MARJAH, Helmand province, Afghanistan — It's been approximately 45 days since the Marines breached enemy lines into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, and the Marines remain as vigilant as ever.
Marines from 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, patrol through Marjah daily alongside their Afghan National Army counterparts, keeping their presence known to both friend and foe throughout the area.
"We're letting the locals know we are here, and using the Afghan National Army to communicate with the locals," said Staff Sgt. Nelson A. Adames, a mortarman with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6.
Adames hopes enemy takes notice of their continued presence throughout Marjah as well.
"We're making it hard for the Taliban to do their job," said Adames, 35, from Victoria, Texas. "We aren't going anywhere."
The mortarmen with 1/6 have been here before. Patrolling through poppy fields, alongside tree lines, into residential areas and on barren roads, faces are becoming familiar and Marines are leaving familiar footprints through dusty roads and neighborhoods. That does not prevent a high sense of vigilance on each step outside of their forward operating base in Marjah.
"We might go through areas where we've already swept through, but the enemy is always watching. The moment they see us get complacent is when the enemy changes their [tactics, techniques and procedures] when they see us again. If you don't do the little things, that's when you are going to get hurt," Adames said.
The presence of Afghan children waving at the patrolling Marines and Afghan soldiers brings a small sense of comfort to Adames, father of three.
"You come out here and see these kids as happy as can be, with whatever they have. I'd never allow my kid to sit in the middle of the street like that. It definitely makes me focus on the mission at hand, to do what we have to do, to go home," Adames said. "Some of the Marines have wives that are pregnant, so I want to get them home so they can enjoy what I have for the past 11 years of being a parent."
The comforting sight of children roaming freely lasts momentarily, as Adames knows the Taliban operates under a different set of rules of engagement, if any.
"The Taliban doesn't care, even when the kids are out there," he said.
Decisions made, or not made, on a patrol of less than a dozen Marines can carry strategic implications.
The patrolling mortarmen encountered a poppy stack in a residential area. After clearing the brush, Lance Cpl. William L. Ward, a mortarman with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, received a high, metallic hit from his minesweeper. The patrol leader, Cpl. Joshua D. Sepanski, peeked into the nearby window and noticed a wired, propane tank.
Sepanski suggested a search of the house by the Afghan soldiers. As the patrol closed distance with the locked doors of the compound, a local Afghan notified the patrol that the building was a mosque. Adames, the senior-ranking Marine on patrol, made the strategic decision, pulled his Marines back and ordered the patrol to continue its planned route.
"These guys are young, and they want to do it all. Me, as a staff sergeant, I have to hold them back. I can't let their actions cause consequences larger than the squad's responsibility," Adames said.
The squad departed the residential area, alongside wadis, crossing foot bridges and occasionally making the leap of faith over a wadi to cross onto another side. The Marines remind the Afghan soldiers to keep proper dispersion. Ward and Sepanski continue investigating high metallic hits from the minesweepers with empty results.
After patrolling nearly six miles of neighborhoods, roads, wadis and poppy fields, the patrol returned to its forward operating base. All Marines and Afghan soldiers were accounted for, and it turned out, it was just another routine patrol through Marjah. These grunts seek action. For Marines like Adames, it's a good day when nothing happens on a patrol.
"I'm married, I have kids. I have these Marines under my charge, so they are kind of like my family now, too. It's a good day when you go out and made it back. We are Marines. We run to the sounds of gunfire. We locate, close with and destroy the enemy. As grunts, that's what we want," Adames said.
The father and leader in Adames forces him to place a higher emphasis on the safety and welfare of his Marines, rather than a possible firefight.
"My biggest goal is to get these guys back in one piece. I don't care if we get contact for the rest of the time we are here. At the end of the day, as long as we did our job and everyone is safe, that's the most important thing," Adames said.
A few days later, Adames relaxes with his Marines at Forward Operating Base Marjah. He speaks fondly of his family, and of the challenges his wife faces as a Marine wife, manning the household by herself with their three children. An explosion breaks the mid-morning calm. Hopefully, it's another controlled detonation of an improvised explosive device. Marines sprinting to the mortar platoon's tent confirms it's not.
An improvised explosive device detonated near a squad of Marines patrolling Marjah.
"I didn't go out today, I figured I'd give my legs a rest," said Adames. "That's the last time I'll ever let my Marines go out without me again."
This work, Marines keep vigilance high during Marjah patrol, by SSgt Luis Agostini, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.