Shrapnel, dirt and stone transformed.

U.S. Marine Cpl. Ryan Hamman, a vehicle commander with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, provides security for Marines as they return from loading an injured linguist onto a DUSTOFF UH-60 Black Hawk for medevac during a security patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Patrols are conducted to disrupt enemy operations against the Bastion-Leatherneck Complex.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John A. Martinez Jr, 24 AUG 2014.)

USMC Lance Corporal Caleb L. Erickson. 28 FEB 2014.

Died in Helmand province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device while conducting combat operations. Erickson was assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

SOLDIER STORIES: Passing the torch.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Roger Merritt, a 26-year-old squad leader with the 81mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and native of Horn Lake, Miss., stands with Afghan National Army Sgt. Shabaz while clearing houses of insurgent activity. Drawing on nine years of experience and three previous combat deployments to Iraq, Merritt is focused on teaching ANA sergeants how to fulfill their duties and leadership responsibilities.
(Photo and article by Corporal Reece Lodder, 6 FEB 2012.)
This is the third installment in a series featuring members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and the Marines and sailors serving with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during their 2011-2012 deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Many are infantrymen, others are combat support, but each is the face of a historic transition in the making. They are the unique ingredients in a melting pot of servicemembers devoted to preparing the ANSF to assume lead security responsibility in Garmsir district.BANADAR, Helmand province, Afghanistan — A jagged line of boot prints ends at the edge of a dusty field tended by Afghan farmers, signaling the Marines have halted their patrol.Armed with his interpreter and a warm smile, Sgt. Roger Merritt amiably greets the men. They casually discuss farming and local education, alternating between Pashto and Merritt’s smooth southern drawl. His men spread around him, take a knee and provide security as their squad leader converses with the farmers.On the furthest edge, Lance Cpl. Garrett Reed embeds himself in the dirt and grips his machine gun. He slowly scans the outlying fields, his eyes concealed behind a dark pair of ballistic sunglasses.The two Marines are far apart in rank, billet and experience, but on their first — and likely last — combat deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, they’re part of a historic transition in Garmsir district.During their seven months spent here, Merritt and Reed, mortarmen with the 81 mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, are working to quell insurgent activity and mentor members of the Afghan National Army. These men are among the growing Afghan forces that will soon take the lead in securing Garmsir on their own.The stern, battle-hardened Merritt exercises leadership over a squad of 12 Marines. He’s labored through three combat deployments to Iraq, maturing through heavy combat and furthering his skills mentoring the Iraqi Army.Between his deployments, the 26-year-old from Horn Lake, Miss., devoted three years to training new Marines as mortarmen at the School of Infantry—East aboard Camp Geiger, N.C. He’s grown as a leader over nine years of training and combat, and now uses his experience to teach his men.“As their leader, I need to be disciplined and strict with them,” Merritt said. “But I also have to mentor them to think on their own and take initiative … to help them mature and become leaders. In some time, they’re going to find themselves in a position of responsibility. For now, it’s up to me to see they grow up to be good ones.”Though he is still a junior Marine and doesn’t yet hold a leadership billet, Reed also fills an important position within his squad. On patrol, he serves as the squad automatic weapon gunner. When the situation requires it — such as a detainment or weapons cache find — he performs a tactical site exploitation to collect information and document the scene.“Despite the little leadership responsibility I have in our squad, I’m ready at any time for what Sgt. Merritt needs to get done,” said the 22-year-old Reed, a native of Plano, Texas. “I always need to be prepared to take on more than has been assigned to me.”As Reed progresses in his service and experience, he’ll step into a billet where he has Marines under his charge. He’s led his peers in high school and college sports, but acknowledged leading Marines in combat was very different.“A leader’s decision can be the difference between bringing his men home or not,” he said.During his time spent under Merritt’s charge in both garrison and combat, Reed is developing his own style by drawing on his squad leader’s experience and example.“Even though this is his fourth deployment and he’s very senior to us, he’s not afraid to ask our opinions on things,” Reed said. “He always tells us, ‘Your Marines don’t work for you; you work for them.’ He goes out of his way to take care of us, whether this in the battle zone or back at home.”The two Marines’ responsibilities differ greatly in their squad, but they share the task of mentoring their Afghan counterparts. At their small position, Patrol Base 00, they live and operate with ANA soldiers.“Marines like Sgt. Merritt and Lance Cpl. Reed are teaching and mentoring the Afghan forces, not just telling them what they need to do and stepping back … they want the Afghan National Security Forces to be successful,” said Sgt. Maj. Andrew Cece, their battalion’s senior enlisted leader. “They’re giving everything they’ve got to provide the Afghan forces with the tools to be a strong military force once the Marines are gone.”While Merritt is called to be a mentor and example to his Marines, he carries his leadership across the fence to mentor his Afghan counterparts. He uses the knowledge he’s gained training the Iraqi Army to prepare ANA sergeants to fulfill their duties and leadership responsibilities.On the infantry side, he leads them through immediate action drills, escalation of force procedures, combat hunter training and mortar classes. From an administrative perspective, he mentors on properly creating watch rosters and tracking logistics statistics.Though he deals with a wide array of ANA soldiers, Merritt focuses on teaching the ANA sergeants to understand their role as a professional leader.“My challenge is teaching them how to lead in the absence of their superiors,” Merritt said. “Their soldiers won’t do anything wrong if the commander is around, but they should feel the same way when a sergeant is there … and the sergeant should hold them to that standard.”When partnering on security patrols and operations, Reed uses his knowledge to mentor ANA soldiers on patrolling techniques and the conduct of vehicle checkpoints. “When I’m working with them on my level, they can see there are important tasks I have to manage,” Reed said. “Even though I don’t have a leadership billet, there are still essential roles I need to fill to help keep our squad safe.”In the relatively quiet Garmsir district, Reed’s day-to-day activities are much different than what he had expected on his first deployment. The partnered efforts of ANSF and coalition forces have rooted out insurgent activity, rendering firefights and improvised explosive device attacks both infrequent and unsuccessful.Regardless, Reed said he is proud to serve in Garmsir and aid in transferring the district’s security responsibility back to Afghan forces. Shaped by further experience and a similar perspective, his senior leader agrees.“Our mission isn’t going out and getting into firefights every day; it’s helping the Afghan forces and their people to stand up on their own,” Merritt said.Though on different levels of leadership, Merritt and Reed are making their unique mark on a growing force of Afghan soldiers. They have passed the halfway point of their deployment but their work is not yet complete.“The most important thing leaders like Merritt and Reed can leave with the Afghan forces are the leadership traits and principles Marines live by every day,” Cece said. “If the Afghan forces can grasp this focus, all the other attributes of a strong military force will prevail.” High-res

