News: Pushing through the shadow of the insurgency
Story by Cpl. James Clark
MARJAH DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan – “There are no [insurgents] here. He says they aren’t here.”
The pashto-speaking interpreter translates as he looks from an older man to Lance Cpl. Andrew Wurster, a squad leader with 4th Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. This is the first person they have encountered this morning during their patrol through the Polpazai village here, an area where insurgents are known to be operating, Aug. 11.
Glancing away, Wurster looks across the freshly irrigated field before turning back to the man and his teenage son. The father wears white robes and a coffee-colored vest. His facial hair is closely groomed, and he carries himself as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
After another attempt to gain information on insurgent activity, Wurster shakes their hands and departs. Before the Marines have crossed the field, both father and son have disappeared. Normally that would be a clear sign that something is amiss, but it’s month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast during the daylight hours, forsaking water and food, and often wait until dusk to tend their crops.
As the Marines make their way across one of the many canals, they reach another swath of farmland. Wurster spots a young boy tending a small herd of sheep. As the patrol begins to spread out, Wurster reaches the child.
Rounds rip past the Marines as automatic weapons come to life across the field. They take fire from the South and the West, the direction they are heading and the direction they came from. They have found who they were looking for.
“The atmospherics were kind of weird – it can be a bit misleading during Ramadan,” said the native of East Aurora, N.Y., explaining the suddenness of the ambush. “We saw the little kid and thought, ‘Oh, we’re not going to get hit,’ because the [insurgents] have [a] propaganda campaign and don’t want to alienate the locals.”
As the fight unfolds, the Marines lay down suppressing fire, allowing their squadmates to reach the cover of the canal they just crossed, but as the last of them leaps headlong into the wadi, one takes a gunshot wound to the leg.
Unable to use the fields on either side of the canal as a landing zone for a medical evacuation, Wurster sets out to secure an alternate landing zone that can offer more protection for the aircraft, its crew, and the wounded Marine.
For a number of them, it was their first firefight, explained Wurster, who is on his second deployment to Marjah with 1/6. “They did really well – my team leaders in particular, they took control of their Marines so I could talk on the radio.”
Marines take aim at figures firing from rooftops as their attackers begin to fall back toward cover. Within fifteen minutes, the heaviest of the fighting has drawn down, but not died out. Occasional shots slap and skim across hard earth or wedge into trees and mud with a final thud.
The Army medevac helicopter arrives within 15 minutes of the casualty report. As it touches down, the young shepherd from earlier wanders toward the patrol, but as he gets closer, he hears his father’s voice. The boy runs to his father, and they disappear -- much like the family earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, the wounded Marine is whisked away to Camp Leatherneck, the headquarters of 2nd Marine Division (Forward) in Helmand province. Timely responses such as this have saved countless Marines in Helmand and are one of the main reasons that casualty rates here are lower than in most past wars throughout history.
This is the surreal environment of Marjah’s northeastern outskirts, where Marines hunt an insurgent remnant lingering at the district’s edge. The battalion treks across wide open fields and uneven terrain, interacting with local citizens who have less contact with coalition forces than those dwelling near the district center.
International Security Assistance Force and Afghan National Security Forces work to increase security in these final enclaves of insurgent resistance, believing that residents here, like those throughout the majority of the district, will turn against insurgents once they see a persistent coalition presence.
“We’ve been doing census patrols, getting to know local leaders and trying to identify villages that are friendly,” said Staff Sgt Jeffrey Globis, a platoon sergeant for 2nd Plt., Charlie Company and a Chicago native. “The last couple of days, we’ve had a couple of firefights. The [insurgents] are testing us, seeing how we’d respond. We know that if we go out east, we will take contact. We walked right into their living room, and put our feet on their couch.”
As the Marines make their way back to the patrol base and attack helicopters circle high overhead, the insurgency is steadily losing ground. Just over a year ago, the entirety of the city sat in its shadow, but insurgents are now forced to the district’s periphery, finding more and more doors shut. The Marines closely pursue in a tradition of discontent, forsaking safety in their unwillingness to accept an outcome less than total victory.
Editor’s Note: First Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 1, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.