Marjah, Afghanistan. Marines only half-jokingly compare it to the surface of the moon. There are signs of life—the landscape and villages are interwoven with lush agricultural fields, tree lines, and irrigation canals—but other parts are bleak, rocky, and dusty. One of the first things you notice about the place is the dust. It consumes you. From the ground to the air, from your gear to your throat, the dust takes over. With every step, a little cloud of dust puffs up under your boot, no matter how hard-packed the ground is. By 2010, after nine years of a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the ground at the major bases was about as hard-packed as could be.
The temperature is somehow more dramatic than you expect. It’s hotter in summer than you imagined was possible, and it’s colder in winter than you are prepared for. The temperature extremes are more evident at night. In September you have to drink a bottle or two of water before bed to make up for what you’re going to sweat out in your sleep, but by the start of November, your cold-weather gear can’t keep the frigidness from creeping into your feet during night watches, to the point that movement becomes slow and difficult. For a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, you might as well be on the moon.
By November 2010, the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines, or “2/9,” had been in the country for four months. I had enlisted not quite two years earlier, at the very end of 2008, just as U.S. and allied joint operations were ramping up. Many of the Marines in 2/9 had joined around that time, too, and for most of us, this was our first combat deployment. We were physically trained, mentally hardened, and in a naive way, excited. We had all gone into the military with our eyes open. We knew we would almost certainly be inserted into an active war zone—but it’s impossible to ever be fully prepared for it. As a small-town Southern kid just a month past my twenty-first birthday, the situation in Afghanistan represented everything I believed in and nothing I had expected. I had grown up saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school and believing that “liberty and justice for all” was an ideal worth fighting for. To me, it meant rooting out the bad guys who had killed almost three thousand people from ninety countries—people of every race, religion, and ethnicity—on September 11, 2001, as well as, hopefully, ending the brutal Taliban rule that had oppressed and killed so many Afghan people.
We had hydration packs to combat the extreme heat, and cold-weather gear to try to conserve what heat we could at night. We were issued phrase books to help us engage in basic communication with the locals, and try to understand their customs. But as thoroughly as the Marine Corps had prepared us tactically, the culture shock was overwhelming; we’d been transported into a world of mud homes and villages that went back hundreds of years, dominated by ways of life that probably went back thousands.
If I had to summarize Marjah in one word, it would be “harsh.” There is a harshness to the land, to the climate, to the way of life . . . and to some of the people. Like the guys who had been throwing grenades at us for the past two days. Then again, that may not be fair; some of the guys who placed IEDs (improvised explosive devices) or shot at us only did it because the Taliban threatened to kill their family if they didn’t . . . but I guess that kind of proves my point. Afghanistan is harsh.
The grenades were actually a new thing for us; up to that point, the Taliban had mostly sent bullets in our direction, and the occasional rocket. Grenades are tricky because for them to be effective you have to be in pretty close proximity to your target—no farther away than you can throw. Thankfully most of the bad guys we’d encountered so far had seemed to want to keep their distance. But we were in a new compound now, having taken it on November 19, and the setup was not exactly what we would have chosen.
There were terrible blind spots in our position, which allowed bad guys to get much closer to us than they would have normally attempted. But up until the grenades started, I hardly even noticed the noise of them shooting at us anymore. There were certain sounds I never would have imagined that I could tune out, like AK-47s being shot at me with the intent to kill, but at some point, your brain starts registering certain input as more of a nuisance than a threat. Besides, bullets were not our main concern. We were focused on avoiding the IEDs that were stretched across roadways and walking paths and inside of walls. They had taken quite a toll on 2/9. On September 30, Lance Corporal Timothy M. Jackson had been killed by an IED. Then in mid-November, IEDs had taken out two more of our guys. By the end of our seven-month deployment, we’d lost almost two dozen men—amazing Marines and sailors, all of them.
One of those remarkable Marines was our squad leader, Zach Stinson, who stepped on an IED that had been placed underground near a wall that separated two villages. The scariest thing about an IED is that, without a metal detector, a well-placed one can be almost impossible to spot, even in broad daylight. You’re lucky if the person who placed the IED is inexperienced or lazy because they will leave red flags, like disturbed dirt or a small trash pile that looks like it might have been constructed to hide something.
On November 9, at about 1:00 P.M., we were walking on patrol through one of the dried-up irrigation canals that crisscrossed the landscape. We were scanning the terrain for Taliban and making our way toward the next town we needed to secure—when another dreaded explosion went off.