SOLDIER STORIES: Passing the torch.

U.S. Marine Sgt. Roger Merritt, a 26-year-old squad leader with the 81mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and native of Horn Lake, Miss., stands with Afghan National Army Sgt. Shabaz while clearing houses of insurgent activity. Drawing on nine years of experience and three previous combat deployments to Iraq, Merritt is focused on teaching ANA sergeants how to fulfill their duties and leadership responsibilities.

(Photo and article by Corporal Reece Lodder, 6 FEB 2012.)

This is the third installment in a series featuring members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and the Marines and sailors serving with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during their 2011-2012 deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Many are infantrymen, others are combat support, but each is the face of a historic transition in the making. They are the unique ingredients in a melting pot of servicemembers devoted to preparing the ANSF to assume lead security responsibility in Garmsir district.

BANADAR, Helmand province, Afghanistan — A jagged line of boot prints ends at the edge of a dusty field tended by Afghan farmers, signaling the Marines have halted their patrol.

Armed with his interpreter and a warm smile, Sgt. Roger Merritt amiably greets the men. They casually discuss farming and local education, alternating between Pashto and Merritt’s smooth southern drawl. His men spread around him, take a knee and provide security as their squad leader converses with the farmers.

On the furthest edge, Lance Cpl. Garrett Reed embeds himself in the dirt and grips his machine gun. He slowly scans the outlying fields, his eyes concealed behind a dark pair of ballistic sunglasses.

The two Marines are far apart in rank, billet and experience, but on their first — and likely last — combat deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, they’re part of a historic transition in Garmsir district.

During their seven months spent here, Merritt and Reed, mortarmen with the 81 mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, are working to quell insurgent activity and mentor members of the Afghan National Army. These men are among the growing Afghan forces that will soon take the lead in securing Garmsir on their own.

The stern, battle-hardened Merritt exercises leadership over a squad of 12 Marines. He’s labored through three combat deployments to Iraq, maturing through heavy combat and furthering his skills mentoring the Iraqi Army.

Between his deployments, the 26-year-old from Horn Lake, Miss., devoted three years to training new Marines as mortarmen at the School of Infantry—East aboard Camp Geiger, N.C. He’s grown as a leader over nine years of training and combat, and now uses his experience to teach his men.

“As their leader, I need to be disciplined and strict with them,” Merritt said. “But I also have to mentor them to think on their own and take initiative … to help them mature and become leaders. In some time, they’re going to find themselves in a position of responsibility. For now, it’s up to me to see they grow up to be good ones.”

Though he is still a junior Marine and doesn’t yet hold a leadership billet, Reed also fills an important position within his squad. On patrol, he serves as the squad automatic weapon gunner. When the situation requires it — such as a detainment or weapons cache find — he performs a tactical site exploitation to collect information and document the scene.

