COMBAT OUTPOST NAREA, Marjah, Afghanistan - Shots fire off in the near distance as 1st Squad of Weapons Company and the Afghan National Army gather to discuss the day’s patrol.
Their mission is to show Marine presence and provide security. A patrol of Scouts who left earlier in the day contacted enemy fire near a known Taliban hotspot.
But as the Marines from 1st Squad head outside the wire, the firefight ends.
It’s 10 a.m., and the heat drenches the Marines in sweat. They stop and take cover in a wadi (irrigation ditch), watching for any suspicious individuals outside the compound where the enemy fired from earlier in the day.
“He’s still hanging out there,” says LCpl Gil Frazier, squad leader, referring to an Afghan standing out in the open.
He could just be a farmer standing outside of his home, or he could be Taliban.
“So I’ll take my team if you want to set up here in this wadi, so you can watch over there,” says Frazier positioning the men.
As they wait, an IED sweep is conducted, and another Marine unit finds and detonates an IED. A plume of black smoke lingers in the distance. The Marines watch the smoke dissipate into the air.
They turn their attention back to the Afghan man in the distance. He is not on a cell phone or holding a weapon, so he could just be another bystander. The Marines head to the compound where the firefight started.
The 1st Squad meets up with the Scouts to talk to several young Afghan men. One was talking on his cell phone during the firefight, which could indicate he was acting as a spotter for the Taliban.
The two other men were also seen outside during the firefight, so the Marines question them to find out if they have any information about the Taliban.
The first young man saya he is a student from Kabul visiting his family. He tells Frazier he saw the Taliban walking around the area and shooting.
Inside the student’s compound, Frazier asks, “Does anyone know this man?” The children inside the courtyard verify his identity.
“Whenever the Taliban comes around, you need to call me,” Frazier says, taking off his ballistic eyewear.
“When we inform your guys, ANCop (Afghan National Civil Order Police), ANA (Afghan National Army), the Taliban attack us and shoot at us," the student asks through an interpreter. "So in this case we cannot inform you, what should we do?”
“I’m not here to attack you, I’m here to help you," Frazier says. "I’m not going to come here and shoot your compound up or nothing, but I’m not going to stand for you letting Taliban come in your compound and shoot at us.
“I’m here to help you," Frazier says, "but you have to also help yourself.”
Frazier tells the Afghans that the Marine presence in the area will continue to increase.
“We are going to push the Taliban out and make it safer for you and your family,” says Frazier.
Outside, the second young Afghan man says he does not fear the Taliban.
“You want to help us defeat the Taliban?” asks Frazier.
“Yeah, why not,” he answers.
After Frazier scans their faces and records their fingerprints, the young Afghan men are taken back to COP Narea for further questioning. The Marines refer to the men as persons of interest, not detainees.
At the base, a crowd of Afghans, including local elders, are ready to meet the Marines at the edge of the Marine post.
The elders will vouch for the young Afghan men, and the youth will be released after a brief questioning and recording of their personal information.
The Marines tell the Afghans to stay inside the next time there is a firefight. They tell them it’s not safe out in the open.
The 1st Sgt of Weapons Company gives the young men calculators, paper and pens as they depart.
“Go to school," he says, "not to firefights.”
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as a multimedia journalist for KVAL News.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.
She is a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.