Charles “Mark” Gurganus: From Wilmington to the front lines of War on Terrorism ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)

Charles “Mark” Gurganus: From Wilmington to the front lines of War on Terrorism ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)
You can listen to previous episodes of the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast by clicking links inside this story.
You can listen to previous episodes of the free "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast by clicking links inside this story.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - In his 37-year decorated career with the United States Marine Corps, Charles "Mark" Gurganus served at installations and bases across the United States and around the world. He rose to the rank of Major General, commanding thousands of men and women on the front lines of America's war on terrorism. Gurganus' career came to an end in 2014. He was forced into retirement, the result of an investigation into a terrorist attack at Camp Bastion, a coalition base Gurganus commanded in Afghanistan. That part of our conversation is coming up later.

Gurganus says he owes a debt of gratitude to Pastor Leland Richardson. Pastor Richardson was a friend of the Gurganus family in Wilmington, and before he became a Chaplain in the U.S. Army, he took a pre-teen Mark on a trip that would light a spark for the future.

"We went up and visited him and his family at Fort Bragg, and he took me out and let me watch guys jump out of airplanes," Gurganus remembers. "I thought that was pretty cool. From that day on, I kind of put sports on the back burner, (later) joined the NJROTC program at Hoggard (high school), and never looked back."

Gurganus remembers a much quieter Wilmington during his childhood and teenage years, with much less traffic. He recalls spending a lot of time hunting and fishing. Gurganus' father worked as a forester with International Paper, and his mother was a secretary at Roland-Grise Junior High School.  He got a scholarship through NJROTC to attend the University of North Carolina. Officer Candidate School followed, preparing Gurganus for a lifetime of service in the Marine Corps. Looking back over the 37 years, he remembers only once having any doubt on his career choice. That discussion comes up at 10:40 of the podcast.

"I was a young captain with a two-and-a-half-year-old son and a fairly newborn daughter," Gurganus says. 'We went away on deployment to Panama for about a month. When I came back it took like two days before she would have anything to do with me, because it was like she didn't know me. At that point in time, that's the only time I ever thought seriously about 'man I wish I would have picked another career'."

Gurganus' first battalion command came in 1995, when he took over the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines infantry battalion at Camp Lejeune, located not far from his hometown of Wilmington.

"We only had 27 of them at the time, so you feel pretty fortunate and honored to have the opportunity," he says. "But, I'll tell you, the day you take that set of battalion colors, you feel the weight. They are yours, and they're looking to you. You know you don't have all the answers, you know you're going to make some mistakes. I think the thing that I learned is to lean harder and harder on my marines to do the very best that they could do. We trained hard, but we also had a good time. We made time to have fun."

Gurganus was in the middle of transferring duty stations from Suffolk, Virginia to Okinawa, Japan, on September 11, 2001. He soon realized the terrorist attack would change the course of what lied ahead for America's military. He shares the memories at 21:00 of the podcast.

"Just disbelief that somebody had brought that level of attack to this country," he remembers thinking as he watched the coverage from his mother's house. "I don't think on my worst days did I think that could happen."

Gurganus commanded marines in Iraq during a deployment in 2005. He remembers a lot of fighting outside the city of Fallujah where he was based. The city had been the site of heavy coalition bombardments since the start of the war. Gurganus' battalion helped in the rebuilding effort. It was anything but a safe area. The former Major General survived two attacks on his life in Iraq, both caused by improvised explosive devices. He talks about those situations at 27:15 of the podcast.

"Moving down the road, and the next thing you hear is a big ka-boom," he says. "Both of them were remote controlled detonations. One of them was not that large. The other was pretty large. Mercifully, with the vehicles we had at the time, no one was injured, except ringing in your ears pretty badly."

In September 2012, Gurganus was Commanding General of Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan. The massive NATO installation in the Helmand Province was called the BLS complex. It included Camp Bastion, a British-led air base, Camp Leatherneck, a U.S. Marine base, and Camp Shorabak. According to a 2011 Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries, security on Camp Bastion fell under British responsibility, but Gurganus was responsible for "force protection".