“Despite the little leadership responsibility I have in our squad, I’m ready at any time for what Sgt. Merritt needs to get done,” said the 22-year-old Reed, a native of Plano, Texas. “I always need to be prepared to take on more than has been assigned to me.”

As Reed progresses in his service and experience, he’ll step into a billet where he has Marines under his charge. He’s led his peers in high school and college sports, but acknowledged leading Marines in combat was very different.

“A leader’s decision can be the difference between bringing his men home or not,” he said.

During his time spent under Merritt’s charge in both garrison and combat, Reed is developing his own style by drawing on his squad leader’s experience and example.

“Even though this is his fourth deployment and he’s very senior to us, he’s not afraid to ask our opinions on things,” Reed said. “He always tells us, ‘Your Marines don’t work for you; you work for them.’ He goes out of his way to take care of us, whether this in the battle zone or back at home.”

The two Marines’ responsibilities differ greatly in their squad, but they share the task of mentoring their Afghan counterparts. At their small position, Patrol Base 00, they live and operate with ANA soldiers.

“Marines like Sgt. Merritt and Lance Cpl. Reed are teaching and mentoring the Afghan forces, not just telling them what they need to do and stepping back … they want the Afghan National Security Forces to be successful,” said Sgt. Maj. Andrew Cece, their battalion’s senior enlisted leader. “They’re giving everything they’ve got to provide the Afghan forces with the tools to be a strong military force once the Marines are gone.”

While Merritt is called to be a mentor and example to his Marines, he carries his leadership across the fence to mentor his Afghan counterparts. He uses the knowledge he’s gained training the Iraqi Army to prepare ANA sergeants to fulfill their duties and leadership responsibilities.

On the infantry side, he leads them through immediate action drills, escalation of force procedures, combat hunter training and mortar classes. From an administrative perspective, he mentors on properly creating watch rosters and tracking logistics statistics.

Though he deals with a wide array of ANA soldiers, Merritt focuses on teaching the ANA sergeants to understand their role as a professional leader.

“My challenge is teaching them how to lead in the absence of their superiors,” Merritt said. “Their soldiers won’t do anything wrong if the commander is around, but they should feel the same way when a sergeant is there … and the sergeant should hold them to that standard.”

When partnering on security patrols and operations, Reed uses his knowledge to mentor ANA soldiers on patrolling techniques and the conduct of vehicle checkpoints. 

“When I’m working with them on my level, they can see there are important tasks I have to manage,” Reed said. “Even though I don’t have a leadership billet, there are still essential roles I need to fill to help keep our squad safe.”

In the relatively quiet Garmsir district, Reed’s day-to-day activities are much different than what he had expected on his first deployment. The partnered efforts of ANSF and coalition forces have rooted out insurgent activity, rendering firefights and improvised explosive device attacks both infrequent and unsuccessful.

Regardless, Reed said he is proud to serve in Garmsir and aid in transferring the district’s security responsibility back to Afghan forces. Shaped by further experience and a similar perspective, his senior leader agrees.

“Our mission isn’t going out and getting into firefights every day; it’s helping the Afghan forces and their people to stand up on their own,” Merritt said.

Though on different levels of leadership, Merritt and Reed are making their unique mark on a growing force of Afghan soldiers. They have passed the halfway point of their deployment but their work is not yet complete.

“The most important thing leaders like Merritt and Reed can leave with the Afghan forces are the leadership traits and principles Marines live by every day,” Cece said. “If the Afghan forces can grasp this focus, all the other attributes of a strong military force will prevail.”

USMC Master Sergeant Aaron C. Torian. 15 FEB 2014.

Died of wounds sustained from a detonated improved explosive device while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Torian was assigned to 2nd MSOB, Marine Special Operations Regiment, MARSOC out of Camp Legeune, North Carolina.

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: One last systems check.
A coalition security force member pulls security before boarding a MH-47 Chinook Helicopter during an operation to capture a Taliban commander in Nahr-e Saraj district, Helmand province, Afghanistan.
(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael G. Herrero, 18 JAN 2014.) High-res

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: One last systems check.

A coalition security force member pulls security before boarding a MH-47 Chinook Helicopter during an operation to capture a Taliban commander in Nahr-e Saraj district, Helmand province, Afghanistan.

(U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael G. Herrero, 18 JAN 2014.)

USMC Sergeant Jacob M. Hess. 1 JAN 2014.

Died in Helmand province, Afghanistan, while supporting combat operations, as a result of a non-battle related injury. Hess was assigned to Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 26, Marine Aircraft Group 26, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

 The incident is currently under investigation.  
Evening Quickie #soldierporn: I wear my sunglasses at night.
As seen through a night-vision device, U.S. Marines conduct a combat logistics patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 21, 2013. The Marines, assigned to Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, conducted the combat logistics patrol to resupply and support Regimental Combat Team 7. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz High-res

Evening Quickie #soldierporn: I wear my sunglasses at night.

