GARMSIR, AFGHANISTAN—At this spartan combat outpost in the heart of Helmand province, U.S. marines are preparing for what may be their toughest fight yet. Under the cover of darkness, they will push out to take up positions for a battle that they hope will break up a key Taliban stronghold in what is currently one of the most dangerous regions in the country.
For the moment, though, their job is to rest up and dodge the 124-degree heat, waiting for the go-ahead while they attend to the rituals of war in the windy high desert. Marines sleep outside on the ground or on the hoods of humvees parked in the middle of opium poppy fields. Sand penetrates everything, so Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Justin Carter cleans his bullets with baby wipes to make sure they are free from grit that could cause his rifle to jam. Cpl. Brandon Karana, a forward scout and former logger, pulls his rifle apart and scrubs it with a toothbrush. He holds it up to inspect his handiwork. "I hope I don't have to fire this thing," he says.
That is looking unlikely. To date, the 1st Battalion Landing Team of the 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit—2,200 troops sent here in March to bolster struggling British forces—has been ambushed by Taliban fighters with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, and striking battle savvy. In one particularly fierce assault, marines from Weapons Company were pinned down in an hour-and-a-half-long firefight.
As the 24th MEU has pushed south, the size of Taliban units it is fighting has grown larger, from pockets of three to five to groups of as many as 25 to 30 fighters. And they are well trained. Resistance has been so fierce—and so unexpected, they add—that the unit is on Day 30 of what it initially thought would be a two-to-three-day campaign.
Many of the men here are not new to combat. The 24th MEU fought during the toughest years of the insurgency in Iraq, where urban street battles in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi "were like getting into a fistfight in a phone booth," recalls 1st Lt. Tom Lefebvre, a Weapons Company platoon leader. During its 2004 deployment to Fallujah and then in Ramadi from September 2006 to May 2007, the battalion weathered brutal attacks on a daily basis. Soon after the unit's tour was extended to nine months from six as part of the surge, the marines began to see progress. "It wasn't a matter of if you thought you were making a difference," says Cpl. Scott Oaks of Stewartville, Ala. "You could see a difference."
Here, they are not so sure. They have watched British colleagues fight to retake from the Taliban some of the same hills where old British forts from colonial-era campaigns in the 1800s still stand. Since 2006, control of this town has changed hands three times. Marines say that they are willing to do the hard fighting to clear out the area again. But, they occasionally wonder, to what end—and at what cost? "I've got no problem going after the Taliban," says Weapons Company 1st Sgt. Lee Wunder. "But we'd all like to see, for all our effort and hard work, when we leave that there is someone to backfill for us."
They have received no word yet on when, or if, this will happen. As U.S. casualties in Afghanistan continue to rise, there has been talk of shifting troops from Iraq. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has made it clear, however, that current troop levels in Iraq preclude such an increase. Earlier this year, the Pentagon emphasized that the marines' deployment to Helmand was an "extraordinary, one-time" commitment.
The unit has just learned that its eight-month tour will be extended by one month to November. In the meantime, Mullen has raised questions about the consequences of what he calls an "economy of force" campaign in Afghanistan. "We don't have enough troops there to hold," he says. "And that is key, clearly, to the future of being able to succeed in Afghanistan."
"Beat up pretty bad." Weapons Company was sent in to support comrades in Alpha Company, camped just down the road in this town that serves as a major crossing point on the Helmand River. Here, the Taliban funnels fighters and supplies, and frequently Alpha Company bears the brunt of indirect fire in attacks on its compound just a few hundred yards away. A rifle unit, "Alpha Company was getting beat up pretty bad," says Weapons Company Master Sgt. Rodney Abbott. "It was time for the heavy guns to come down."
Because they thought it would be a quick operation, Alpha Company marines traveled light, carrying only bare essentials on their backs. They each filled CamelBaks with the equivalent of 54 water bottles each for the first three days. Many left even sleeping bags behind. With food and ammunition, gear for each gi weighed an average of 125 pounds, minus the body armor.
This is the largest opium-producing region in the world, and the marines' heavy packs posed hazards in the deeply rutted poppy fields that surround the town. The troops suffered sprained ankles and heat exhaustion. Weapons Company became mired in the fields on its way down as well, as the heavy new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, got stuck in fields and soft sand. At one point, it took the company three hours to go 400 yards. There are other hazards as well, some occasionally doubling as comic relief. The untended donkeys that run and graze in the fields outside the compound—an area the marines have nicknamed the petting zoo—nip at patrols. Troops have been bitten by horses and threatened by rabid dogs. And they have experienced firsthand the largely unexplored consequences of drug consumption among domestic animals. A goat grazing on the marijuana plants that grow here lost its footing after climbing to the top of a pile of discarded boxes and then tumbled down onto a marine dozing in his sleeping bag.
