Last week, as West Tisbury School was preparing to opens its doors for the new school year Colonel Michael Halt, on leave as principal, was hard at work in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I am constantly amazed by the strength, spirit and determination of the young men and women serving our nation in Afghanistan, many of which are not much older than the seniors at our high school,” Col. Halt said in an email to The Times.
In January, with little warning ,and following President Barack Obama’s announcement of a troop buildup, Colonel Halt, a member of the Marine Corps Reserves, was deployed for a 15-month tour in Afghanistan.
Last week, in an email The Times invited Colonel Halt to provide an update on his service and send a message to the West Tisbury School and Island community.
“As the Senior Marine Liaison Officer in Kabul, I work closely with the NATO staff at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command (IJC),” Col. Halt wrote. “At IJC I represent Lieutenant General Richard Mills and the 19,000 Marines who are conducting counter-insurgency operations in the Helmand Province.”
Helmand Province, one of 34 in Afghanistan, is in the southern part of the country. Much of the fighting between NATO and Taliban forces is taking place in this province. Helmand is said to be a stronghold for the Taliban, an Islamic insurgency movement fighting a guerrilla war against the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the NATO-led ISAF, according to published reports.
“A key part of my job is to ensure the staff of the IJC is fully aware of ongoing significant events and operational challenges we face, and any additional resources or assistance we may need in order to further exploit and build on the successes our Marines are achieving on a daily basis,” Colonel Halt said. “I also work to help synchronize the larger efforts of many international agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are also working to help improve the governance and development in the Helmand Province.
“The IJC is located near the Kabul International Airport and has about 1,000 personnel here from the 43 member nations that make up the international coalition. IJC has responsibility to oversee the day-to-day operations of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan; this focus allows the ISAF Commander, Gen. David Petraeus, to focus on the overall strategy in Afghanistan and across the region.”
General Petraeus assumed command of the NATO ISAF and U.S. Forces Afghanistan on July 4 after serving for over 20 months as Commander, U.S. Central Command, which oversees the military efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Africa. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that General Patraeus has asked for 2,000 more soldiers, with nearly half to be used as trainers for the rapidly expanding Afghan security forces.
“Just like on the Vineyard, the new school year is starting in many parts of Afghanistan,” Mr. Halt said. “One of the many things Marines in Helmand are doing to improve the quality of life in this part of Afghanistan is to help open and protect schools across the province. There hasn’t really been a functional school system in most of Helmand since the Soviet invasion three decades ago. The Taliban opposed all but the religious schools — and have tried to intimidate locals throughout Helmand from opening their own schools. Fortunately the tide is turning. Thousands of school children will be attending school this year across the province — many for the first time in their lives.
“Working closely with our Afghan partners, the Marines are making a real and important difference in many different ways.
“As we start the new school year on the Vineyard, I’d like to take this opportunity to extend my best wishes to the wonderful students and incredible staff of the West Tisbury School. I think of you often and look forward to rejoining you soon. I would also like to thank the entire Island community for the continued support you have shown me and my family.”
Colonel Halt signed his email with the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful).
That motto describes his record of service.
A 21-year veteran of the Marines and reserves, his deployment in January was the second time he had been called up since his appointment as West Tisbury School’s principal in 2004.
In January 2007 he was assigned to the U.S. Navy Seabees of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment and deployed to Iraq with the Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Fallujah to aid and advise Navy engineers working alongside the Marines. Colonel Halt received a Bronze Star for meritorious service in Iraq for his service.
Previously, he was called to active duty immediately following the 9/11 attacks and also had served in the Gulf War.
Donna Lowell-Bettencourt currently serves as interim principal. Colonel Halt expects to return home and to his civilian duties in April.