An oral history of the Helmand Line
How do you tell the story of a dead friend?
By Peter Lucier
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
How do you tell the story of a dead friend? The history of Marines in Helmand has not yet been recorded and compiled. It isn’t told in battles, nor days, like wars past. July 3rd, 1863, or June 6, 1944. It is told in cities and in years. 2/7 in Now Zad and Musa Qala, 2008. 3/5 in Sangin, 1/6 in Marjah, 2010. It is remembered in cans of Rip It drank, cots slept in, and mistakes made. The history of Helmand is worn, in tattoos and in black bracelets bearing the names of the dead. The history is passed by word of mouth from seniors to juniors. Where do you start? How do you tell the story of a dead friend? For me, it starts with a line.
Those who work in Helmand today talk about “holding the Helmand line.” For much of the war, since 2001, there hasn’t been much of a line to speak of. But I when I was there, there was a line. It moved with my battalion, my company, my platoon.
In 2008, 1/6 deployed to Afghanistan off of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, to support the Brits, who had been at a stalemate in Helmand since 2006. They fought in a place called Garmsir. When the MEU left, 2/7 was deployed to Sangin, Now Zad, and Musa Qala. My squad leader was on that deployment. He told stories about gun fights that lasted hours, and happened daily, with no real movement in the lines. After 2/7 left, and the number of Marine battalions in Helmand swelled from 1 to 3, it was reported that Marines were able to move the battle lines a few hundred yards, and establish a buffer around the city.
President Obama’s first surge of troops into the “good war” began in 2009. 2/8 made a major push, again into Garmsir, while 1/5 pushed into south as well into Nawa-I-Barakzayi. As part of the same Operation Khanjar, 2nd LAR moved south into a place called Khanashin, where the Helmand River fishhooks, before meandering west to the Afghan-Iranian border. Whatever the Helmand Line is, this was the start of what became my line. 2nd LAR secured it along that fishhook region, and held it.
4th LAR replaced 2nd, who was then replaced by 1st. This was the deployment before mine, the one on which my senior lances, team leaders, and corporals cut their teeth. Echo Company worked the highway. The other companies worked various COPs and PBs, interdicting drugs, weapons, and money flowing into and out of the key district regions further north. The thousandths American service member to die in Afghanistan died on this deployment. In October of 2010, 1st LAR pushed the line in Helmand even further south, all the way to the Pakistani border. There was a cross border town called Bahram Chah, a way station for smuggling. A company of LAVs, reinforced with special operations and air support, raided and destroyed much of the town. 3rd LAR replaced 1st, and established PB Wolfpack even further south than Khanashin.
While 2nd and 1st LAR were holding the southern Helmand line, Marines launched the “government in a box” operation into Marjah. When 1st was replaced by 3rd LAR, 3/5 began their bloody Sangin campaign. The work LAR was doing in the South was supposed to ease the major fighting in those cities, cutting off needed supplies, so that the line units in the key districts could secure the area north of the line.
3rd LAR worked the line from November 2010 to May 2011, and then 2nd from May-November. It was again 1st LAR’s turn. I deployed to PB Wolfpack that winter. We launched mounted patrols that lasted days, roaming the empty deserts. We used helicopters to patrol from the air, spotting vehicles, quickly landing and interdicting them. But only a month after arriving, word came from on high. PB Wolfpack was to be closed. For a moment, rumors swirled that we were to be sent home. But while we hit golf balls into the empty desert, the HESCO barrier walls of the PB torn down, it was decided we were to move back to the fishhook region, to COP Taghaz. Our weapons platoon had been attached there from the start of the deployment. They had already received contact at the surrounding PBs, and a corporal had been wounded.
We moved into the area. We patrolled along the canals and rivers. On December 31, our engineer was wounded in our first firefight. It was a Friday. The next Friday, the enemy engaged our platoon again, from the same area. I was not on either patrol, but rushed out on QRF for both. We killed no enemy, but did chase them off. On the second engagement, we were ready with an LAV and its 25mm cannon. The enemy heard its report, and knew our range. We were now fighting for the line. They had their half to the south of the river, we had ours to the north.
They left us gifts, letting us know the line was still in dispute. A pressure plate IED caught a logistics LAV fifty yards outside of TCP 4, the PB my platoon occupied. It was filled with our mail and packages. The driver of the vehicle suffered head trauma, and a sergeant’s jaw was broken from being hurled around the back of the vic. When we pushed out a patrol to secure the area, I was surprised they had survived. LAVs do not react well to explosions. I was even more pleasantly surprised that my Copenhagen and Reeses were relatively unscathed. We dipped good American tobacco and ate candy while waiting for the wrecker.
TCP 4 was de-militarized in January, and the line moved further north and east, back to the larger COP Taghaz, out of which we now operated, but we maintained aggressive patrolling in the area we had left. On January 31 we again clashed, en route to establish a temporary patrol base, this time putting a more bold claim on our half, killing four Taliban with an A-10 gun run. But the Taliban are not easily deterred.
Other IEDs caught vehicles on the shelf well north of the river, another platoon’s area, and pressure plates and DFCs were not uncommon in our area. There were no more fire fights, not after the LAV, and the A-10, however the Taliban sent their clearest message in April. They planted a flag, a white piece of cloth with black script, on the mound that used to be TCP 4. An early morning patrol, intended to head to the area well west, encountered the flag, and sent their point man to retrieve it. Attached, on a pressure release mechanism, was a load of home-made explosive.
We didn’t patrol much to the south or west of old TCP 4 after that. The line had moved to the north side of the river. We turned over more and more to the Afghans, and our relieving battalion, 3rd LAR, only stayed in Afghanistan for a few months. Khanashin belongs to the Taliban now.
How do you tell the story of a dead friend? Afghanistan, as a war, defies narrative. I know that my friend was a hero. I know that he was young, and brave, and beautiful. I know that on April 11, 2012 the Helmand Line was a bloody spot, on a dirt mound, along Route Crimson, west of the Taghaz Bazaar, in the Khanashin District, of Helmand Province, Afghanistan. I know we didn’t win the war, because that’s not where the line is anymore. I know that 300 Marines are heading back to Helmand, nine years after my squad leader was there, five years after I was there, and sixteen years after the war started.
Photo credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images
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