Thursday, May 20, 2010
It started out as a routine patrol.
It ended as one of the worst days for Alpha Company.
The routine part was one of those dreary assignments grunts get in war zones. One squad of 2nd platoon was to provide security for a team of engineers who was going to blast a path through a minefield to the top of a hill overlooking a valley leading to Kenjak-e Olya. The look out point is called Outpost Arizona.
Even though the real heat of summer hasn't arrived yet -- it can regularly reach 120 degrees in the summer -- the temperatures nudged 100 in the shade and, as they say, there ain't no shade. As far as the grunts were concerned the only redeeming part of the patrol was watching the engineers blow shit up. At the base of the hill, which rose steeply 170 feet from where the Marine vehicles were parked, the engineers fired a rocket that streamed 100 meters of 1,800 pounds of high explosives in a string up the hill. The high explosives detonated with a thoroughly satisfying bit of fury that was intended to set off any mines in its path. The engineers worked their way to the summit using smaller, rocket-launched explosives. We could see at least one secondary explosion, a mine intended for a Marine.
And while all of that was highly entertaining, the security Marines then morphed into pack mules. Every bit of food and water the men on the outpost would need had to be hand carried up the hill. That was the easy part. Coils of barbed wire and sections of the ubiquitous Hesco fencing also had to be lugged up the hill in the afternoon's blistering heat. Even fit 20-year-old Marines staggered under the loads.
It was 1800 by the time all of that was done and we had just climbed back into our vehicles when a mortar team in Kenjak-e Olya opened fire on us. Marines on top of OP Arizona actually saw the team and its mortar tube. The first three rounds of 82 mm mortars landed about 150 meters too long. The next three landed about 150 meters too short. They had us bracketed. All they had to do was split the difference on range and we'd have been able to test how mortar resistant our armored vehicles really are.
The Marines opened fire with every weapon they had. Even though the mortar tube was about 2,500 meters away, Marines with M-4 rifles blazed away. The maximum effective range of the M-4 is 800 meters. Many were firing their weapons for the first time nearly three months into their deployment. The one Mark-19, which fires a 40- mm high explosive projectile, jammed after firing one round. The .50 caliber machine gun, the only weapon in the platoon that could have been expected to be truly effective at the range, jammed after it fired each round. It got off maybe six rounds total. The M-240 medium machine guns, whose maximum effective range is 1,800 meters, burned up ammo. More about that later.
2nd Lt. Cody Hardenburgh, 24, of Long Beach, N.Y., was in overall command of the Marines at OP Arizona. He leads 1st platoon, whose men will man the outpost. He called for 120 mm mortar fire from his nearby patrol base at Sofla. The six mortar rounds appeared to land in an open field on the far side of the village. An artillery unit at a different patrol base fired six rounds of 155 mm artillery. Those rounds appeared to land near where the mortar team had been seen but some also appeared to land in the heart of the village.
Sure enough, within minutes of the mortar and artillery fire, two car-loads of wounded civilians arrived at PB Sofla's gate. One Afghan man was dead, another two were wounded. There were also five wounded children.
Without hesitation the Marines loaded the wounded into their vehicles and raced back to Combat Outpost Cafferata, where there were dedicated trauma doctors, nurses and more corpsmen. One of the wounded adults died moments after arriving at Cafferata. One other wounded man showed up on his own at Cafferata. The wounded were stabilized and sent by helicopter to even better equipped medical facilities. All survived.
But surviving their wounds may not mean a happy ending for two of the wounded, girls, each younger than 10. One of them, hit in the face by shrapnel, will be badly deformed. Another lost a foot. A Navy nurse told me that their families may well kill the girls because they will never be able to marry. Girls are a source of revenue for families; husbands pay the families for their brides. There was a wedding a few days back near our base. The bride was variously reported to be 12 or 14. The groom was in his 30s. The nurse recalled a young girl who underwent multiple surgeries for burns, whose family shot her when she returned from the hospital. "They didn't even take her to the house," she said. An Afghan interpreter, however, says that it is unlikely the girls will be killed. "But life will be a struggle for them," he said. "They will never marry."
I imagine those two girls in hospitals beds -- beds cleaner than any they've ever dreamed about. I imagine them eating strange food -- but food in endless abundance. I imagine them being treated by people whose words they can't understand but whose care must be obvious. And I imagine they worry about how their families will react to their deformities when they return home.
The one possible positive side in all of this is that the Marines believe the two dead men were part of the mortar team. Their names appear in intel files. The Marines also believe the two men died from gunshot wounds, most likely from the M-240 machine guns. That would have been damned lucky shooting at that range. But according to Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Motz, a corpsman who treated the men -- and whose judgment I trust explicitly -- said the men died from gunshot wounds.
Despite the efforts by the Marines and Navy medical workers to save injured villagers, word spread rapidly in the area about the dead and wounded. Five days later company commander Capt. Jeremy Wilkinson visited Khurghay, a village to the south. The people in Kenjak-e Olya and Khurghay belong to different tribes. Nonetheless the Khurghay village elder confronted Wilkinson with this blunt question: "What's the difference between you and the Taliban? You kill innocent people."
"We don't fire at anyone who doesn't fire at us," Wilkinson answered. "And we take care of those who get hurt." Nonetheless, it is a setback in the war to win hearts and minds.
Villagers in Kenjak-e Olya hotly deny that the two dead men were Taliban but Kenjak-e Olya is a heavily mined area. In fact the day we visited the village -- and heard the claims that the two dead men were innocent bystanders -- a motorcycle driving by the edge of town hit a mine, leaving little of the driver to bury.