SANGIN, Afghanistan — It would be hard to forget that face, even if they hadn’t seen it just the day before.
A young Afghan man stood on the side of a narrow dirt lane, watching an open-top truckload of Marines head into a volatile neighborhood in this river valley town coveted by Taliban insurgents and drug lords.
The man smiled at the Marines and waved. Then he yanked a kite string detonation cord attached to a bomb buried in the road.
A platoon from Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment would have been decimated in the attack. The battalion already had suffered more casualties than any other in the 10-year war in Afghanistan, long before its seven-month tour ended this month. But the homemade device was a dud. It smoked but failed to explode until the Marines drove safely out of the way.
The next day, the Marines shot their way back into the ravine, wounding an armed fighter who was dragged into a mosque. When they reached the alley where they had been attacked, Cpl. Jason Gaal and Staff Sgt. Nathan Stocking couldn’t believe their eyes. Both recognized a guy riding by on a motorcycle.
“Lo’ and behold, there’s our trigger man,” Gaal said.
Stocking walked the trembling flex-cuffed detainee back to base, overcompensating for his fury with exaggerated gentleness. “My buddy … my buddy,” he sang, guiding his prisoner lightly by the arm.
The arrest in March of the suspected insurgent was one of many hard-fought victories the 3/5 Marines were savoring during their last weeks in Sangin. Even by Marine Corps standards and the long history of one of its most decorated battalions, their tour that ended this month was brutal.
In October, the Camp Pendleton unit was dropped into the deadliest area of the country for international troops. Their ensuing battle for Sangin extracted a grim toll from their ranks — nearly one in four wounded or killed, most in the first three months. At least 29 Marines and sailors from the battalion and its attachments died and a couple hundred more were wounded.
When Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Sangin last month, he said he had been praying for the 3/5 Marines daily, because they had paid an extraordinary price in sweat and blood to add their names to the Marine Corps roll of honor. But the result had been a “dramatic turnaround,” in his view, for an area of the country that had bedeviled and bloodied British troops and the Afghan government for years.
“You’ve killed, captured or driven away most of the Taliban that called this place home. And in doing so, you’ve linked northern Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces, a major strategic breakthrough,” Gates told the Marines.
They had prepared for a tough fight. Anyone who Googled “Sangin,” as many of the Marines heading there did, knew that subduing the “Fallujah of Afghanistan” would be a challenge. Before the British pulled out in September, they lost more than 100 troops in Sangin, nearly a third of their war dead.
The town of mud-walled homes and concrete block bazaar stalls in the far northeast of Helmand province is flanked by jagged peaks and a patchwork of poppy fields. Its stunning beauty, remoteness and access to a strategic crossroads made it a nexus for Taliban militants.
The British had shouldered much of the security burden in Helmand province since 2006. Troop levels forced them to focus on more populated areas while they struggled in Sangin to secure the main road, the district government offices and their military bases.
With British troops penned in under constant attack, the insurgents had free rein to run weapons, fighters and drugs. The Kabul administration seemed to write off Sangin as a lost cause. Helmand governor Gulab Mangal raged at the British, “stop calling it the Sangin District and start calling it the Sangin Base. All you have done here is built a military camp next to the city,” according to U.S. diplomatic cables first publicized by the WikiLeaks website.
A ferocious fight
When the 3/5 Marines arrived, they literally stepped into a minefield.
They were warned by another unit that took command for a few weeks after the British departed, the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines from Twentynine Palms, that the density of homemade bombs dug into the dirt roads, paths, and bullet-pocked housing compounds of the Sangin valley was unlike anything international forces had encountered in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The new battalion started the tour losing 10 Marines killed and many more wounded within nine days, most of them to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Kilo Company’s introduction to Sangin began Oct. 14, when a patrol was attacked by streams of enemy machine gun fire. Amid the firefight, one Marine stepped on a homemade bomb. A minute later, a second Marine triggered another.
A Navy hospital corpsman, knowing he was surrounded by buried explosives, ran to help. He lost both his legs. Lance Cpl. Alec Catherwood and Lance Cpl. Joseph Lopez died, a squad leader was shot in the leg and incapacitated, and several other Marines suffered concussions.
With so many wounded and killed and stunned, a 26-year-old scout sniper leader operating in the distance, Sgt. Matthew Abbate, ignored the bomb threat and maneuvered in to take control. (In December, he too was killed, and the battalion nominated him for one of the Navy’s highest medals for valor in combat.)
That evening, with two platoons running low on ammunition, the company commander and his enlisted leaders walked into Patrol Base Fires to resupply the Marines. Insurgents had flooded the area to cut off the base.
The only way in was a trek through mud.
“Fires was totally surrounded,” Capt. Nickoli Johnson recalled.
During the Korean War, the 3/5 Marines had been encircled by divisions of Chinese troops in the Chosin reservoir, Johnson reminded them, but the “Darkhorse” battalion broke out under extremely dire circumstances and fought its way to the sea.
