COMBAT OUTPOST REILLY, Afghanistan – Last night, I went on my last foot patrol of this embed assignment.
It was eventful, to say the least.
Military Times photographer Tom Brown and I pushed north from this outpost east of Marjah with Marines from Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. Two groups – 3rd Platoon’s 2nd and 3rd Squads – left on routine security patrols within a half hour of each other. Tom and I joined 3/3, the second group – 13 Marines, a Navy corpsman and four Afghan National Army soldiers – as they stepped off at about 4:30.
It was a strenuous walk. The first squad had swept ahead of us to establish security so we could safely cross open terrain, but the land was crisscrossed with canals that needed to be hurdled and boot-sucking fields that had been flooded by farmers earlier in the day. The air temperature had cooled off considerably from its 100-degree peak earlier in the day, but it was still hot enough that our shirts clung to our backs.
For more than an hour, the patrol passed uneventfully. Marines interviewed several neighbors along the way to collect census information and continued to press north into territory they patrolled less frequently. In tandem, the squads worked north within a half-mile of each other, communicating frequently.
It was about 6 p.m. when things began to look sinister. Second Squad detected men running back and forth in a tree line several hundred yards to their north – a possible indicator of a coming ambush. Marines traveling with us in 3rd Squad observed another man 200 yards to the north in a green tunic, pointing us out to a man on a motorcycle, who sped away.
“That’s always how it starts,” said Hospitalman Novice Brandon Echols, 3/3’s corpsman, watching the man in the green tunic. “One guy pointing.”
Ten minutes later, the shooting began. Insurgents wielding a 7.62mm Dragunov sniper rifle and a 7.62mm RPK machine gun opened up on the other squad, 3/2, from a two-story building about 250 yards to their northeast. We were about 350 yards away from 3/2 to the west – out of sight behind a compound, but close enough where we could hear gunfire crackling on the evening air. Several sniper rounds narrowly missed 3/2’s Marines when they were out in the open, we later learned.
Third Squad’s Marines scrambled from compound to compound to help, hurdling a canal and keeping themselves out of harm’s way by staying on the west side of many of the buildings, opposite the firefight. Tom and I kept up, body armor rattling up and down on our shoulders as we ran.
“We’ve got to move one compound to the north!” Cpl. Shane Hume, a team leader with 3/3, told his Marines. “They’re pinned down and they need our help!”
Third Squad took over another compound as a second team of insurgents hiding to the northwest opened fire for the first time from about 300 yards away. Gunfire from AK47s snapped overhead, but everyone made it into the building unharmed.
Third Squad eventually engaged the enemy in a tree line to the east using gunfire and high-explosive 40mm rounds fired from an M203 launcher. At least one attacker was hit, Marines said. The firefight tapered off at about 6:30, when two Cobra gunship helicopters roared in overhead. Tom and I spent the majority of the battle out of the way with Echols and Lance Cpl. Michael McCracken, who maintained security on a nearby building, allowing a Cpl. James Kirkpatrick, 3/3’s designated marksman, to step onto the roof and survey the situation.
The two squads of Marines fanned through the area looking for clues to what occurred and the bodies of dead insurgents. Spent RPK and rifle rounds were found in a building where the attack was first initiated, Marines said.
Third Squad regrouped in another compound at about 7 p.m. They walked home under cover of darkness, crossing fields and canals along the way.
UPDATE, May 26: I just spoke with Cpl. Matthew Saunders, squad leader of 3/3, after he returned from an overnight mission. Saunders said some his Marines may be mistaken in saying they were fired on by a Dragunov rifle and an RPK machine gun. The likelihood is they were fired upon by AK47s and a 7.62mm PKM machine gun, which uses bigger rounds than the RPK.