Sunday, July 18, 2010
Firefight and Medevac
June 7, 2010: Patrol Base Karma, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment
It’s a dry heat. Repeat often. Staff Sergeant Worley, the Patrol Base Karma QRF (quick reaction force) leader, doesn’t want to hear the actual temperature. When Sergeant Morse, one of his team leaders, looks up from his Dick Tracy wrist GPS and announces “116 degrees” he gets back a scowl and a terse reminder to never mention the temperature. Worley, a North Carolinian, likes to pretend the temperature is always 94 degrees. Always.
We’ve been sitting out in the unforgiving Afghan sun over six hours. At 0805 the sounds of a hotly contested firefight, small arms fire and grenade blasts, erupted 700 meters off to the west of PB Karma. Worley’s QRF of a dozen Marines and an equal number of Afghan National Army troops was quickly marshaled to provide a blocking force on the eastern flank of a gun battle raging between a platoon from Lima Company and a Taliban cell.
The engaged platoon sent up a green flare to identify their position, slightly forward to our right and screened by low mud compounds. Shortly afterwards a red flare appeared over the besieged platoon’s position, one of the Lima Marines had been shot, a sucking chest wound, and Worley’s first task was to secure an LZ for a medevac helicopter. The golden hour was ticking down for the stricken Marine being tended somewhere to our right in a tree line on the far side of a large irrigation canal paralleling a major road called Route Cowboys.
On this morning the Marines of Lima had been providing a western security force for an element of US Army and Marine combat engineers’ doing IED clearing south along Route Cowboys, the central artery running through the heart of the Helmand River Valley. A parallel road on the valley’s eastern flank, Route Giants, had been cleared of IEDs down to PB Karma months before. It was now time to extend Marine presence to the intersection of Giants, Cowboys and a third road converging from the west, Tarheels. This strategic junction, only 300 meters southwest of Karma, was until now in Taliban hands. Daily sniper shots, rocket propelled grenades and 107mm rockets reminded the garrison at Karma that the enemy wasn’t going to retreat from this key intersection without a major fight. The few kilometers long stretch being cleared harbored dozens of IEDs.
This operation, Zokar Khan, had already taken the lives of three Marines. The day before one of the large MRAP mine-resistant vehicles had lost its footing on the earthen road and tumbled into one of the deep canals along Route Cowboys. Three Marines and a military working dog made it out of the quickly submerging vehicle, but three did not. Besides the heat, everyone was feeling the loss. Given their druthers, Marines would rather die in a firefight than in an accident.
We arrived at our position in the crisp stubble of freshly shorn wheat after jog through fields of chest high dried poppy stalks, and across muddy irrigation ditches. Worley had quickly deployed his Marines and Afghan National Army troops in a broad arc anchored along a ditch running east to west the length of a sprawling village compound of sun baked walls and homes. Contact with the Taliban, hotly anticipated by the QRF, failed to materialize. The sound of gunfire off to our right diminished with the appearance of Cobra gunships.
A sortie of two US Army Blackhawk medevac helicopters flared into a field 200 meters away in a great cloud of dust. Just as quickly they lifted off and were gone, leaving only dry hot silence and flights of dark blue swallows darting everywhere.
Until further notice Worley’s QRF was to hold its position. With the circling threat of Cobras overhead the Taliban melted back south beneath the thick cover of mulberry tree lines. The Lima Marines, with a wide canal lying between them and the enemy position, moved a couple hundred meters north, closer to the road clearing detail under their protection. Worley said the Taliban would be back as soon as the Cobras were off station.
Now, at roughly 1400, the PB Karma QRF found itself proned out in a shadowless expanse of Afghan fields running low on water and information. Worley’s grizzled and sunburned cheek was pressed to his radio handset asking for a resupply of water and chow. Over and over his voice could be heard repeating his call sign, Crusher Six, as he responded to requests from Karma for reports of movement to our southwest. Small dust devils danced through the fields as the Marines stared through ACOG sights at the mute face of the mud village compound bordering Route Cowboys. The day had ground to a silent sweltering halt. Somewhere in the air above, among the darting swallows, came the buzz of a Scan Eagle surveillance drone circling slowly over the contested ground.
Word was passed down. The wounded Lima Company Marine didn’t make it.