KABUL, Afghanistan -- "As soon as we raise the [U.S.] flag, this will become the most valuable piece of property here," said Capt. J.P. McDonough. "We're on U.S. sovereign territory and we'll protect it as such."
McDonough led the Marines of Kilo Battery (reinforced), Battalion Landing Team 3/6 to the embassy compound after they were dispatched from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). The 26th MEU (SOC), home-based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., is currently deployed to Southern Afghanistan in support of Operation Swift Freedom.
Kilo Battery was sent to provide security for a Department of State assessment team and to aid in the safe re-establishment of the American Embassy here.
The embassy was evacuated in January 1989, one month prior to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
McDonough prepared his Marines to expect possible resistance or retaliatory action. Intelligence sources reported that some Taliban supporters remained in Kabul, however, no resistance was encountered upon entering the embassy.
The Marines flew into a nearby abandoned airfield via a U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft and entered the city via colorful, old Mercedes-Benz buses with the curtains drawn for security. They arrived at the embassy compound at approximately seven-thirty a.m. and rapidly set up a defensive perimeter around the 34-year-old concrete, brick and marble building.
"This is not what I expected," said Sgt. Grady L. Richardson of Logan, W. Va. "I figured that it would be more hostile."
"Aside from a few media [representatives], there wasn't much of a welcoming party," said McDonough of St. Louis. "Either the locals don't care or they're just happy to see us."
A larger crowd of Afghans gathered as the day went on. Many smiled, cheered and thanked the Marines in broken English for coming.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians Master Gunnery Sgt. John E. Kelly of Portage, Penn., and Staff Sgt. Eric T. Cline of Ashland, Ohio, were the first Marines to enter the building and carefully led snipers Sgt. John R. Crandall of Syracuse, N.Y., Sgt. Shane Schmidt from Wausau, Wis., Cleveland's Cpl. Bradley C. Peterson and Cpl. Dustin M. Lee of Reno, Nev., to rooftop positions. Pittsburgh's 1st Lt. Erick V. Orient and Staff Sgt. John C. Eatmon of Bailey, N.C., hastily established an interior guard, and the Marines began to man their posts.
The embassy building itself sustained damage at the hands of Taliban supporters in September of this year. Impact scars from bullets, shattered windows and doors showing signs of being noticeably forced open revealed evidence of their wrath.
"There are rounds [bullets] lodged in the walls everywhere," said Cline.
Inside, there was evidence of looting and more superficial damage to the office and the Marine guard living spaces.
Aside from a blanket of 12 years of black dust, the embassy stands much like a time capsule. A State Department flag was left standing in the ambassador's office. Official papers and correspondence lie scattered on his desktop, apparently abandoned in haste. Calendars lie open telling of appointments never kept. Many magazines, including a Newsweek dated Jan. 9, 1989 with former president Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy on the cover, were also left behind.
Downstairs, in the areas where Marine guards once frequented while off-duty, cabinets remain filled with foodstuffs in the kitchen, the pool table sits idle in the recreation room, and books and 12" music records lie tossed about the lounge. Behind the bar, a brass sign still displays beer and drink prices.
In their personal living quarters, wall lockers stand empty. Several Marine Corps posters, paintings and tins of boot polish are all that remain of their service here.
"We are here to do what Marines do...provide security," said McDonough. "I think that now it's important to remain vigilant and not become complacent."
Under the watchful eyes of the Kilo Battery Marines here, local laborers were allowed to begin the task of cleaning the offices and removing debris.
State Department engineers were on site to assess the structural integrity of the building and determine whether it could be used as an embassy in the near future.
"The building is in great shape," said a department employee. "There are some security upgrades that need to be made. Depending on funding, the building could be ready for use in a year or so."
In order to ensure the safety of the leathernecks, Kelly and Cline systematically inspected all rooms, hallways, ventilation shafts and sewer systems for ordnance or improvised explosive devices as they went from rooftop to basement.
They worked with State Department personnel to open cipher locks, safes and other secured areas with advanced breaching techniques.
"We even x-rayed locked drawers to make sure that there weren't any explosive ordnance in them," said Kelly.
"We checked every electrical switch and outlet also," said Cline.
"It was a very slow process, but it had to be done," Kelly said as he further explained that the sweep was hampered due to interior structural damage from a bomb blast that occurred nearby years ago.
Cline lifted manhole covers and lowered himself into several underground utility shafts to inspect for possible hazardous devices and looked for entryways onto the compound grounds.
The Marines of Kilo Battery have made themselves at home in the embassy and are resolved to stay focused on the mission. "We'll be here until we are relieved," said McDonough.