HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - 1st Platoon, off to our west, made contact with the Taliban before we did.
4th Squad, 2nd Platoon, had already been slogging through wadis and cotton fields for a couple of hours when we heard the firefight in the distance.
4th Squad pushed on, with Cali Bagby traveling in the middle of LCpl Brennan’s fireteam and me traveling with LCpl Singleton’s fireteam. Leading both fireteams was Cpl Woodbine, Squad Leader.
This was only my second patrol, but it was turning out to be much like the first. Crossing open fields where opium poppies had been harvested in the spring, pushing our way through tall cornfields where the Marine in front of me would completely disappear if I slowed enough to let him get more than a few meters ahead of me.
We slid down wadis and waded across, hoping the water was not deeper than a couple of feet. Some came up to our thighs, and I talked to a Marine a couple of days ago who came off a patrol during which he had stepped into an eight-foot hole in the middle of a wadi.
“Man, all I could think of was I wanted to keep my weapon out of the water and dry, and I didn’t want to drown. That would be a hell of a way to die in Afghanistan,” he said.
The two fireteams were a couple hundred meters apart; Brennan’s fireteam would advance and then set up security for Singleton’s fireteam.
Crossing yet another open field is nerve–wracking because if the Taliban ambush comes - no, when the Taliban ambush comes - more than likely it will occur when you are exposed in an open field.
Overhead we could hear helicopter gunships circling, providing support.
“Those things, the gunships and even the Quick Reaction Force MRAPs, are a mixed blessing,” Singleton told me as we walked. “They keep us safe and alive, but the Taliban won’t fire on us with those guys overhead.”
It is an odd feeling to travel with men who not only know they are walking into an ambush, but who actually want it to happen. Unless the Taliban fire on the Marines, the Marines can’t close in on them and engage in a firefight.
And they very much want to engage with the enemy.
As one senior enlisted man told me, “You gotta love the ones that need lovin’, and kill the ones that need killin’.”
As we crossed a field of cotton we began to take small arms fire, AK-47s. “Go, go, go!” Singleton yelled at me as we dashed for the relative safety of a small wadi. Hunkering down in the irrigation ditch, I watched as Naval Corpsman Daniel Lowderman, from Seattle, Washington, and Singleton scan the area with their rifle scopes.
“I’ve got movement on the roof of a building,” Singleton relayed to Woodbine through his radio. “I can see the muzzle of a gun sticking out a window.”
Singleton was carrying the Mark XII, the designated marksman rifle. He requested permission from Woodbine to shoot at the target. Woodbine asked if he had positive ID, and Singleton informed him he could see the rifle muzzle. Permission was given to shoot.
“I can put one through the [expletive] hole,” Singleton said. “I don’t know now well it’s going to do, what it’s going to do, but I can try.”
Singleton stretched out in the wadi behind his weapon, his breathing became regular, and after what seemed to me like an eternity, he squeezed the trigger. Despite being ready for the shot, the sound startled me.
“Impact,” Singleton reported calmly. “Definite on the chimney. Woodbine, be advised, the first round was a solid impact, do you want me to take a second shot?”
“If you see the muzzle again take another shot,” Woodbine answered.
Platoon Sergeant SSgt Zamora, who was traveling with Brennan’s fireteam, came on the radio. “Singleton. As soon as you take the second shot we are going to move on the building.”
“Roger, that’s solid. I’m going to take two well-aimed shots just to make sure.”
Another eternity seemed to pass, then the crack of Singleton’s weapon again startled me.
“Alright team,” Zamora’s voice said on the radio, “we’re going in.”
“Hey. Yo, yo yo!” said Singleton. “Tell ‘em, tell ‘em. Hey, be advised. Stop, stop, stop.”
Singleton could see the Taliban waving a flag, but was not sure if the man was trying to surrender or was signaling other Taliban. The flag disappeared and then Singleton could see the Taliban crawling on the roof of the building.
Singleton asked for permission to shoot a third time. Although he could clearly see the Taliban, he could not see a weapon, and therefore the request for permission was denied. Unless a weapon is clearly visible, the Marines are forbidden to shoot.
The Taliban escaped.
We moved on.
Approaching a compound of mud buildings, I could see Cali running with Brennan’s fireteam, sprinting to the safety of a mud wall. We picked up our pace and reached the compound’s courtyard.
In the distance we could hear a MEDEVAC helicopter lift off. Later we learned a young boy, perhaps six or seven, had been shot in the chest by the Taliban, and although the corpsman had treated his sucking chest wound and stabilized him, he needed to be transported with his father to a U.S. military hospital.
Our support helicopter gunships also left the area.
Brennan’s fireteam searched the compound and found a man with suspicious evidence. He was flex-cuffed and brought out. He became “a person of interest.”
“Okay,” Singleton told me, “pay attention. We are going to take more fire in the next few minutes. The Taliban hate it when you bring someone in. And the helicopters have left.”
It is one thing to know you might get shot at in the next few minutes. It is another thing entirely to be told by a Marine that you are definitely going to be shot at in the next few minutes, especially when you are walking totally exposed on a dirt road.
I stayed close to Lowderman, on the far side of the road, as far away from the compound as I could possibly be, which in fact wasn’t far at all.
When the inevitable shots came, they were from a machine gun. I jumped into a wadi right next to Lowderman.
I hunkered down, he returned fire.
Singleton yelled from across the road, down in the wadi on that side. “I need you guys to be over here with me.”
“You ready for this?” laughed Lowderman.
You gotta be kidding me, I thought. “Yeah, okay, let’s do it.”
We waited for a lull in the firing and jumped up and dashed across the road.
Brennan’s fireteam, who was still close to the compound, stormed it. The firing ended. The Taliban escaped.
To pass the time while waiting for Brennan’s fireteam to give us the all clear, Singleton and I discussed baseball and the merits of left-handed first basemen.
Eventually we all rose and returned to the COP at a fast pace, still walking, but walking with purpose.
We all arrived safety.
Morrison teaches photojournalism and multimedia reporting at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Ore.
Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.