On September 14, three teams of five heavily-armed Taliban insurgents, dressed in stolen U.S. Army uniforms, cut the wire fence around Camp Bastion and entered the facility. Gurganus goes into detail about the attack, the insurgents involved, and the resulting report starting at 40:45 of the podcast.

"They were intent on doing as much damage as they could," Gurganus said about the attackers. "No doubt, they came there to die, they didn't ever anticipate going home."

Gurganus says evidence showed the terrorists had been huffing paint, evident by the masks they wore and marks found on their faces. They also carried high-energy snacks, designed to get these men into a frenzied state to carry out the attack. Gurganus says two of the groups were engaged immediately by forces inside. They did what Gurganus called minor damage before being stopped. The third group eluded attention, and made their way to an airfield where the used grenades to destroy six AV-8B Harrier jets and damage two others. Two marines, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible and Sgt. Bradley Atwell, died in the attack. Fourteen of the fifteen insurgents were killed, and Gurganus says the remaining member later provided extensive intelligence regarding plans for the attack and information that the group had trained in Pakistan. The investigative report states the detainee said during his interrogation that "the Taliban attack planners had information from inside the BLS complex".

"There were a lot of contributing factors," Gurganus says about the attack's success. "We had just completed drawing down ten thousand marines in the area. We were in the process of rebuilding some of the security infrastructure. I'll be honest, this was not one of the major threats that was reported on. We had some serious threats to the base, and they were all taken seriously. This was one that was not on the radar."

Several investigations took place after the attack. No disciplinary measures were ordered, and Gurganus brought his battalion home from the deployment. However, in May of 2013, General James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, requested the commander of U-S Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, to conduct a thorough review of the incident to "determine accountability of the U.S. Commanders". In September, Gen. Amos released his final determination. While recognizing the degree of difficulty Gurganus faced in "accomplishing a demanding combat mission with a rapidly declining force", Gen. Amos said "MajGen Gurganus made an error in judgment" and he "bore the ultimate accountability for the lives and the equipment under his charge".

Gen. Amos, who Gurganus called a close friend from the days the two worked together at Quantico, requested the 37-year veteran's retirement. He also requested the President (of the United States) rescind Gurganus' nomination for promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General. Gurganus released a statement that day, saying "It has been an honor and a privilege to serve beside and lead Marines for over 37 years. I will treasure that forever. I have complete trust and confidence in the leadership of our Corps and fully respect the decision of our commandant." Gurganus says now, he respected the decision, but didn't like it.

"It was a hard day," he says about the conversation with Gen. Amos. "As the investigation wound down, just based on some of the questions I had been asked over a four-hour period, you pretty much had an idea of where they were going to go with this. There was no disciplinary action at all. I was just told it was time for me to retire. As much as I love this institution, I would never do anything to put a black mark on it. So, it was best just to keep my mouth shut and prep to go home."

Gurganus selected Camp Lejeune to be the site for his retirement ceremony, which took place on May 15, 2014. It was close enough for members of the retiring Major General's family to attend, including his 92-year-old mother. She is 96 now, he says with a smile. He then faced a transition to civilian life.

"Biggest thing I had was to figure out what I was going to wear," Gurganus says with a chuckle. "You get up every morning, you put camouflage on. If it's this time of year, it's the brown. If it's this time of year, it's the green. I had to actually get up and pick out clothes!"

Our conversation covered many other topics, including the honor Gurganus says he felt pinning Purple Heart medals on the chests of men who were injured in the line of duty, the loss he felt 169 times in his career, when Marines under his command died in the line of duty, and his outlook on how the current administration's leadership is performing in the fight against terrorism.

Mark Gurganus was generous with his time in agreeing to be interviewed for this episode of my podcast, knowing that we would touch on issues difficult to talk about. I thanked him not only for his time and honesty, but more importantly for his service to our country. 
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