News: Repetitive yet reliable, vehicle checkpoints protect Afghans and Marines
Story by Cpl. Reece Lodder
SAR BANADAR, Helmand province, Afghanistan — A short distance off a dusty Afghan road, two U.S. Marines brave the chill of an early winter morning as they await a flood of local traffic.
Lance Cpls. Jesus Oliver and Andrew Penwitt are unusually chipper for this early in the morning, with an increased level of alertness from a four-hour shift of standing watch in a guard post. A motorcycle exhaust mutters in the distance and interrupts their quiet chatter.
They’re in business. Oliver perches atop a mound of dirt and waves a red flag, signaling for the driver to stop. Simultaneously, Penwitt walks onto the road to greet the Afghan man with his best attempt at Pashto. His vocabulary is limited, but Penwitt pairs simple phrases with hand signals to ask the man to dismount his motorcycle for a search.
After countless hours of observing and searching, these Marines have become masters at conducting vehicle checkpoints. Their efforts are matched by the remainder of the 81mm mortar platoon from Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
During their seven-month deployment in Garmsir district, these VCPs are a regular part of the unit’s duty rotation, which also includes security patrols and standing post. Though they spend hours stopping vehicles and searching passersby, their presence isn’t a mere formality.
The Marines are constantly on alert for anything out of the ordinary, especially information that can be used to locate and disrupt insurgent activity.
“When we’re searching, we don’t necessarily have to find an IED,” said Oliver, a 20-year-old Sacramento native. “It can be photos, intelligence or a high value individual.”
These types of finds are the fruits of otherwise monotonous labor, a recurring cycle that tests each Marine assigned to VCP duty.
“Sometimes it’s hard not to get lost in the repetition,” Oliver said. “We see a lot of the same people. We don’t always feel like searching them again, but we’d rather be safe than sorry.”
This repetition is a battle for each Marine, but it’s a welcome change to the grind of standing post, said Penwitt, a 22-year-old native of Manhattan, Ill.
“At a VCP, we’re outside the wire and interacting with the local people,” Penwitt said. “This helps get our face into the community and shows them we’re trying to catch the bad guys.”
Despite the Marines’ best intentions, some local travelers feel the weight of frequent VCPs.
“Most people are friendly but some get a bit annoyed,” Oliver said. “We’re stopping them in the middle of their day when they’re busy, so they’re probably going to get kind of irritated. But they’ve had Marines here a long time… They know we’re working to make it safer here.”
The mortarmen’s task of manning these checkpoints is often tedious. But when the cost is measured against the results these checkpoints yield, each repetitive moment is worth it, Oliver said.
“There’s a big difference between taking the post seriously and gaffing it off,” Oliver said. “It’s finding something that could be sitting in the road three hours later and taking out some of our boys.”
Editor’s note: Third Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling the ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.