The shock wave of the blast rippled through our patrol.
I was the fourth man in the patrol. The cloud of dust engulfed me as the debris rained down. The stomach-wrenching curiosity of who had been hit began to sink in. It took a few seconds to locate Stinson because he had been blown about fifteen feet and was on the other side of the wall of the canal. We found him folded in half like a lawn chair. His one remaining foot was up by his head and his legs were mangled.
Christopher “Doc” Frend, our corpsman (the Marine Corps term for a combat medic), quickly evaluated the scene and announced, “I think Stinson is dead.” It didn’t seem possible anyone could survive that.
Incredibly, Stinson called out, “I’m not dead. I just can’t move.”
Doc rushed over to him to administer triage care while other Marines called in a medical evacuation helicopter (medevac) and our squad moved to provide cover. Just as we got into position, insurgents opened fire and began their attack; they often attack after an IED blast because they know that our corpsman will be with the casualties, leaving us exposed and vulnerable.
Doc tried to pull Stinson to a safe location while I laid down fire to suppress the shooters. Two other Marines rushed to help Doc drag Stinson to safety behind the other canal wall. As they did, they realized that one of his legs was no longer attached to his body; what was left simply stayed on the ground as he was dragged around the corner.
While Doc applied tourniquets, Stinson asked us to take care of his wife back home, who was pregnant, and he talked to us about our mission. Doc gave him an injection of morphine for the pain, but it didn’t knock him out; he somehow remained conscious. We were under attack the entire time we waited for the medical evacuation helicopter to arrive—almost fifty minutes.
It was the worst thing I ever witnessed.
A few hours later, after the sun had set, I was on my shift as radio watch, back at Patrol Base (PB) Beatley, listening to information as it came in from the Marines who were outside of the wire. During the silence of breaks in radio traffic I couldn’t help but let my mind wander back to the hours before. Was Stinson still alive? How would his wife and family handle the news? Would I be able to survive something like that if, or when, it happened to me? As my brain raced to compartmentalize the recent past, my present reality suddenly became even worse.
Loose dirt crumbled out of cracks in the walls as the room shook; a second later, the sound of a massive explosion reached us. More than a mile away, Lance Corporal Dakota Huse had been making his way through dark fields and tree lines with his squad on night patrol; they were moving toward a village to our south. The Taliban would flood fields in order to make it harder for us to advance quickly. The inundated fields didn’t slow down our tall guys much, because the water was only about as high as their boots; but for shorter guys, like Dakota and me, the water was up to our ankles and even our calves at times. Between the water, our 22-pound Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), 20 to 30 pounds of machine-gun ammo, and 45 pounds of gear, it was hard to move quickly. And the Taliban knew that.
As Huse and his squad approached the village, he reached a goat path—a small trail that surrounds an agricultural field and allows locals to travel through the patchwork of land without damaging their crops. Stepping onto it a few moments later, nineteen-year-old Dakota, from Greenwood, Louisiana, took his last step and breath on this earth.
We had no idea what the next two weeks had in store for us.
TEN DAYS LATER, WORD CAME FROM COMMAND THAT WE NEEDED to expand our area of operation to create more of a presence in the area. My squad got orders to help establish a new compound in a village to the south—the same one where Huse had stepped on the IED—because it was a Taliban stronghold in the region. It was late afternoon, and we packed up our gear to start our push from Patrol Base Beatley toward the village as soon as the sun started to set. The walk was only about two clicks (kilometers), but it was better to do it at night because the Taliban rarely attack when it’s dark; they know we have night-vision capability.
Second squad had found a house with a fairly good vantage point when they had patrolled the area earlier, and our job was to take that building and use it for observing the village and as a home base as we sent out patrols. Whenever that happened, we had vouchers we would give to the occupants,
which they would take to the nearest FOB (forward operating base) in the area, where they would get paid for the use of their building. Our move there was uneventful, though the people in the home were reluctant to leave at first, which is understandable. But eventually they accepted the extremely generous voucher and cleared out so we could set up. We named every patrol base after someone who had been killed, but since there was already a PB Jackson elsewhere in Afghanistan, we dubbed the house PB Dakota, in honor of our friend who had died just days earlier. (For a satellite image of PB Dakota, see here
in the photo insert.)
