SANGIN DISTRICT, HELMAND PROVINCE,, AFGHANISTAN
SANGIN DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan - They inspect the arsenal of weapons one last time and throw the last of the gear in the vehicles under the blanket of darkness still engulfing the sky above. The first signs of morning peek out over the horizon amidst the mountain peaks as anticipations for the day’s catch deepen.
In their line of work hunting season is all year long and there is no bag limit in Sangin. Even without limitations, the Marines of Combined Anti-Armor Team-2 knew that the daylong hunt could have very mixed results but if a weapons cache or improvised explosive device is out there then they will bag it.
CAAT-2, a part of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, is one of the battalion’s two mounted platoons filling a wide variety of security support roles within the unit’s area of operations. The team also conducts regular patrols from Patrol Base Chakaw into the 1/5 battalion security area and on Aug. 22, that meant going IED hunting.
The battalion security area is primarily desert terrain and an unfriendly environment for regular infantry companies to conduct foot patrols, which is why the mounted team in vehicles expands the capabilities of the battalion. Spread out over more than 85 square kilometers, the area is just a little bit bigger than most hunting preserves with an excess of 21,000 acres of hills, compounds and a whole lot of sand.
Their mission included the search of 15 compounds, spread throughout the BSA, and the conduct of a reconnaissance of their surroundings throughout the day.
“It is important to be able to dismount and search compounds because you can’t do anything in this kind of battle from just a truck, period,” said vehicle commander Cpl. Nicholas Bruns, who doubles as a fire team leader for CAAT-2 when they are on foot. “We have to be able to get out there and engage the population. Plus, we are not going to find anything or be able to defeat the enemy from just sitting in the trucks.”
The mission does not stop there. With a three-day supply of food, water and ammunition, the team pushes out first by truck and then on foot to clear compounds at the farthest corners of the battalion’s area. The Marines will also seek out local citizens. They are ambassadors to villagers who have had little or no interaction with coalition forces.
“The biggest thing is that we are going out to the random compound where nobody has been,” said Bettendorf, Iowa, native Bruns. “By going out to those compounds we get to interact with people and we have seen it work. For example we know this guy who started to trust us and has told us about multiple IEDs.”
Despite their best efforts to win over the people, the Marines take no chances assuming any populated area is free from explosives. Marines like Sgt. Thomas Prater still have to clear not only the interior of compounds but also the surrounding areas for weapons caches nearby. His job is to sweep the compounds for IEDs. While slightly different from traditional hunting, this requires him to employ the same, if not more, patience and observation to find the subtle indicators of disturbed earth an emplaced IED leaves behind. Any good hunter uses the same skills to find his target.
“You will find stuff right outside compounds too, because they don’t want to necessarily keep it inside their compounds but they want to have eyes-on the cache,” said Fancher, Ill., native Prater, who serves as a vehicle commander. “The insurgents rarely ever put things where it is obvious to a mounted patrol.”
This is one of the reasons why it is important for CAAT-2 to dismount out of their vehicles and search abandoned compounds on foot. Enemy forces have been known to use abandoned compounds as storage facilities to sustain insurgent activity that plagues the other companies within 1/5’ area.
“As we did today; we went through the abandoned, but rarely will you ever find caches in the abandoned compounds because they have no one to watch over it,” said Prater, a 2006 graduate of Coden-Herrick High School.
This hunt ended differently when the Marines reached the final compounds in their search. Marines assigned to the clearing element uncovered a cache of more than 30 pounds of homemade explosives stored in one of the abandoned compounds.
“Where we found it at, enemy fighters use it as a logistical hub for guns, drugs and explosives,” said Prater. “A lot of time what they will do is go down from the green zone, pick up their stuff and go back to plant it.”
The “green zone” is an area along the Helmand River in Sangin that strikes a path of green vegetation amid the barren desert CAAT-2 presently operates in.
Explosive ordnance disposal technicians, rolling with CAAT-2 from EOD Co., 8th Engineer Support Battalion, moved in to destroy the cache of homemade explosives. With the current IED threats facing 1/5 Marines, the technicians believe that this particular cache would have been broken up to make anywhere from six to ten IEDs targeting dismounted patrols.
The Marines of CAAT-2 know that their hunting efforts and long days in the battalion security area help secure the more densely populated Sangin District Center from the trafficking of drugs, weapons and explosives. This find was just 30 pounds of the more than 300 pounds the team has found and recovered from insurgents fighters.
“The only reason why us going out there and finding the homemade explosives is important at all is because it’s IEDs out of the ground,” said Bruns. “It’s IEDs that Marines aren’t stepping on.
The similarities between hunting and clearing operations diverge in purpose. The traditional hunt stateside Americans think of is a recreational endeavor. Marines who have deployed to Sangin will forever think of the hunt as a preventative search to remove dangerous materials used against their brothers.
“Every single pound that we can take away from the insurgents before they put it in the ground and someone steps on it,” said Bruns. “That is someone else going home whole and that is the most important thing out here.”
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 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 Force 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.
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This work, Marines go hunting – Sangin style, by Sgt Benjamin Crilly, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.