But such comic relief is short-lived. In May, Weapons Company was ambushed by Taliban forces and pinned down in the 90-minute firefight. "We didn't think they'd pour it on like that," says Abbott. "It was one of those things where they just keep turning the volume up, and it was getting louder and louder. There were 30 minutes when we were full-bore reloading," he says. "The next morning, we were like, 'How the hell did we survive that?' "
Recently, Weapons Company lost one of its snipers, at the time detailed to Alpha Company, in an ambush. Such losses take their toll on individual marines. "They get fed up. They cop attitudes and don't talk," says Weapons Company Commander Cpt. Michael Little. "You have to pull them aside and say, 'You're endangering your fellow marines.' That's what 99 percent of the guys respond to." Here, marines "fluctuate between extreme pissed-off-ness and extreme bored-ness," he adds. Oaks, who joined the Marines because he wanted to be just like the grandfather who raised him, has his own analogy. "You take the best family dog you can think of—loving, caring, the whole nine yards. And you build a wall around it. Then you start throwing hand grenades at it," he says. "Well, that dog is never going to be the same."
Beneath a camouflaged canopy on the compound, Cpl. Randall Clinton flips through a magazine. Reading material is at a premium here, since most of the marines couldn't take up pack space carting in periodicals. Clinton is narrating an article about "Seven Ways to Get to Heaven" in the hopes of helping Oaks choose a religion. "Here, we'll go through it—maybe we can find one that's right for you," he jokes. He begins with Hinduism. "You'll need karma," says Clinton. "Well, that's a bitch—my life is a living hell," Oaks replies. "Next." They dismiss Islam because of its ban on drinking. "Here's Christianity," Clinton tries again. "This is pretty popular where you're from."
The battalion's chaplain, Lt. Jeff Jenkins, makes his rounds to the company outposts to lend a professional perspective to the religion discussion. But mostly he wants to see how troops are doing. Weapons Company left 30 marines, or 14 percent of its ranks, back in the States because of trouble they got into with the law, alcohol abuse, or post-traumatic stress, says Wunder.
The transition between war zone and home life can be difficult for myriad reasons, he adds, and some go home with a post-combat sense of entitlement. "They have served, and they have been to war," says Wunder. "And they sometimes feel like it's the Wild West, that the rules don't apply to them."
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.
With news of the arrival of U.S. troops, many of the villagers loaded up tractors and cleared out. A number of families remain encamped on the outskirts of the hot desert town, many too frightened by Taliban threats to accept the food brought over by U.S. troops. "This could become a humanitarian crisis," says one marine.
An interpreter from Edgewater, N.J., has recently arrived at the outpost on the supply convoy, a bumpy six-hour stop-and-go ride over 7 miles of dirt road to deliver ammunition, food, and water to the company outposts. As he walks around the compound, he expresses concern about one of the "burn pits," an outdoor oven where the marines—with no toilets to use—have been disposing of bags of waste. "That's where the family bakes their bread," he says, noting that the compound owners might view the marines' unwitting act as a deliberate insult. He also worries about the embroidered bedding spread throughout the compound. "This is where families here put all of their wealth," he explains, to buy blankets and pillows to make guests more comfortable.
Some of the marines are fatalistic. "You know after we leave they're just going to come in here and [mess] up everything anyway," says one. "Blame it on us and try to get some money," in the form of compensation that NATO troops pay to locals for damaged property. Weapons Company suspects that the compound is the home of a drug lord. There are rooms filled with mementos, jewelry boxes, and even birth control pills from Iran. "They left in a hurry," says a marine known as Rock, a Weapons Company intelligence specialist and one of the few Afghan-Americans in the corps.
Rock is gibed by his fellow troops—one evening as the sun sets, they quiz him on American movies and music. When he doesn't know the answer, they deduct "patriotism points." They also come to him frequently with questions about locals they encounter. He keeps a picture of his mother in his wallet, a young woman wearing a miniskirt, taken while she was working as a professor of psychology in Kandahar. "They could wear miniskirts?" asked one young soldier, grabbing the picture for closer inspection. Many women did decades ago, Rock explains, but now the country is a different, more traditional place. Out on patrol, where he often encounters villagers impatient to return home, Rock has been surprised by their tolerance of the foreign troops. "These people say to us, 'I will leave my home for you. Thank God for you—we pray for you every day.' "
The chaplain, too, stops by to offer one last prayer for the troops before they leave.
As evening approaches, the marines nap on hospital stretchers in the shade. Gradually, though, Little begins relaying word that the operation has been delayed. Headquarters has found a roadside bomb that the mine-detection sweepers didn't recognize. For now, the batallion must figure out the problem, recalibrate, and resweep the dirt roads.
Some marines turn over and continue napping; others get up to clean their rifles again or do laundry in ammunition cans that they fill with well water. They are not sure now when they will push out. Some are frustrated, impatient to fight. Others are more subdued, aware of the enormity of the task ahead of them in the months to come.
Indeed, since their arrival, they have been struck not only by the ferocity of the fighting but by the immense poverty they have encountered. In Fallujah and Ramadi, families had tables and china cabinets and televisions, the marines note. "You look at these areas, and there is just nothing," says Oaks. The literacy rate in many villages is in the single digits. "Education here is just way too low, and even if you're just talking about bringing in electricity, it's going to take years and years and years."
And more troops, marines here add, who may or may not be coming. That's for generals and politicians to figure out. "All I know is that I'm being told this is the most dangerous place in the country," Oaks says. "And all I see is us."