Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rocket Attack at PB Karma

June 6, 2010: Patrol Base Karma, Weapons Platoon, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, Helmand Valley

They must have mis-spelled my name, the Taliban that is. It’s a common mistake. Even the best meaning of folks add an “e” to the end-Faye rather than the correct Fay. Sometimes I politely remind them that the vowels are a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y; placing an e after the y isn’t necessary for the correct pronunciation of Fay. I’m not generally known for being efficient, but when it comes to my last name-three letters does quite nicely thank you.

At 1630 today a Taliban 107mm ChiCom (Chinese Communist) rocket plowed through the back compound wall and exploded in a rear room of Patrol Base Karma (the squad normally living there was out at another observation post). This was our second attack of the day. It had my name on it, sort of. It missed me one meter to the left. I was sitting on the cot closest to the rear hatch in the back hallway right next to the room it sliced into. Maybe I should re-think making a fuss over minor mis-spellings.

Today started out like any other. I’ve been in Afghanistan about a week now and the morning routine is pretty much set. Get up around 0530 (it starts getting light about 0500), shake out boots (scorpions and spiders), and head to the piss tubes. Return to cot and grab worn green towel and toiletry kit (my fiancĂ©e Janis gave it to me for Christmas-it’s L.L. Bean and has a monogram of my initials) and head over to the hygiene pit (pick up a couple bottles of water on the way). Wash essential body parts-private bits and hair. If it’s the every other day, I shave. Brush teeth and floss. Take Prozac, Doxy and blood pressure medicine. Eat an MRE. If nature calls extra loud, get a wag bag and retire to the ad hoc toilet facility in the compound’s former stable.

This is my first full day at P B Karma so I start by exploring. The night before we had humped the five clicks from FOB Gorgak down to Weapons Company’s furthest south outpost, Karma. Beyond Karma there are only Taliban until the Pakistan border. The walk down a dirt road the Marines call Route Giants last evening was lovely. The fields and earthen compounds, framed by lines of mulberry trees, glowed in the sunset. The sequins on the little girls’ dresses and boys’ distinctive Kandahri caps flashed at us from the eastern bank of the deep irrigation canal we strolled along. Down in the canal laid deep beds of reeds filled with the bird sounds. But, by the time we arrived at the outpost the gloam was thick and night was mere minutes away. I couldn’t get a good look at the place. These patrol bases are blacked out after sunset.

Weapons Company believes PB Karma had been a hospital of sorts. When they took possession of the main building they found one of the four rooms splattered with blood and reeking of decay. They call that the death house. Despite a thorough scrubbing the sweet nauseous odor of death still seeps from its walls. The building itself is a one-story square with a cruciform layout. The structure is somewhat unusual for this area; it is very symmetrical and made of poured concrete. In fact, it sits on a dais of concrete about three feet high. There are sets of steps leading up to the platform, which forms a wide porch all way around, at all four cardinal directions. Each set of steps directs you through a door way. At the nexus where the two broad hall ways meet is a card table, where a game of hearts, spades, Texas hold ‘em or chess is usually in session 24/7. Two of the rooms are living quarters for Marines, one is the COC (command operations center) and the third (the death room) is the Medical Aid Station. The hallways are lined with sleeping cots and big improvised bins holding hundreds of water bottles. The walls are covered with gear and flak jackets hanging on something the Marines call Jesus nails-they’re big. The flight of stairs leading to the roof has the loopy symmetry one comes to expect in Afghanistan. Each step has its own logic and you need to respect it with each trip up and down them.

On the roof are sandbagged fighting positions with fifty caliber machine guns and grenade launchers, and an assortment of communication equipment and antennas. A little cupola caps the stairs and on top of that is Sable missile launcher perched in its own mini-fortress of green sandbags. It’s hot on the exposed roof, but surprisingly cool in the rooms and halls below.

The whole compound is surrounded by a two story earthen wall with vehicle access through an ornate blue metal gate. The area directly to the front is lined with MTAVs and MRAPs, dusty and mud caked behemoths designed to withstand IED blasts. Around the compound wall are various stations for washing uniforms, preparing and eating food, relieving oneself, sleeping and working out. The dog handlers, both trackers and bomb sniffers, have shaded lean-tos set up in two of the corners for themselves and their dogs.

After my tour I attached myself to a working party heading for a tree line just beyond the wire. Mulberry trees line virtually every major irrigation canal and the ones a hundred meters west of Karma block a good view of a village compound the Marines regularly take small arms and RPG (rocket propelled grenade) fire from. The detail was lead by Staff Sergeant Worley. His team, with little more than a small hack saw, a machete and a couple axes commenced to top off a couple stubborn mulberries. The work was arduous, hot and energy sucking. Marines alternated between swinging less than sharp axes at trunks, clambering up to exposed positions with the hack saw and machete to trim branches, and standing watch in the shade. That is until an RPG swooshed in and detonated fifty meters away.

A couple of Worley’s Marines on our right saw the “poof” and the rocket trail and returned fire to the point of origin. We quickly retrograded back to the patrol base through chest high fields of dried poppies. Up on the roof the sniper teams were scanning the seemingly abandoned village for signs of movement, or even another RPG launch. No joy. The hot quiet of the day settled back around us. The Scan Eagle drone buzzed overhead and the swallows cart wheeled through the air and into their mulberry rookeries completely oblivious to our presence.
Returning fire from roof top positions at PB Karma

After monitoring the snipers and looking through a set of binoculars for an hour, hoping to get a glimpse of anything out of the ordinary, I retired back to the relative cool interior of the building. I seated myself on an available cot and picked up a well-worn copy of a book detailing the experiences of Marine snipers in Iraq. A group of guys settled into a game of hearts at the central card table and off to one side two more started a chess match.

A distant wham was followed almost instantaneously by a concussive blast, a shower of dirt and shrapnel, and a thick billowing cloud of orange dust rolling down the hallway. I moved faster than I’ve ever moved before down the hallway away from the very close point of impact. As I ran crouching over I instinctively started running my hands over my body and down my legs. Shouts of “anyone hurt, anyone hurt” echoed off the still ringing walls and personnel dashed to the rear of the building expecting to find wounded.
In the right foreground is the cot I was sitting on. At the left margin there is a metal door slightly ajar with the upper glass portion missing. Through the opening of the door you can see a jagged dark area with a small white highlight where the rocket breached the wall.
My gear on the portion of the dias facing the outer wall initially penetrated by the rocket.

A gaping hole, about six feet across, became visible through the clearing dust. It was high and almost direct center on the rear wall. My little sleeping area and gear, on the dais, was covered in debris. The cammie netting that had covered the weight lifting area was down and a jagged hole in the building’s back wall showed where the round had breached the rear room. The field beyond the wall was on fire and throwing up sheets of black smoke.

Miraculously no one was severely injured. LCpl Echelson, who’d been sitting on the cot directly in front of me, had some minor bleeding low on one leg, but that was it. I was glad to see Worley. Moments before the impact he and I had exchanged a greeting as he headed to the weights to exercise. I thought for sure he had been right there. Worley, who took a moment to go around the side of the building to grab a bottle of water, was now seriously thinking about taking up religion.

At first the Marines were saying it was an RPG, but one of the EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) guys collected up a bunch of parts and discovered it was a Chinese made 107mm rocket. I took a still life photo of the bits Sergeant Mesa had painstaking sifted from the chaos in the shattered back room. Thank God no one had been inside.
107mm Chinese Communist rocket remnants

According to the Marines, the Taliban had just had a pretty good poppy harvest and were flush with cash. The appearance of ChiCom rockets soon followed. Apparently they had a couple new toys to play with.


Bag Blog said...

That was pretty amazing. I'm glad no one was there, but still very scary.

A.G. said...

Scary stuff on on not quite your number, I'm sure it makes stop and take a breath.

It's kind of funny, your the one who got me reading Max Uriarte's, but why are the 0351 assaultmen, not being issued detcord to snap off the Mulberry trees? They would not have to use the dull axes, and waste time being sniper bait. I know this is not anything you have any control over, I'm just curious.

Good luck, and please keep the reports going, it the only way we are getting the real info.

A.G. Russell

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Anonymous said...

What important work you are doing. And your drawing/painting/sculpture is wonderful. I was reading your blog on Marine Corps values and agree that Officers Eat Last is a brilliant concept in so many ways. You ask if Wall Street, govt, executive suites wouldn't be better off if they followed that rule. Yes. Why is there not the connection that if the Marines are a collective, why not the civil society? Why are so many in the groups that supply us with Marines so opposed to any American policy that considers us as a community, worthy of the common good, like a health care system that doesn't penalize a person and family for having a disease? Aren't the friendss of Marines (who have VA single payer health care) subjected to the horrors of the profit-motivated insurance system? I really wish I could understand the disconnect between what you say are values of Marines and the lack of interest in applying those values to people who may be different, or far away. I just can't figure it out. Thanks. And keep up the important documenting of individuals and the wars.