“This is your opportunity to lead a breakout of your own. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to penetrate those defenses and we’re going to chase the enemy down. We’re going to punish them where they sleep and follow them wherever they go, until we break their backs,” he said.
In October, international air forces dropped more weapons on Afghanistan than in any other month since at least 2007. Most of the Hellfire missiles, 500-pound bombs and Excalibur artillery rounds, among other ordnance, supported the Marines in Sangin, where the ferocious fight continued for months.
At first the insurgents organized complex ambushes and fought toe to toe with the Marines from elaborate defenses, including perches in trees and firing ports gouged into mud walls. Later they relied increasingly on indirect attacks, including homemade bombs, assassinations and beatings to intimidate “collaborators.”
On several occasions, Marine positions were close to being overrun. At a patrol base protecting a power station, the small unit first assigned there made a warning system out of a string of soup cans. Insurgents threw death threats for their translator over the patrol base wall at night tied to corn stalks.
The mass casualties continued, but the Marines kept pushing out of their patrol bases, deep into Taliban territory.
Lt. Will Donnelly, a popular 27-year-old platoon commander known for his willingness to drive inebriated Marines home at all hours of the night, had finally convinced his longtime girlfriend to start a family. They married in the forest of Yosemite Park two weeks before he deployed. He was shot to death on Thanksgiving Day, and his men fought back to base with his body, firing rifles and throwing grenades.
Lance Cpl. Brandon Pearson, 21, and Lance Cpl. Matthew Broehm, 22, were murdered by a turncoat Afghan soldier who gunned them down on their patrol base while they were standing post. The Afghan man drank tea and watched music videos with the Marines before the attack as if nothing was amiss. He fled that night under cover of insurgent gunfire. When the Marines later realized it had been an inside job, their blood curdled in loathing and mistrust.
Lt. Robert Kelly, another popular platoon commander who made a point of leading from the front, was killed by an insurgent bomb buried in the bank of a canal. Many of the men he served with had no idea that the 29-year-old officer, who had previously served in the enlisted ranks, was the son of a three-star Marine Corps general.
Lance Cpl. Brandon Long, whose legs were blown off, among other grave injuries, felt that he died during the bomb strike. “I was walking to the light and I heard a voice tell me it’s not your time,’” he wrote in a letter to his rifle company.
“Which way do I go?” he asked.
“The way that you came,” the voice responded. Two days later his daughter was born. Wanting to be a father to her brought him back to life, he said.
Gaal, 22, who was promoted to squad leader in January after another Marine he admired died, said “there is really no way to prepare yourself for the first time that you see somebody’s legs get blown off, or you see one of your friends get killed.
“It sucks, but the situation that we’re in, you don’t have a lot of time to sit there and think about it. You just have to keep pressing on,” he said.
As waves of combat replacements deployed to Sangin, many seriously injured Marines hid their wounds to avoid being sent home. At least two who were shot and ordered back to Camp Pendleton to recover returned months later to Sangin to finish the tour.
At a memorial service in January for three of his Marines killed in action, Lt. Col. Jason Morris, the 3/5 Battalion commander, asked: “Where do we get men such as these, men who look death in the face and continue to move forward?”
The losses were painful, but they steeled the resolve of the Marines to punish the enemy, Johnson said. “It was like throwing gasoline on a fire that was already burning.”
During a shura meeting in January, an Afghan man approached the regimental commander in charge of northern Helmand at the time, Col. Paul Kennedy, and smashed him in the face with a rock, breaking his nose. A Marine in his security detail shot the Afghan dead.
That month, a squad reinforced with snipers and machine gunners battled the Taliban in a six-hour firefight, killing at least two dozen of them. The Marines were running low on ammunition for the second time that day, night was falling and they had chased the insurgents into another unit’s area of operations before the company commander ordered them back.
The Taliban had built a mystique of being magical warriors who appeared and disappeared like ghosts. But Sgt. Philip McCulloch, Jr., the 22-year-old squad leader, said: “There were motorcycles and dead Taliban all over the battlefield. It was something you don’t see every day out here.”
The closure of about half the British bases, including checkpoints lining the main route through town, had handed terrain secured at great cost back to the insurgents.
The decision was based on manpower and a more flexible patrolling strategy. By the time the Camp Pendleton 3/5 Marines arrived, the main road was full of bombs. To resupply its northern Sangin bases, the 20-minute drive required an all-day detour through the desert, where each convoy invariably hit a bomb.
In December, the Marines secured Route 611 during a two-week operation to clear the explosives. The operation was possible in part because of a mini surge of troops and other resources sent to the greater Sangin valley that helped the Marines fortify their positions and build new ones.
A company of Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment that had been operating in Marjah took over one corner of the battalion’s area of operations, while reconnaissance Marines moved into another. Reservists from the 3/25 Battalion pitched in standing post and other duties in Sangin, and a company of tankers plus a battalion landing team of about 1,000 Marines reinforced their southern flank in Gereshk.
