Photo: Geoffrey Ingersoll
After completing two tours of duty as a Marine combat correspondent in Iraq, I traveled to Afghanistan as a civilian war correspondent in April 2012. The following story features a spur-of-the-moment mission that saw one Marine injured and more than 20 Taliban fighters killed.Skip right to the mission >
I arrived in the middle of things, just after a hostile action on Afghan police headquarters. The word around camp was:
“Police Chief Wali Koka is officially tougher than Chuck Norris.”
That was when the Marines found out that the Musaqelah District Police Chief would survive a gangland-style hit, which left him full of holes and down to one eye.
Just days earlier, in broad daylight three motorcycles carrying men in police uniforms pulled up and parked in front of the district headquarters. The men dismounted the bikes, turned, and opened fire on the guards, killing them instantly.
The attackers wasted no time, with their element of surprise lying dead on the dirt, they scrambled through door and headed straight to the chief’s office.
“They had (intelligence) on the building, that much is for sure,” said Capt. Ben Middindorf, company commander, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “And their costumes were complete, all except for the shoes. Tennis shoes, instead of boots.”
The first attacker burst into Koka’s office and let loose a burst from his AK, hitting the chief multiple times. Koka fell to the ground, pulled out his pistol, and unleashed hell at close range. The first man went down, and as the second was hit entering the door, he triggered a suicide vest.
The blast blew his remaining comrade to pieces, and lodged three ball bearings in Koka’s eye.
“This guy was the lynchpin to stability in that area, so, in his absence, we knew we had to do something to regain control,” said Middindorf.
The idea was to take a company of grunts, about 200, march them through the dead of night to a rendezvous point, rest, and then move on a key supply hub in the middle of fiercely held Taliban territory. A small village, called Lewar Jel Jay, and it was the organizational jump off point for enemy operations in the area.
This is what Marines call, “Company movement to contact.”
“Pardon my language, but I couldn’t fucking believe it when I finally gave the order, I said — prepare for a frontal assault on Lewar-Jel-Jay.”
(Writer’s note: At the behest of his fellow Marines, this story is for Colton Carlson—a young American who’s man enough to apply his own tourniquets before the smoke clears. Here’s to you, Colton!)
At the initial outpost, once final planning stages are complete, Marines eat, smoke, joke, and take naps on maps.
Guard is posted, and Marines for the most part try to relax. They've fought once already today, and they know another fight is coming. Like clockwork, just as the sun starts to dip toward the horizon ...
Crack! Crack! The sound of an Afghan soldier's Dragonov sniper rifle. Suddenly we're taking fire from almost every direction.
The fighting dies down eventually, but the Marines remain vigilant late into the night. At 3:00 a.m., we move to our next position.
Some Marines just slept wherever they stopped for the night, wearing whatever they had on. Grizzled and groggy, a few wake up, roll over, and light up. Won't be much time for nicotine later.
Knowing the heat and the length of the day to come, Marines ditch as much of their gear as they possibly can. Anything that isn't absolutely necessary goes in the logistics vehicle.
Heading over the first ridge of the morning, we're confronted by a platoon of barnyard animals. This is not a petting zoo: Marines are discouraged from coming into contact with any type of animal due to exposure foreign bugs and bacteria.
Marines trace each other's steps the whole way in an effort to avoid triggering an improvised bomb. I'm careful myself to follow the precise steps of the Marine in front of me.
We patrol out to the village in staggered columns. Every squad must know where other squads are on the battlefield. Already sporadic gunfire rings in the distance.
Staff Sgt. Justin Rettenberger scans a small group of buildings off to our left. The unit to our right is taking fire, and we're moving to a position where we can support with machine gun fire.
The 240B medium machine gun fires 7.62 calibre rounds at speeds sufficient to puncture humvee armour. Cpl. Sedrick Hay directs Cpl. Kyle LaMaire to fire on an enemy position within an Afghan compound.
Marines make their own doors. Walking through existing entry ways are a sure way to step on an Improvised Explosive Device.
The smoke hasn't even cleared by the time Marines flood into the doorway. They use the blast and the smoke to add to the confusion of the enemy.
Having cleared the compound of fighters, we continued toward Jel Jay, taking sporadic fire the whole way.
This is me jumping over whatever it was Ret pointed out. Notice the vehicle up on the ridge, it's coming to support our left flank as we head straight up the gut, over the last hill between us and about 200 hostile Talibs.
We fall in line on top of the hill and start firing down on Lewar Jel Jay. As the rounds fly we can see that last groups of villagers fleeing from the fight.
As they wrap Rhoads in a thermal blanket, I can hear Marines sending coordinates out over the radio, calling for an air Medevac.
The Marines deploy smoke to mark the spot in the air. Sgt. Richard Elsie is right in Rhoads' face, talking to him, trying to keep him conscious and, essentially, trying to keep him alive.
I can hear the order go out for a mortar team. Now that we've taken a casualty, the Marines dump hot metal onto the enemy positions. The action gives Docs cover and dissuades fighters from continuing their assault.
The Marines scoop Rhoads up in a compact stretcher. The stretcher can easily fit into a cargo pocket, making it ideal for situations like this.
I'm convinced he won't land because of all the hot metal flying through the air, but here he comes, flying straight through it all. Army Medevac helicopters are renowned for flying straight into danger to save lives.
Aiming by hand is a tactical choice, but nonetheless, Marine mortarmen are known for incredible accuracy. These mortars provide cover for the flight; usually enemy in the open will scatter for safety at the first sound of indirect fire.
Back at the front of the line, Marines split the gear left behind by Rhoads. Once they get back to base, they'll mail the gear to the States. Until then, every step is a reminder of their friend.
Staff Sgt. Rett turns around the moment some C4 explodes; we're making another alternative door. Rett is looking back just in time to catch a jet make another strafing run. From the ground, the Marines all yell personal pieces of 'motivation' at the aircraft, and then get up to move deeper into the village.
The Marines pull up whatever shade they can find beside truck tires, eat, replace liquids, and pass out. I get up at one point, and I find myself boxed in by a platoon of snoozing Marines.
The next day we make movement to another small hill top, up above another Taliban jump off point. But they've learned their lesson. The sun also rises to eerie quiet.
LaMaire, still filthy from the early morning movement, sits with his 240-Bravo and at least 300 rounds of ammunition. LaMaire's 240 comes with a scope, kind of like a sniper rifle, except Marines use the 240 to take down Talibs as they mount motorcycles and try to move themselves out of range. The muzzle velocity of the 240 extends the range a bit, so Marines can still reach out and touch manoeuvring enemy.
Sgt. Elsie decides we ought to go out and let the locals know we're here. We pull over a car and search its occupants. Off camera, that same golden lab tells us there's no bomb threat in the vehicle.
The locals are patient with the intrusion. The vast majority of Afghan people feel caught in between Coalition and Taliban forces, and mostly just try to mind their own business.
Back at the patrol base, Marines stay up on watch while the others sleep. They'll need their rest, the next day is a 20-click movement back to their home base, using the age old method of transportation: feet.
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