NAD ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan - A threatening calm settled around 2nd Platoon as the whir of helicopter blades faded into the night. It was 5:15 a.m. with dawn nearing fast.
We clicked on our night-vision goggles and stumbled our way through the darkness. Short, deliberate steps felt out the ground before us as the long file of Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, pushed north to the nearby bazaar.
Most of the homes around the Bari Gul Bazaar were still quiet, the residents still asleep in their beds. We knew that would change quickly. The noise of the helicopters that dropped us in the open field was anything but subtle. If there were fighters in the area, they would find us soon.
Through the dim, green sparkle of my goggles, I spotted what seemed to be the silhouette of 2nd Lt. James Salka leading his team forward. He was one of the first Marines I met before the mission.
I committed his stern face to memory in case I needed to find him during the mission. It did me little good now in the darkness. In any event, the shadowy figure seemed to be in charge, so I tottered forward to snap off a few shots.
It was Salka. A communications antenna rose off the back of the Marine next to him and cut into the deep blue glow of the morning sky. He gripped a radio handset and studied his map under a dim light. The photos didn’t turn out in the dark, so I fell in line with some Marines watching the perimeter.
I killed the power to my night vision and flipped the device atop my helmet. Most of the Marines had already done the same in the security positions around Salka. He gave his platoon a few moments to set up supporting positions with snipers and machine gunners, who could cover us as we moved through the open field.
Daylight broke the horizon. We pushed.
Intelligence reports stated insurgents were using the bazaar as a front to move lethal aid in Nad Ali District, so we were conducting the interdiction operation alongside Afghan National Army Commandos to try and disrupt their activity.
The area around the bazaar was a patchwork of dirt homes and barren, muddy fields. Cover was scarce at best. I could see a handful of shallow irrigation trenches, barely deep enough to cover a small child lying on his stomach. I wondered how much manure littered the fields … I could smell it.
It looked like a miserable place to get shot at.
At daybreak, Bravo Company started to patrol from the landing zone to the bazaar. I fell in line with Sgt. Steven Pendleton’s assault squad as they shuffled into the damp field. Our boots slid across the mud with each step. A layer of heavy sludge began to weigh down my feet. That sick, sweet smell of manure lingered.
Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a machine gunner, and three or four Marines under Salka moved in behind us. The crickets and roosters that echoed across the desert only minutes earlier were suddenly silent as we moved across the field.
The sound of machine guns ripped the silence. Several insurgents began firing to our left, so the Marines in the front of the patrol crouched low and ran to a nearby house. Lance Cpl. Nathan Gulbronson was running in front of me with his M32 grenade launcher sticking out of his pack. He decided the house was too far away, so he juked, sagged to his knees, and let his body fall prone into the dirt. I slid into one of the shallow irrigation ditches.
I could no longer see Salka or the Marines. Chandler was still behind me, cheek nestled against his machinegun, screaming out for a smoke grenade. Rounds zipped and cracked over our heads.
Chandler and Gulbronson shouted back and forth – Run or stay put?
Their packs were heavy, gear cumbersome, and it was nearly 100 yards to the compound. There would be no moving without support.
A smoke grenade landed in the field and spit a green cloud between us and the shooters. Bravo Company’s snipers and machine gunners fired back at the insurgents. Fire over the field slackened. We ran.
An hour earlier, we were smoking our last cigarettes in the dark just off the flight line. It was a pleasant enough December morning for Afghanistan. Now my lungs burned as my legs pumped against the soft soil. My bootlace snapped and released tension around my right foot. I barely noticed.
Chandler and Gulbronson hunched under the weight of their packs. Gulbronson wrangled his grenade launcher and rifle with both hands in an awkward lurching motion. Chandler cradled his machine gun against his hip, left arm swinging his weight forward. His combat pack sagged with spare ammunition. It looked backbreaking.
Our ungraceful race ended against a dirt wall 20 yards from Pendleton’s squad. They were still tracking down enemy shooters and preparing for an assault on another compound when we finally linked back up.
We walked through a small doorway—a shambled, metal sheet that served as an improvised gate which rattled each time a Marine passed through it. I heard voices coming from the courtyard of the compound. Our interpreter was speaking with the homeowner to see what he knew about the insurgents.
The firefight had caused me to lose all sense of time. It felt like noon, but was only 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. In any case, the sun was still rising. I hoped the glare from the east was hitting the insurgents still firing into the field.
By this time, helicopters in the air reported insurgents were massing around our position. The area was almost empty of women and children, who had either fled or hunkered down
inside their homes.
Pendleton gathered his squad to move to the next building. They loaded high-explosive rounds and fired their grenade launchers at a shooter before sprinting from the compound.