The influx was coupled with the infusion of extra Afghan paramilitary police forces early this year and the appointment of about a dozen district government officials, as a logjam of Afghan resources that had been particularly felt in Sangin began to break free across Helmand province, British and American civilian representatives said.
The added manpower and reopening of the road were among the factors that reached a tipping point in Sangin over the winter, resulting in a steep plunge in violence and newfound cooperation by formerly recalcitrant tribal elders. Another factor was the changing of the seasons, when head-high corn was harvested and leaves fell from the trees, depriving the enemy of cover, and cold rains degraded explosives.
The Marines assigned to the most heavily bomb-laden central areas had also learned the hard way early on that no technology was infallible and even the ground they stood on was not safe. Engineers assigned to sweep ahead of the patrols couldn’t always count on their metal detectors to find the bombs, so they shuffled their feet with small steps.
“I make sure that I’ll be the one to step on it before any of these guys,” said 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Zachary Stangle.
The bomb threat is a numbers game in the insurgents’ favor, because the Marines may find 99 explosives, but it takes just one to kill. “Fortunately we are a learning organization, and the Marines obviously want to keep their legs. They want to stay alive. So they got very good at finding them,” said Morris, the 3/5 battalion commander.
By March the battalion had encountered more than 1,000 bombs in their area of central Sangin district. Only 145 of them were strikes. The rest were found or interdicted before they could harm. By comparison, the battalion was engaged in more than 520 firefights and killed or wounded about 470 enemy fighters in that time.
Bing West, a military historian who made several trips to Helmand province in the last year, said that the innate aggression of the U.S. Marine made the difference on the battlefield. “The Marines have won. No one wants to fight them anymore,” he said.
When Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, the Task Force Leatherneck commander, sent his theatre reserve of about 400 reconnaissance Marines into the far north of Sangin in late November, fighters swarmed to the area. The recon Marines killed hundreds within about five weeks, he said. “The insurgents attacked them in that position and basically just impaled themselves on the Marines.” The intense combat helped push the largest tribe in Sangin to a cease-fire, which was clinched in January after Afghan provincial officials showed the Alikozai around the bustling and relatively peaceful provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.
The tribe broke with the Taliban in 2007, but insurgents crushed the Alikozai uprising, dragging one elder out of town behind a truck. Afghan and British forces stood by, unable or unwilling to intervene.
The latest security agreement did not live up to its promise, since attacks continued in Alikozai areas. But a steep drop in enemy activity allowed Marine engineers to finish grading and graveling Route 611 in March up to the Kajaki district border, Marine commanders said.
Rebuilding the road was central to the Marine strategy of “big stick COIN,” in Sangin — counterinsurgency operations that rely on both the carrot of development and the stick of combat power, said Lt. Col. Thomas West, a civil affairs Marine from Anaheim Hills.
“Securing that 611 route and taking it away from the Taliban is opening a huge avenue of stability,” said West, who was part of a companion surge of governance and development experts sent to Sangin. “It makes a vital economic corridor that the people here depend on.”
Capt. Abdul Hamid, 29, an Afghan army commander who has been stationed in Sangin for a year and a half, said that enemy flags and bombs used to surround the international coalition’s patrol bases. “Now, with the Marines’ help, some of the Taliban have turned in their weapons, and the people feel free to come and tell us about the IEDs. Now they know the government is dominant here.”
The true test of whether the security gains the 3/5 Marines wrought in Sangin can be sustained will come this summer, after the poppy is harvested and the traditional fighting season is in full swing. Before their replacements took over in April — the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, also from Camp Pendleton — small groups of fighters had begun to infiltrate Sangin, causing an uptick in harassing shooting attacks.
Many Sangin residents say they are weary of war. Toward the end of their tour, so were many Marines. The glamour had worn off for many gung-ho infantrymen stationed in Sangin, who declared the boring patrols to be the best.
“We’ve done what we came out here to do. This place is a lot more stable now,” said Sgt. Ivan Teran, 24. “You’re not going to hear any of these guys saying ‘yeah, let’s get some!’ … They’ve experienced just about as much as you can experience being a grunt in the Marine Corps.”
The Darkhorse Marines fought on after seeing their best friends ripped limb from limb, over and over again — five times in the case of one lance corporal this reporter spoke to. The courage of this generation of Marines in the face of such an insidious weapon, “a weapon designed to maim, a weapon designed to have psychological impact by inflicting grotesque casualties,” made a deep impression on Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the senior Marine and NATO commander of southwestern Afghanistan for the last year.
“I’m just awed by their ability every day to disregard the danger and face the enemy,” knowing what each step could cost them, Mills said.
Back in San Diego, medical staff assembled a multipart plan to help the Marines and their families with the transition home.
Sangin changed them, the Marines conceded. They wouldn’t be human otherwise. But Stocking, the 27-year-old platoon sergeant serving his fourth combat tour, said he was not worried about their mental state.
“Once everyone gets home they’re going to realize that the sky is so much bluer, the air breathes so much better,” he said.
“Guys that have been in this type of situation … they realize how good life really is.”