COMBAT OUTPOST SEMINOLE, Marjah, Afghanistan — Something explodes through the air, followed by rounds of gunfire.
My eyes pop open and I sit up, but my head hits against the mosquito netting and I fumble to find the zipper. In the 5 a.m. darkness, in the dizziness of my mind, half awake and half asleep, I wonder, what should I grab first: my camera or my armored vest?
Or should I look for Dan, who spent the night in a small tent outside?
Before I decide, Dan comes barreling in searching for his camera first and armor second. All around us in the tent, Marines are waking and gearing up for what looks like could be the beginning of a long day.
Vehicle Commander Cpl. Joshua Dumas of Creswell, Ore., is wide awake.
“When that first RPG went off," he said, "that’s when we all came running out of the tent.”
For Echo Company, stationed in Seminole for nearly three months, it is not uncommon to hear shots fired near the base around 8 or 9 a.m., but today is the first time in several weeks they’ve heard and seen such an intense firefight.
Although two RPGs are heard flying overhead, sources said the actual attack is targeted towards the contractors, not the base. Outside of the base, Taliban forces and Afghan contractors in charge of road construction security for this area in Marjah are engaged in a firefight.
The Americans hire locals to clean the weeds out of wadis and to work on the roads. The Taliban regularly attack those workers to discourage them from cooperating with the US forces. So the Americans have hired and armed local men to provide security for the workers.
It is these security forces under direct attack, although according to sources inside COP Seminole, at least some firepower has been aimed at the combat outpost - if nothing else, as a diversion to keep the U.S. and Afghan National Army forces occupied with their own defense rather than coming to the aid of the security contractors.
Now fully armored, Dan and I walk outside as another RPG is launched overhead and past the base. Marines outside are still getting dressed and a few joke about how they should make waffles as rounds pop in the near distance and tracer rounds gleam in the sandy fog of the day’s dawn.
An ANA soldier is already at the Hesco barriers (huge sand barricades topped with concentina wire) ready to defend the base. Within a few minutes, a group of Afghans are lined up against the wall. The red lines of the tracer rounds shoot out into the beige haze, and the fire is close enough I can feel my teeth shake in my jaw.
“So they had run just right up to the wall and started peeking over and firing there,” said Sgt. Joel Hinojosa, Non-commissioned Officer in Charge of the Embedded Training Team, recalling the first moments of the firefight.
Hinojosa lives, eats and works with the ANA, preparing them to stand alone against the Taliban. Marines like Hinojosa in charge of training the ANA offer assistance during the firefight.
Sgt. Richard Marasigan of the 3rd Civil Affairs Group directs soldiers in weapon placement.
“It [an ANA’s weapon] was between a Hesco where they would have limited left and lateral limits,” he said. “So if they put it on a Hesco, they could swing it out to the side some more.”
The ANA are eventually told to hold fire, but they stay at the barriers, periodically looking out into the orange-grey air. Hinojosa is impressed by the ANA’s motivation and willingness to fight, but he can see there is still room for improvement.
“They weren’t in stable firing positions, they couldn’t see too much, and some of the machine guns might of not been perfectly aimed, but we’re working on that,” he said. “So that’s part of the reason that we’re here.”
After nearly an hour of action, the sound of gunfire begins to wind down.
When the Marines are finally told to stand down, they either go back to sleep in their mosquito net tents set down in rows on the dusty ground or they make coffee.
One Marine, Pvt. Randy Curtis, showed his Afghan Army counterpart how to clean his weapon. “Taliban, bad,” a few ANA said in broken English to no one in particular as they walk through the base.
When Dan and I first headed to Echo Company, we heard it was the Wild West. It turns out it’s so wild you don’t even have to leave the base to see action.
“Just another day at Seminole,” said Dumas from Creswell, Ore.
And it’s only 6:30 a.m.
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.