Gates visits hard-hit Marine battalion

SANGIN, Afghanistan — The Marine battalion fighting out of this southern Afghanistan district has suffered more losses than any other in the history of the decade-long Afghan war.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Sangin on Tuesday to see what gains had come from the deaths of 29 Marines here over the past five months.

"Every day I monitor how you are doing," he told the Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment in Sangin. "And every day you return to your (base) without a loss, I say a little prayer. I say a prayer on the other days as well."

The Pentagon chief was accompanied on the trip by Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly, the father of 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, 29, who was killed in Sangin in November while leading a platoon of Marines. The general met briefly and privately with Marines from his son's platoon, who presented him with a picture of Robert, taken a few hours before he was killed and signed by all of the Marines in his unit. Kelly was recently nominated to be Gates' senior military assistant.

The message Gates received from the Marines in Sangin, who since arriving in October have encountered nearly 1,000 bombs buried in roads and trails, was largely positive. The battalion has about 1,500 Marines, slightly more than usual.

Although Sangin remains one of Afghanistan's most violent districts, attacks in the area have decreased sharply as Marines have fanned out into the lush green farmland that borders the river that runs through the district. Almost 90 percent of the unit's deaths took place during the Marines' first three months here, Gates said.

The narrative Gates encountered in Sangin of heavy violence last summer and fall followed by a steeper-than-expected drop in attacks during the winter largely matched the story he heard throughout the country during his two days of travel.

"The closer you get to this fight, the better it looks," he said at his last stop, in Kandahar province's Arghandab Valley.