The decade-long conflict may be old news at home, but in one
Marine platoon, it starts new every day
Wall Street Journal April 9, 2011
On March 17, St. Patrick's Day, a dozen Marines, coated in mud, were sloshing through poppy fields in southern Afghanistan. Walking point for the patrol, Lance Cpl. Cody "Yaz" Yazzie swept a small metal detector back and forth. Twelve grunts from the Third Platoon followed carefully in his footsteps.
Back in the U.S., the news was dominated by events in Libya, the start of March Madness in college basketball and the latest court appearance of Lindsay Lohan. The fighting season in Afghanistan had begun, too, but in the U.S., the decade-old war is now largely ignored.
It can't be ignored here in the farm fields of Sangin district, where the Taliban have buried thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One wire is attached to a flashlight battery and another to a plastic jug of explosives, and each is glued to a thin board. When one board is pressed against the other, the wires make contact, sparking an explosion.
Over the past six months, two members of the Third Platoon of Kilo Company, Fifth Marine Regiment, have been killed, two have lost limbs and eight have suffered shrapnel or bullet wounds. A quarter of the original platoon is now gone.
I had embedded with the platoon once before, in January, so the routine was familiar. A point man on a patrol detects one or more IEDs, and then a Taliban gang in civilian clothes usually opens fire. Marine snipers and machine-gunners shoot back, while a squad maneuvers around the flank, forcing the enemy to retreat.
Nighttime brings an interlude. The Taliban stay snug indoors, safe from night-vision devices. Third Platoon lives in cave-like rooms inside an abandoned compound. In the evening, the young men, all in their early 20s, act their raucous age, playing loud music and laughing hilariously at absurd jokes.
When I rejoined the platoon in mid-March, the rhythm hadn't changed. We were only an hour into the patrol when Yaz detected a wire buried in the soil. He snipped it and marked the location of the explosives for disposal by engineers. The patrol proceeded north, passing pulverized compounds and a few groups of men who stared with flat hostility. The Marines ignored them. With no police or language capabilities, the platoon knew who was an enemy only when he opened fire.
On the roof of a small, square house, a large white Taliban flag was flying. "That's the classic Italian salute," Lt. Vic Garcia, the platoon commander, said. "There's probably an IED hidden inside."
Now on his third combat tour, Lt. Garcia has infused his platoon with an aggressive instinct, but he's not foolhardy. "We're looking for a fight," he said. "But we think before we move. There's no way we'll search an empty house."
Over the radio came a report of a dozen motorcyclists converging to our front. We watched as several families ran from the fields into their compounds. About 700 yards away, two motorcyclists puttered to a stop and sat watching us.
"We got a dicker [watcher]," Sgt. Joseph Myers said. "He's crawling in the ditch to our left."
The rules of engagement forbid shooting a man for crawling forward to take a closer look or for talking on a hand-held radio, but such actions usually tip off an attack. For several minutes, the Marines watched the Taliban watching them. No shots were fired, so Yaz slowly led the patrol to the west.
The motorcyclists paralleled our movement, keeping their distance. It reminded me of an old Western movie, with the Comanches riding along the skyline, staying out of range of the cavalry's rifles. In this case, the Taliban knew they were safe as long as they didn't display weapons. Eventually we headed back to base, and the motorcyclists drove off in the opposite direction.
Since September, the Third Platoon has shot somewhere between 125 and 208 Taliban—as many as one enemy killed per patrol. That rate may not seem high, but the cumulative effect has been crushing. Marine tactics, like Ohio State football, have the subtle inevitability of a steamroller.
"We got a radio intercept yesterday," Lt. Garcia said. "Some Talib leaders in Pakistan were chewing out the local fighters for quitting. The locals yelled back, 'Marines run toward our bullets.'"
When we arrived at the Marine base a few miles away, Capt. Nick Johnson, the commander of Kilo Company, was waiting. He had watched the patrol's movement via video streamed from a tethered blimp overhead. I said it reminded me of the blimp at the Super Bowl.
"That's a different world," replied Capt. Johnson, who is on his third combat tour. "In the States, a bad day for a guy on his way to the office is a flat tire. A bad day out here is a double amputee. The public pays attention to Charlie Sheen. No one's heard of Sgt. Abate."
Sgt. Matthew Abate is the Third Platoon's hero. When a patrol hit a minefield in late October, Sgt. Abate had left his safe position and run to apply tourniquets and carry out the screaming, grievously wounded men. He was killed in action five weeks later, but only the platoon remembers his name.
When the U.S. military withdrawal begins this summer, the generals will declare success. But no one knows what will happen after that. Half of the Third Platoon believes the Afghan government will succeed, and half believes the country will remain a mess, with continued tribal fighting. Either way, airpower will prevent the Taliban from seizing Kabul.
The members of the platoon do not care about bringing freedom and development to Afghanistan. They are here because they believe they're defending America. They have volunteered to serve, and most of them will leave the military after four years, with no pension or benefits. They endure the mud, heat, stench, blood, fatigue and terror of lost limbs and lost lives. There is hard bark on these young men.
What bothers them is that the valor of grunts like Sgt. Abate goes without much public recognition. Hollywood's recent war movies tend to feature psychotics instead of heroes. Only one Medal of Honor has been awarded to a living infantryman in 10 years, and the paperwork for a second one has languished for 18 months.
The grunts chose their profession, and they draw satisfaction from their Spartan existence. Almost every member of the Third Platoon said he wanted to be right where he was, living in a cave on the most dangerous battlefield in Afghanistan. It has been a long war, and the American public has understandably lost interest, but these soldiers have not lost their devotion to the mission or their country.
Members of Kilo Co., 5th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan