plenty of distractions to deal with, but everyone had their head in the game," said Sgt. Joseph D. Pruett, 24, a vehicle commander with the 15th MEU (SOC) and a Choctaw, Okla. native. "The training we've gone through helped a lot. We always approach exercises as if they were real. We made it through fine because of that. It was just like training expect the weapons were loaded this time."
Those Kandaharis who bothered to look up from the fires in their yards and along side the roads waved their guns in the most cordial way possible. Shouts of "welcome Americans" were heard from crowds gathering on corners.
Anti-Taliban forces manned intersections waving the Marines through. The American service members exchanged salutes with the militias that flushed out terrorist organizations just days earlier.
"They are the men who just kicked the Taliban out of Kandahar," Starks said. "It was motivating, but we still had to be alert in case some bad guys were trying to blend in."
The Marines entered the airport grounds at the outskirts of the war torn town. No time was wasted securing the abandoned International Airport. Vehicles and their scouts established a perimeter as the sky's first sunbeams raced down the lengthy runway.
Explosive ordnance disposal teams swept through the airport terminal, hangars and other surrounding buildings identifying and clearing missiles, rockets and other munitions.
An infantry company was inserted by CH-53E Super Stallions and immediately scoured the runway and its taxiways for countless pieces of shrapnel - some as minute as a pennies and others as large as station wagon bumpers.
Shattered glass littered the ground and the floors around and inside the airport terminal. Old luggage tags, passports and advertisements were strewn throughout the baggage check counters and lobbies. Calendars, photos and bulletin boards were still hung on walls in apparent office spaces.
Once cleared of explosive hazards, Marines began moving into the airport. Crews cleared large chunks of concrete, furniture and flowerpots obstructing covered sidewalks that wrapped around the terminal. Dangerous shards of glass were pulled from hundreds of broken windows - some more than three stories high.
Office spaces were converted into command posts and lobbies into berthing spaces. Tents began popping up around the complex, and the lone air control tower into an observation post for Marine scout snipers. The one road in and out of the area was barricaded and a controlled entry point was setup. A hangar was converted into a detainment center.
As Marine Task Force-58 continues to establish and improve the base, the facility becomes a prime resource for future operations.