News: Week 1: Marines battle Taliban, secure key civic centers in Marjah
Story by Cpl. James Clark
MARJAH, HELMAND PROVINCE, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — It's been nearly a week since Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, charged down the loading ramps of CH-53 helicopters into the cold night air and began the assault on what is regarded as the Taliban's last stronghold, in the city of Marjah, Feb. 14.
The Marines took contact from insurgents every step of the way. Although the fighting reduced in frequency as the week progressed, the sporadic outbursts of small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire were no less intense than the initial 72 hours.
After pushing back the initial Taliban counterattack, the Marines with Bravo Company, 1/6, began clearing the area, providing security in the city's key population centers.
"The first 24 to 28 hours went as expected," said Capt. Ryan Sparks, commanding officer for Bravo Company, 1/6. "We faced fewer problems with improvised explosive devices than we expected — we bypassed the IED's on the roads, by inserting into the city via helicopter. The clearing of the residential district was less intense than expected. We focused more on the housing areas to get them clear so that people could move back in."
After checking the bazaar for IED's and clearing the surrounding areas, the Marines secured areas critical to the city's inhabitants.
The battalion holds all the key population centers, like the bazaar, residential area and the district center, which is significant because the Taliban can't influence the locals as easily.
"The percentage of the city under our control is less significant than the areas that we control. We've established security so they can reopen the bazaar, which is the hub of the community," said Sparks, who is on his fourth combat tour and fifth deployment overall.
Sparks listed the principal successes of Bravo Company, as, not having a single IED strike in the company so far, getting the bazaar open within a week, and not causing any civilian casualties.
"The fact that we could receive so much contact and achieve these three goals is amazing," Sparks said.
Now that the Taliban are using tactics that involve blending into the population, the Marines with Bravo Company routinely find themselves fighting an adversary that is intimately familiar with their rules of engagement.
"Because the enemy can blend into the local populace, the area won't be completely clear for some time," said Sparks. "The Taliban understand our rules of engagement and manipulate them frequently."
One Marine, Pfc. Adam M. Voelker, a squad automatic weapon gunner with 1/6, described the difficulties of preventing civilian casualties, while engaging an enemy that is aware of their rules of engagement.
"One of the bigger challenges is trying to find where we're taking fire from," said Voelker. "The fighting has slowed a bit, though enemy snipers are harassing us more frequently, but we're starting to get the hang of operating in this area."
Voelker has relied on the combat experience of his small-unit leaders to guide him through the firefights.
"Coming straight from the School of Infantry, I have to learn as I go. As one of the newer guys I have to look towards my unit leaders and follow those who have been here before," Voelker said.
A week after the Marines with Bravo Company, established a foothold inside the city, Voleker took a moment to reflect, as he described hearing voices over the loudspeakers outside the mosque on the day of the invasion and when he was hit by the realization that he had finally arrived.
"When I first saw the Afghan people who were living here, I was struck by how good we have it back home and by how hard they're struggling just to survive," said Voelker.
"There was a lot of excitement and apprehension before coming here, but after the first few firefights it died down," said Voelker, who has a twin brother with 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, also operating in Marjah. "However, as casualties came in, it kicked back up, especially having a brother out with 3/6 and wondering how he was."
As the sun began to fall over the city, and Marines set off on night patrols or made their way to their guard posts, Bravo Company, moved one day closer to the conclusion of the first week in the city of Marjah.