MIAN POSHTEY, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines poured into southern Helmand province when Operation Khanjar kicked off July 2, marking the largest helicopter insertion of any U.S. military force since the Vietnam War. Some units found conditions on the ground to be relatively quiet, but other Marines encountered heavy contact from Taliban militants upon their arrival. Company E, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, is one of the units that have been heavily engaged with insurgents over the last five weeks.
When the company landed here with its more than 200 Marines, they immediately set up a security perimeter and were entrenched by 9 a.m. For the first couple of hours, there was nothing. The only things that could be seen were Afghan civilians departing the area in anticipation of a fight that would come soon, recounted 1st Lt. Kyle Kurtz, executive officer of Co. E.
"After about two hours or so, we started taking some initial pot shots on the perimeter that steadily grew to fire from all directions," the Greensborough, N.C., native continued. "It was pretty heavy — indirect fire, small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades — everything they had, they were shooting at us."
The Marines sustained intense battles while carrying a heavy load — enough ammunition, food and water to sustain the unit for 48 hours.
"We started having quite a few heat cases — four or five in the first day," Kurtz said.
For the first week and a half, Co. E was engaged in at least two significant firefights each day — one in the morning and one in the evening. After that point, the company re-positioned to what the enemy had used as a base of operations during the initial days of Operation Khanjar.
"We were most heavily engaged from the position we are in right now," said Kurtz. "We determined that this would be the best position and that we would make it our main command post."
Overall, the heat has been the biggest issue for the company's medical staff, according to Petty Officer Third Class Philip Davila of Peteronila, Texas, Co. E's senior corpsman. "We try to mitigate heat cases by ensuring the Marines have plenty of water, food and IVs."
The reason most of the unit corpsmen's patients have only been heat casualties or had sustained minor injuries is due to the responsiveness and reliability of the casualty evacuation system, according to Navy Lt. Robert Quinton, assistant surgeon for 2/8 and Runnemede, N.J., native. "We have never had one casualty evacuation request denied. The helicopters have come in the face of RPGs and other enemy fire."
Although the Co. E Marines are still engaged in firefights nearly every day, they have started to see improvements in their ability to communicate with the civilians that have returned to the area.
"More and more people are talking to us on patrols," said Pfc. Benjamin Walsh, a rifleman who grew up in Edicott, N.Y. "It seems like they are becoming more friendly as they get used to us."
The Marines of Co. E are eager to learn about the culture and get a better understanding of the people, according to Kurtz. "That kind of attitude makes the COIN (counter-insurgency operations) successful. They believe in the mission and are willing to do what it takes to achieve that mission for long-term change."
"I believe the kids here should have the same opportunities that my kids have, but with the Taliban here, they do not have that chance," said Sgt. Thomas Joiner of Panama City, Fla., who has six of his own children.
"There is definitely a section of the population that is sick of the Taliban and not happy with the way of life they have provided," said Kurtz. "However, the company has only been in its current area of operation for about a month and a half ... it is too early to expect a complete success."
One significant event the company recently experienced was a shura involving the district governor. The meeting brought numerous villagers who expressed several concerns the Marines had not been aware of due to their focus on the enemy attacks.
"Since the shura, we have received a steadier flow of local interaction and more sources willing to talk to us about the Taliban's activities," Kurtz commented. "Although they do not do it openly, the locals are becoming more willing to help us out."
Kurtz is proud of the efforts of his Marines. They are fully willing to take the fight to the insurgents until there is stability in the area. The Marines face extreme temperatures and regular insurgent attacks, but they are motivated and press forward every day.