The village compound was tiny—no bigger than a hotel conference room—and the home we were occupying was only two stories high, though it was one of the largest structures in the area. Unfortunately, the intel we had received proved accurate: There were Taliban in the village, and they weren’t happy about our arrival and choice of landing spot.
As we unpacked our gear for the night, Nick Eufrazio and I chatted a bit about what might be waiting for us at this outpost. Nick was one of my best friends, even though we couldn’t have been any more different. He was from Plymouth, Massachusetts, and cursed like a sailor; I was a Southern boy who had grown up going on church youth group mission trips. That’s part of why I thought Nick was so great: He was my complete opposite, but he was fiercely loyal. He was the youngest guy on our squad, yet he also was one of the most respected. Nick didn’t care whether you looked like him, sounded like him, thought like him; it didn’t matter if you cheered for the Patriots and the Red Sox or the Falcons and the Braves—he was going to have your back no matter what. In high school, he had been a part of the Young Marine program, and his singular goal in life was to become a “Mustang”—that is, to be selected for Officer Candidate School from the enlisted ranks. He was the first to volunteer for the tasks no one wanted, like manning a checkpoint for locals, and he always did it with enthusiasm. His trademark gesture was a little thumbs-up. It was a simple gesture, but always accompanied by a smile. When Nick gave you a thumbs-up, you knew he was already on top of whatever you were asking from him. Every day, his attitude and outlook inspired me to be a little better, too—not just a better Marine, but a better person. His example encouraged me not just to have the cleanest weapon and heaviest pack; he was the sort of person who made you want to attack your day and life.
The next day, when it was my turn to stand post on the roof—that is, to scan the surrounding landscape and buildings for any enemy activity—an enemy sniper started firing on my position, with me in his crosshairs. The rest of the guys on the ground floor were scrambling to fill sandbags and toss them up so I could continue stacking them to build a protective wall around me while I laid down, manning my Squad Automatic Weapon, a light machine gun. It was the worst kind of multitasking. We were short on sandbags and the helicopter supply drop that was supposed to be delivering more supplies for us had been delayed, so we had to make do with what we had. Usually, the enemy tended to be pretty terrible shots. I don’t know if it was the fact that they were using Cold War–era weapons left over from the Soviet invasion in 1979, or because many of them were goat herders and poppy farmers rather than formally trained soldiers.
But the sniper didn’t let up, and unfortunately for me, he happened to be the rare skilled shot among the Taliban. Although I was able to build a small barricade on the roof without getting hit, each time he fired a round, I could feel a thud where the bullet struck the sandbags I was lying behind. As the afternoon sunlight started to fade, I was instructed to get off the roof and keep post in the room directly below. I gouged out a little hole in the wall so I could have a better vantage point, and about forty-five seconds later, a rocket came barreling into the roof and the sandbag wall I’d just built, completely obliterating the post position.
It was as if I had stepped into the middle of a tornado. The debris cloud surrounding me was so thick that I couldn’t see and couldn’t breathe.
My squad members immediately realized what had happened to the roof, and Doc Frend was scrambling for his medic bag, ready to rush in to see if there were any signs of life. Somehow, I wasn’t injured and was able to get up and walk out of the room on my own. To hear my buddies describe the scene, no one realized I was alive until I appeared like Chuck Norris, strolling out without a scratch from an epic cloud of war. Never mind that my ears were still ringing and I was seeing double—it was better the way they told it.
As I stumbled out of the building, I muttered a few choice words to myself as I thought of all the sandbags we’d just lost and all the bullets I had dodged trying to build a wall that had pretty much been vaporized. It wasn’t until later that I realized how mentally wrong that reaction was. I should have been glad that I hadn’t been up there when the rocket came in rather than mad my work had been for naught.
After a big show like the rocket attack, I guess the enemy decided to take it easy for the rest of the afternoon. Later that night, at around midnight, while another Marine was on post, the roof collapsed from the damage done by the rocket earlier that day. He was fine, but we had officially lost the roof as a vantage point.
From this post we were facing four major challenges. The first was that we had previously had two positions in the compound on each of the two roofs, but now we only had one, so we had to double up on the remaining roof. The second was that it wasn’t a great position to begin with, since we couldn’t see as far out as we would have liked from just two stories up. The third was that we were now dangerously low on sandbags. And the fourth was that, because we only had enough sandbags for a three- or four-foot stack, we would have to stand post in a somewhat reclined position in order not to be exposed. That limited our vantage even more because we could not see directly over the edge of the building with...