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There were once some 20,000 U.S. Marines battling the Taliban in southwest Afghanistan. Now there are none. The last Marine battalion in Helmand Province packed up and left over the last couple of days. Now they are at Kandahar Airfield on their way home. NPR's Sean Carberry followed the Marines in their final 24 hours in Helmand.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The desert sun beats down on the U.S., British and Afghan troops gathered at Camp Leatherneck. The Marines and the remaining British combat troops here are handing over Leatherneck and neighboring Camp Bastion to the Afghan army.
DANIEL YOO: Please stand for the lowering of the NATO, United Kingdom and United States flags.
CARBERRY: And with this ends a mission that began in 2009. At the time, British forces were in charge of Helmand province, but they weren't able to oust the Taliban, so the U.S. sent in the Marines. While the Taliban haven't been defeated in Helmand, the fight has now been handed over to the Afghans.
YOO: This transfer is a sign of progress.
CARBERRY: Brigadier General Daniel Yoo is closing out the Marine mission. It's a personal bookend for him as he was part of the Marine force that stormed southern Afghanistan in 2001. In between, more than 350 Marines died in this province.
YOO: And they'll always be in our thoughts and our hearts.
CARBERRY: After the ceremony, some of the Marines head straight to the airfield. Some go to finish packing, and others man the guard towers for their last watch.
Lance Corporal Javonte James is with the third platoon of Alpha Company of the 1-2 Marines out of Camp Lejeune. He says it's a great honor to be part of the last Marine unit in Helmand.
JAVONTE JAMES: We're worn-out. But at the same time, the war is over with. It's time to go home.
CARBERRY: He says he has complete faith in the Afghan army, though the Taliban have inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces this year. In fact, Afghan fatalities in the Helmand this year are approaching the total number of NATO service members killed in the province since 2001. Things are pretty quiet for third platoon until about 1:30 a.m. Suddenly, a number of the marines start folding up their cots and packing their makeshift camp.
ANTHONY NACCARATO: So right now we're just pretty much breaking down our platoon position.
CARBERRY: Lieutenant Anthony Naccarato is commander of the third platoon.
NACCARATO: We've had rehearsals over the past few weeks working out all of the kinks. I'm pretty confident we got it.
CARBERRY: Just after dawn, a convoy pulls out of the adjoining Afghan base. They follow Alpha Company along the base perimeter. At each tower, two Afghans get out and replace the Marines.
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Hey, good luck, man. Good luck.
CARBERRY: They quickly shake hands and the Marines head to the flight line.
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Yes, let's do it.
CARBERRY: Over the next few hours, Marines cram into helicopters and C-130 cargo planes.
There are no seats. The troops sit on their backpacks in the cargo bay for the flight to Kandahar. As they take off, they leave behind a number of questions, such as what is the future for the Marines with this combat mission over? Alpha Company Commander Joseph Wiese shared some thoughts on that while visiting his Marines on tower duty last night. He served in Iraq in 2009 and was part of the Marine transition from that war to Afghanistan. Wiese says this transition doesn't necessarily mean the Marines can stand down.
JOSEPH WIESE: What the heck's going on in Syria? What's going on in the rest of the world? So before we were posturing ourselves to go to Afghanistan. Now, you know, the world's not any safer, so job security looks good.
CARBERRY: And the questions for the Afghans - whether their army can defend and maintain the bases handed over and whether they'll be able to handle the Taliban on their own next year. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kandahar.
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