During a recent visit to the West Coast, the Marines’ top general spoke publicly, praising the preparation and success of the Camp Pendleton-based Marines’ mission at the Kabul airport while highlighting the leadership that had them ready for the task.
In a change of command ceremony held on Friday, Sept. 24, at Camp Pendleton, Gen. David Berger, the Marines’ commandant, credited Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl for achieving a “monumental task” during his one-year leadership of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton’s largest tenant and the Marines’ premier crisis response force of about 51,000 Marines and sailors. It is also the Marines’ most prominent and oldest fighting force.
“You had to maintain and you had to push the entire (Marine Expeditionary Force) at a speed almost uncomfortable and at the same time had to send units around the world, the last being the force that was in Kabul; you had to make sure the Marines are prepared,” Berger said, kicking off the ceremony where Heckl handed off leadership of the fighting force to Lt. Gen. George W. Smith, Jr., who most recently served at the Pentagon as deputy commandant of plans, policies and operations.
The generals exchanged the colors (battle flags) on a field at the base in a ceremony steeped in traditions that symbolized the handing off and the receiving of legal authority, responsibility and accountability for the force.
The Marines who were sent to provide security for the evacuation efforts at the Kabul airport are “a good example” of what Heckl accomplished in making sure the troops were ready for whatever crisis they might face on deployment, Berger said. “They were not sent there to do that and they were given a really hard mission. Led by a fantastic general officer, they knocked it out of the park.”
Some of the Marines sent to secure the airport were part of a unit attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and already deployed to the Middle East as crisis responders serving under the U.S. Central Command. On Aug. 26, 13 service members were killed in a bombing attack of the airport, of whom nine came from Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
“Pictures of Marines pulling people across a canal and over barbed wire happened because the mission is to protect the Marines on their left and right and get one more family, one more American out,” Berger said of the chaos that erupted as crowds amassed trying to get into the airport and onto planes in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “They were told to close that operation down. But, they didn’t because we can save one more.”
Berger credited Heckl with providing the training and the leadership across the ranks that made that mission successful even though he was not there.
“We have to train those forces that when they’re there, they will do the right thing,” Berger said. “And they did the right thing; they did more than the right thing.”
“I’m pretty grateful at your quiet, steady leadership; the nation couldn’t have asked for more, I couldn’t have asked for more,” Berger told Heckl in his comments at the ceremony.
Heckl, a naval aviator who saw combat in Iraq in 2008, will move to the East Coast for a new job at the Pentagon he has been nominated for as the deputy commandant for combat development and integration.
Heckl told those who gathered that leading the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was an “honor and pride of a lifetime,” and he spoke to two defining moments that bookended his command.
On July 30, 2020, eight Marines and a sailor died when an amphibious assault vehicle sank off San Clemente Island during pre-deployment training with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“That was a heartbreaking, devastating loss and I took command the next day,” Heckl said, describing how just days later he attended a ceremony for the nine men after they were recovered from the AAV 400 feet below sea level.
Despite the painful loss, he said the Marines under his command were not “deterred or distracted from their mission.”
“Fast-forward to a little over a month ago; we lost 13 service members in Afghanistan,” he said, talking about how those who survived the attack remained focused on their work.
“They were grieving. They’ll be grieving for a lifetime. But, were they distracted from their mission? Not a chance,” he said. “They were doing their job and they were proud of what they did and should be. Those two events captured the essential spirit of what it means to be the (1st Marine Expeditionary Force).”
During Heckl’s tenure, his Marines were tasked with implementing Berger’s vision for a more robust and agile Marines Corps that is also more skilled in providing humanitarian and disaster aid around the globe. Heckl’s Marines broke barriers through their their partnership with the Navy’s 3rd Fleet going back to the Marine Corps’ amphibious roots, emphasizing making the force more competitive against the United States’ future adversaries.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force deployed throughout the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, supporting alliances with partner nations. And, it tackled domestic issues this year by providing natural disaster assistance to local, civil and federal authorities fighting wildland forest fires and dispensing COVID-19 vaccines.
“I will never forget it,” Heckl said of his command. “It will shape me and change me for the remainder of my days.”
Smith, who first served at Camp Pendleton as a second lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment more than three decades ago, said he was up for his new leadership challenge.
“I know what this (Marine Expeditionary Force) means to our Corps; I know what this (Marine Expeditionary Force) means to our nation,” he said, “and I know I will be worthy of that trust and confidence each and every day.”