COMBAT OUTPOST NAREA, Marjah, Afghanistan — Squad leader LCpl Gil Frazier patrols on a regular basis, interacting will locals, either helping with wells and employment or questioning them about the Taliban in the area.
He can’t yet tell who is on his side.
“You don’t know who is friend and who is foe until they have a weapon in their hand,” says LCpl Gil Frazier. “That is what is making this campaign so hard.”
Frazier with 1st Squad of Weapons Company and the Afghan National Army (ANA) leaves the base for a security patrol.
The Marines intend to draw out the enemy, like an infection from a wound - or, as Frazier says, they are going fishing.
The tactics, which bring out the Taliban, are classified.
“You try to get the upper hand on the opposing force. It will be a short time the Taliban will catch on to it, and then we’ll have to tweak it some more,” says Frazier.
Just outside the outpost walls a boy grimaces in pain after catching his foot in razor wire. HM3 Emanuel Merlo, hospital corpsman, bandages the boy’s foot with combat gauze to clot the bleeding.
“I noticed his tendons were visible, and the lacerations were really deep and it was above my echelon of care,” says Merlo. “I don’t have a medical clinic in my bag.”
The Marines explain to the boy that he needs to go to FOB Marjah, the closest base with medical facilities. It’s unclear whether the boy will take the advice.
The Marines continue on the patrol, walking through a familiar terrain. They stop to look inside an abandoned compound. It’s quiet outside except for boots crunching on the dry soil or gloved hands brushing aside dead branches. The Marines head toward a known Taliban hotspot.
As the Marines near a large, dry wadi (irrigation ditch) the first rounds are fired from enemy forces.
“Are you in contact?” a Marine asks over the radio.
“I took some pop shots,” replies Frazier.
The rounds sound like a long whistle and crack overhead, which means they are close to the Marines. Frazier moves up the berm to get eyes on the shooters, but ducks down as more shots are fired.
Despite the gunfire the squad pushes forward to a wadi full of brown water.
The Marines hit the ground, with their legs dangling in the wet ditch. Rounds disturb the water and I think they must be from the Taliban’s AK-47 rifles, but they are the casings from Frazier’s M4.
“I got you,” yells Frazier at the enemy fire as if they could hear him. The ANA soldier next to me fires his SAW (Semi Automatic Weapon) and the noise explodes. I watch the rounds pop off. I can’t hear anything, but my ears ring.
Frazier commands LCpl Charles Thomas and LCpl Robert Williams to run to the next wadi towards the gunfire.
“Are you ready? Go, go,” he yells as the two men crawl out of the water. Mud clings to their pants and boots as they sprint across the field.
Frazier and the ANA soldiers stay in position, halfway in the wadi, halfway on the dirt. And the rounds keep coming. When it’s time for us to move forward, a few shots are fired from an unknown direction.
“Where the (explitive) is that coming from?” shouts Frazier to no one in particular.
We jump from mound to mound across the field of cotton fields. In a deeper, but dry wadi we take cover again. The wadi has been burned recently and the remnants of foliage are still black. Marines and the ANA above me lay on the dirt. Frazier notices the ANA is not aiming correctly and grabs the SAW, letting loose a long burst of fire, which hits one of the Taliban shooters.
“I saw him stumble, so that is one of the ones I hit,” says Frazier.
The Marines continues moving forward to enemy forces. “In total we bounded through three wadis and on the fourth one is the building where they were firing from previously,” says Frazier.
As a few Marines move up closer to the building, LCpl Joshua Paul, LCpl Lucas Scott and I stay in the rear catching our breath.
After the last sprint of over one hundred meters, Marines are beginning to feel the weight of their gear. Scott is loaded up to 90 pounds as he is carrying the radio in a backpack in addition to his weapon, ammo and water.
“That was exciting,” says Merlo after the firefight. “That area was the first time that I’ve experienced action like that.”
Merlo stayed in the rear with squad leader, Sgt. Fabian (Killer G) Gonzales. “Frazier is the senior LCpl out there so I let him take the first squad out,” says Gonzales.
For Marines, the firefight ends without any American casualties, but they are always prepared for the worse.
“We try to have at least one corpsman so their medical needs can be taken care of if anything happens,” says Merlo. “We kind of decide ourselves which ones [patrols] we participate in.”
If the patrol is headed to an area where the Taliban are likely to attack a corpsman will be present.
“Come on, we’ve got work to do,” say Frazier when the squad meets up again.
The Marines walk through more wadis and fields to clear compound where wounded Taliban may be taking shelter. One of the other Taliban wounded in the firefight is medevacked from a nearby field.
The Blackhawk MEDEVAC helicopter lands by a home kicking up great clouds of dirt and debris of leaves and branches.
Marines, from another squad, stand by after assisting the MEDEVAC. A corpsman’s leg is covered in red from the spray of blood when the helicopter took flight. All that is left of the wounded Taliban is a white scarf and sandals left in the grass.
Inside one of the compounds, a man says that the Taliban broke in and ran through his courtyard, exiting through the back door.
In another compound, over 10 women and two dozen children gather in a small room. This is not an uncommon sight; assets from the air often observe women and children moved to one compound during a firefight.
In another compound, 1st Squad finds a trail of blood and bandages turning yellow in the sun. The boy inside the house insists the blood is from his brother who was injured two hours ago, or was it one hour ago? His answer changes as Frazier continues to question him.
“He didn’t want to be too cooperative, he couldn’t give me the straight truth,” says Frazier.
The Marines and the ANA walk up and down the road outside several compounds looking for the trail of blood. Frazier questions several more locals hanging outside their homes. The Afghans have either seen the Taliban fleeing or didn’t see the Taliban at all.
“It’s really frustrating because you are here to help these people and you go out and do well projects and everything, but still they take from us what we give them and they’re still helping Taliban,” says Frazier referring to the locals that are still supporting the Taliban.
When the Marines get back to their outpost they are informed that a young boy was injured during the firefight.
“I got word on him that he was doing good and everything,” says Frazier. The boy was wounded in the ankle from a round from an AK-47, a weapon used by the Taliban.
“That felt real good to know that my squad had good discipline on their sectors of fire and it wasn’t a stray round from one of us,” says Frazier.
At the end of the day, Williams only has a few words, “All in a day’s work is all I’m going to say.”
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as multimedia journalists for KVAL News.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.