By now, after multiple deployments, marines know what to expect. "You get home a little bit angrier," says 1st Lt. John Branson, a Weapons Company platoon leader. "Your wife gets scared." When Cpl. Jesse Bosnak came home after deployment in Ramadi, his girlfriend gave him a magazine quiz to see if he suffers post-traumatic stress as a result of an Iraq attack that killed his driver and left shrapnel embedded in his skin. That led her to believe that his symptoms reflected traumatic brain injury from a concussion rather than PTSD, says Bosnak, who signed a predeployment waiver agreeing to defer further medical review until he returns from Helmand. He had wanted to see the Mediterranean ports of call that were supposed to be his unit's next tour of duty, only to find the deployment shifted to Afghanistan instead.
Seeking the POO. On the eve of the operation, Apache Company is hit with another attack. A platoon on patrol is taking fire from a tree line 200 yards away. Apache is trying to call in an air strike, but first the troops need to determine the "POO," or point of origin, of the attack. They have only five minutes of air support left before a marine Harrier combat jet circling overhead runs so low on fuel that it must leave to gas up.
To help guide the planes, Apache has an embedded pilot talking directly to the aircraft and to the home base. Capt. Jason Dale, call sign "Chippin," is a relaxed and unflappable Kentucky native. He has trained the troops back at the base to begin their daily check-in with the scores from the games of his beloved Cincinnati Reds. He is also waiting for news of the birth of his third child, due any day.
Beside him, a half-dozen troops sit on the crates they use for chairs at the company's makeshift combat control center—a plywood plank topped with computers, boxes of batteries, and a jar of garlic salt, which they shake on their food to ward off mosquitoes. They are relaying information and rapidly calling in coordinates. "I'm so going to repeat this right now, because I'm getting confused," says one. The marines are calculating the casualty radius of a potential strike, while continuing to pinpoint precisely where the fire is coming from. "We're losing time with the air," says Dale. They identify the POO and call in final coordinates. "Yes, drop—are we approved?" They get approval for a strike. "Make sure the boys are buttoned up," says another marine on the radio, seconds before explosions—in the form of two 500-pound bombs—rock the compound. It is midafternoon as the marines catch their breath. "As you can see," says one, "we haven't quite moved into the counterinsurgency phase yet."
Troops here debate what is worse—repelling groups of Taliban fighters with good command and control in Helmand or the asymmetrical guerrilla hit-and-run attacks they weathered in Ramadi. "In Iraq, it was just a guy and a couple of his buddies. These guys are better," says one marine. "We saw more RPGs here in the first two days then we'd ever dreamed of in Iraq." They also miss air conditioning on foot patrols in Iraq. "We'd stop in a house and get to watch Spaceballs in Arabic," adds Cpl. Richard Fowler wistfully.
Here, too, the mud brick walls that surround homes—and that Taliban fighters use for protection—have proved disconcertingly resistant to U.S. artillery. Alpha Company has also discovered textbook trenches and fortified bunkers—some booby-trapped—in and around the compound that it took over after a recent battle with local Taliban. Marines are relieved, though, that they are able to more freely use air support in this rural area and that they haven't come across the sheer volume of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that they encountered in Iraq. But they also fear that the use of roadside bombs is on the rise.
Eavesdropping. As it prepares to push out, Weapons Company 2nd Platoon builds a volleyball court-size topographic map in the sand, piling up stones for houses and shredding pieces of fabric to denote rivers and canals. The forward scouts have scoped out the route, and the MEU has been picking up radio transmissions indicating that some Taliban commanders are being reprimanded by their senior leaders for the marines' recent territorial gains. That hasn't stopped Taliban reinforcements from continuing to flow across the Pakistani border, some 75 miles to the south, in large numbers.