- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Aaron Ferencik
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
The men of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines looked like ghosts to me. They were thin from too many foot patrols and gaunt-eyed from too little sleep. They mostly stayed inside of their warehouse-sized berthing area on Manas Air Base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. They ventured out only to eat hot lasagna at the chow hall or to shower or to smoke cigarettes under the awnings while the rain came down. As I walked by the open door of their building one day I saw rows of men lying in bunkbeds. They looked at the ceiling or the ground or straight into their pillows. They were surrounded by each other but each man was very much alone.
It was very quiet near their building and the lack of noise jarred me. There was no trash talking. No football throwing. No roughhousing. None of the hallmarks of a unit returning from combat, happy to be headed home. Clearly, their experience in Sangin district, Afghanistan, had been an unusually harrowing one, even by the standards of Helmand province.
One day, the squad leaders and fireteam leaders in my company, who were on their way into Afghanistan, met with a young, dark-haired Corporal from Kilo Company for an informal class. He had long hair, low-bloused boots and a dirty combat mustache. He spoke with his hands in his pockets, sunglasses on, spitting dip on the ground. He didn’t address anyone by rank. Though we were all combat veterans, we still wore clean uniforms and had clean rifles and hadn’t spent the last seven months watching people die. He had.
He talked about what Darkhorse had learned over the last seven months, as they lost 25 men killed and nearly 200 wounded. I took extensive notes — for a while, at least.
He told us to walk in each other’s footsteps. Always have multiple pointmen carrying metal detectors, because they get blown up most often. The second pointman would clear the path to the wounded Marine, and then to the medevac landing zone.
He told us to keep hundreds of bottlecaps in our dump pouches. The second man would lay them down so you would know exactly where to step. The last man would collect the caps so the Taliban wouldn’t know where you had walked. Mark every few feet, or every footprint. Spray paint where you turn. Sweep everything.
He said that we should patrol in two elements. When one element struck an improvised explosive device or was fired upon, the other element could maneuver on the Taliban positions. It could also help out when the first element found two, three, four or five more booby traps while clearing for the medevacs.
He told us that only the location, injury, and zap card identification number mattered for medevacs; these would get the bird off the ground. Send them up quickly.
He said to use polar instead of grid fire missions for mortars. If shot at, simply lay down, even if you are in the middle of an open field. Do not run to cover, because there are IEDs in every embankment and the Taliban is two steps ahead of you. Shoot rockets into trees to rain shrapnel on hidden machine gun positions.
Tourniquets on every man. Not one or two — have five, maybe six. As many as you can carry. Create your own openings with a wall charge, because doorways are always booby-trapped. Don’t run to collect casualties. Clear to them with a metal detector, or you will die.
Make sure everyone knows how to fasten a tourniquet on their own leg. Their own arm. Two-handed. One-handed. Blind.
This information was free to us, but it came at a high cost to him. Legs flying into canals. Quadruple amputees. Arterial bleeds. Daily mass casualty events. Friends dying, mangled for life, unable to have children. His words came out emotionless and surreal, as if he had disconnected the advice he was giving from the shocking reality he had just experienced. It reminded me of when, as a child, my parents had told me they were getting divorced. All of a sudden I felt very numb. I nodded, turned around and walked back to my room to play video games. I acted as if my entire life had not just been turned upside down.
Last week a special forces soldier was wounded while inside of a small patrol base in Sangin district. He hadn’t even left the wire. The spectre of Sangin lives on.
Afghanistan, as a whole, exudes an air of hopelessness. But Sangin stands apart. It is very unlikely that the district will be retaken by the Afghan Army. Even with Green Berets and drones and airpower, the district will not be held. The Taliban there will take these high-tech body punches with impunity and throw back low-tech right hands to the coalition’s chin. Simple IEDs will kill U.S. and Afghan soldiers, while suicide bombers will destroy small bases, like they did recently in Nawa.
The ghosts of Sangin are the ones who died there and the faraway-looking Marines I spoke to at Manas in 2011. Unless the United States is willing to create more of them, we should think very long and very hard before escalating our presence in Sangin. Some things are not worth saving.
Aaron Ferencik is a co-holder of the Marine Corps chair in Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado.
Photo credit: CPL. JOHN M. MCCALL/Defense Video Imagery Distribution System/U.S. Marine Corp