MARJAH, Afghanistan — The bullets snapped overhead angrily, and all I could feel were the insects crawling up and down my legs and the sludgy water seeping into my boots.
That’s how I’ll remember an ambush on a Marine patrol today, in which I saw my first warzone firefight.
It began at about 12:30 p.m., as 10 members of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, and six Afghan National Army soldiers pushed east on a dirt trail splitting two agricultural canals in central Marjah. The sky was clear and the air temperature had crept into the 90s, as the hot Afghan sun punished everything below.
It was supposed to be a quiet, routine day. The patrol, led by respected squad leader Cpl. Anthony DePrimo, 21, was outside the wire to collect census information, interviewing local farmers and photographing them for a database the Marine Corps is building. The group already had been outside the wire for nearly two hours and was beginning to work their way back toward the Yellow Schoolhouse, an abandoned, rundown school in Marjah from which dozens of Marines with India Company 3/6’s 3rd Platoon patrol and live.
As the Marines worked their way east to west along the trail, the last member in the squad, Lance Cpl. Thomas Haas, noticed three boys, all between 8 and 10 years old, watching the group. Afghan children frequently watch the Marines closely and joke around with them, but these kids were different. They took off sprinting soon after the patrol turned onto the trail from a main road called Gorilla, raising questions in Haas’ mind about where they were going.
The front end of the patrol had traveled several hundred yards down the trail when Haas, suspiciously scanning the area from the rear, saw two gun-wielding insurgents maneuvering out from behind a farm compound building nearby.
“I saw one of them running, crouched down in blue with an AK47,” said Haas, 27. “The second was wearing white and had a white cap, and he was carrying an RPK,” a 7.62mm machine gun frequently used by the Taliban.
Before the insurgents could open fire, Haas opened up with his M16A4 rifle, causing them to scatter. The insurgents returned fire, and then two more insurgents with AK47s hiding near another compound about 300 yards south — waiting for the foiled ambush to begin, no doubt — joined the fight.
At this point, Military Times photographer Tom Brown and I had already dived off the trail and into a canal on the right side. The water was about knee-deep, but it flowed about six feet below the trail, putting us safely out of sight. Thorny bushes cut into our arms and legs, as Hospitalman Novice Casey McLaughlin, the unit’s medical corpsman, joined us in the ditch, staying with us to provide security.
Nearby, the Marines began to maneuver through the canals back toward their attackers. Several Marines opened fire, including Lance Cpl. Jonathan Francis, who accurately launched four 40mm grenades from an M203 launcher near the insurgents firing from the south. The compound eventually caught fire, as it was hit with machine-gun fire from the SAW.
The gunfire lasted no more than five minutes, and no one was hit. The insurgents escaped south, with two of them hopping on small motorcycles. An F/A-18 jet, an unmanned aerial vehicle and two Cobra gunship helicopters soared overhead, providing aerial reconnaissance of the area and security.
The Marines I was with didn’t find their attackers, but they did search a nearby compound, confiscating three bags of ammonium nitrate, commonly used to make improvised explosive devices, and an AK47 assault rifle.
Another group of Marines detained five men nearby. By nightfall, four of them had tested positive for having gunshot residue on their hands.