Pendleton and his Marines dashed into the open, which sparked a brief burst of machinegun fire that quickly dwindled. I bounded with the second team at a full sprint.
Pendleton set his Marines to clear another compound. For the next 30 minutes, Marines sifted the area for any signs of insurgency. Marksmen posted at doorways and along walls to watch for insurgents as explosive ordnance technicians searched for lethal aid.
To the south, Salka continued to patrol behind us in an effort to reinforce our squad. From the doorway, I watched as Salka and his Marines bounded across the open field. Machinegun fire echoed out as the Marines ran toward us with gear strapped to their shoulders. Enemy fire continued as they sprang forward in ten-meter dashes and dropped to the ground, using their body armor to absorb their impact with the soil.
I saw Lance Cpl. Indy Johnson bounding forward when a round struck his helmet. He dropped to the ground, momentarily dazed but unharmed. He collected himself and resumed his movement toward cover.
Nearly an hour into the firefight, a call came across the radio that a Marine had been hit. I knelt inside a small, walled-off garden when a surge of gunfire rang out in the distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but Bravo Company was providing suppressive fire as a team of Marines ran into the open to grab the injured Marine. They dragged him back to cover and immediately began first aid.
Salka relayed the injury of the Marine over the radio—gunshot wound to the abdomen. Salka requested a medical evacuation and a helicopter was inbound within minutes.
Each squad of Marines held their positions and prepared to support the evacuation. The fields around the bazaar fell silent as the medevac moved in to pull out the wounded Marine.
As the helicopter made its approach, the insurgents concentrated their fire in an attempt to shoot it down.
Streams of bullets from AK47s and machine guns erupted from compounds around the area.
Lance Cpl. Brian Schaeffer was posted at the south end of the building held by Pendleton’s squad. The fire seemed to come from around the corner as Pendleton slid in alongside Schaeffer in an attempt to pinpoint its location. The two Marines peered out, shoulder to shoulder.
The helicopter banked hard to avoid the incoming rounds and flew around the landing zone for a second pass as Pendleton and another Marine fired their grenade launchers to provide suppressive fire.
On the second pass, the pilots decided to land.
A WAY OUT
By the time the helicopter landed, Pendleton had already rallied his team to continue forward.
He squeezed himself into a doorway to check if the path was clear for his men. Another Marine climbed atop an empty oil drum and peered over the wall. Nothing moved.
The squad shuffled out of the building, ran along the outside wall and stacked at the northernmost corner of the compound. With the casualty evacuated, we pushed north before enemy fighters could regroup.
One by one, the Marines stepped into the clearing and headed to a nearby compound, where they eventually linked up with the rest of the platoon. We still had nearly two miles to patrol before we reached our extraction point.
For the next three hours, we pushed further into the bazaar, and enemy fire became less organized. We stopped at the final compound before pushing our way out of town.
Bravo Company paused long enough for the Marines to suck down some water and burn a cigarette. Riflemen collapsed against dirt walls for a few minutes rest.
As we left the bazaar, insurgents once again attempted to pin us down in an open field. Helicopters flying overhead provided cover fire for the Marines, killing one insurgent fighter, as the Marines took shelter in a building.
By the end of it, I was pretty exhausted. We had been running, crawling, walking and running again in full gear for more than twelve hours. We had patrolled nearly four miles of the district and zigzagged in and around the bazaar for who knows how many more. We spent almost four hours under constant fire from the enemy. The energy I got from the bag of gummy bears I ate for lunch was gone.
Evening loomed as Bravo Company streamed out of the village and converged on the extraction point to wait.
Dusk settled over us as we finally slipped back onto our helicopters under the cover of darkness. I was thankful for the thrum of the CH-53. The beast of a helicopter jetted superheated air over my shoulders as I boarded and searched for a seat in the dark. I trusted its raw power and the three .50 caliber machineguns bristling along the fuselage.
Salka climbed on the helicopter with the last group. He was clearly proud of his men. I spoke with him afterword. Even in the chaos of the fight, he said they made his job easy. He led, and they all knew what had to happen when things got rough.
Before the patrol, he told me to just do my thing and follow the Marine in front of me. I broke one camera lens, damaged another. My boots reeked like a zoo. But I didn’t have to fire a
EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s the details that get lost or shuffled about. I sat down to speak with some of the Marines after the mission, including Lance Cpl. Indy Johnson, who took the round to his helmet, in an effort to stay as true to memory as I can.
Everyone made it out that day, and 2nd. Lt. James Salka firmly believes the swift action of his men saved the wounded Marine’s life. The battalion confirmed its suspicions of insurgency in the area by finding evidence of weapons caches. Even more telling was the organized resistance they stirred up around the bazaar. As for the wounded Marine, he is expected to recover.