As seen through a night-vision device, U.S. Marines conduct a combat logistics patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 21, 2013. The Marines, assigned to Transportation Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, conducted the combat logistics patrol to resupply and support Regimental Combat Team 7. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Anthony L. Ortiz

USMC Sergeant Daniel M. Vasselian. 23 DEC 2013.

Died in Helmand province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained during direct fire attack while conducting combat operations. Vasselian was assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

SOLDIER STORIES: Dawn’s fire.

[1] Cpl. Eric Stump (center), a Uniontown, Pa., native and squad leader with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, reviews a map with his Marines prior to conducting interdiction operations near the Bari Gul Bazaar, Nad Ali District, Helmand province, Afghanistan. 

[2] Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a Logan, Ohio, native and machine gunner with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, hunkers down behind a compound wall during a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar. Chandler positioned himself to cover a group of Marines clearing a desert compound shortly after receiving fire from insurgents.

[3] Lance Cpl. Blake Richardson, a Charleston, S.C., native and rifleman with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, stands at the edge of a smoke field clearing during a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar. Nearly 100 Marines and coalition allies engaged in a prolonged firefight with insurgents while patrolling the area to interdict Taliban movements and weapons caches and gather intelligence around the bazaar.

[4] Lance Cpl. Andrew Day, a Simpsonville, S.C., native and dog handler with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, sits with his dog, Cpl. Fiddler, after a firefight with insurgents near the Bari Gul Bazaar. Day and Fiddler helped protect a squad of Marines as they moved from compound to compound an in area known for improvised explosive devices.

(Photos and article by Corporal Paul Peterson, 4 DEC 2013.)

NAD ALI DISTRICT, Afghanistan - A threatening calm settled around 2nd Platoon as the whir of helicopter blades faded into the night. It was 5:15 a.m. with dusk nearing fast. 

We clicked on our night-vision goggles and stumbled our way through the darkness. Short, deliberate steps felt out the ground before us as the long file of Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, pushed north to the nearby bazaar. Most of the homes around the Bari Gul Bazaar were still quiet, the residents still asleep in their beds. We knew that would change quickly. The noise of the helicopters that dropped us in the open field was anything but subtle. If there were fighters in the area, they would find us soon.

Through the dim, green sparkle of my goggles, I spotted what seemed to be the silhouette of 2nd Lt. James Salka leading his team forward. He was one of the first Marines I met before the mission.  I committed his stern face and piercing green eyes to memory in case I needed to find him during the mission. It did me little good now in the darkness. In any event, the shadowy figure seemed to be in charge, so I tottered forward to snap off a few shots. 

It was Salka. A communications antenna rose off the back of the Marine next to him and cut into the deep blue glow of the morning sky. He gripped a radio handset and studied his map under a dim light. The photos didn’t turn out in the dark, so I fell in line with some Marines watching the perimeter.

I killed the power to my night vision and flipped the device atop my helmet. Most of the Marines had already done the same in the security positions around Salka. He gave his platoon a few moments to set up supporting positions with snipers and machine gunners, who could cover us as we moved through the open field.

Daylight broke the horizon. We pushed. 

CONTACT

Intelligence reports stated insurgents were using the bazaar as a front to move lethal aid in Nad Ali District, so we were conducting the interdiction operation alongside Afghan National Army Commandos to try and disrupt their activity. The area around the bazaar was a patchwork of dirt homes and barren, muddy fields. Cover was scarce at best. I could see a handful of shallow irrigation trenches, barely deep enough to cover a small child lying on his stomach. I wondered how much manure littered the fields … I could smell it.
It looked like a miserable place to get shot at. 

At daybreak, Bravo Company started to patrol from the landing zone to the bazaar. I fell in line with Sgt. Steven Pendleton’s assault squad as they shuffled into the damp field. Our boots slid across the mud with each step. A layer of heavy sludge began to weigh down my feet. That sick, sweet smell of manure lingered.

Lance Cpl. Nathan Chandler, a machine gunner, and three or four Marines under Salka moved in behind us. The crickets and roosters that echoed across the desert only minutes earlier were suddenly silent as we moved across the field. 

The sound of machine guns ripped the silence. Several insurgents began firing to our left, so the Marines in the front of the patrol crouched low and ran to a nearby house. Lance Cpl. Nathan Gulbronson was running in front of me with his M32 grenade launcher sticking out of his pack. He decided the house was too far away, so he juked, sagged to his knees, and let his body fall prone into the dirt. I slid into one of the shallow irrigation ditches.

I could no longer see Salka or the Marines. Chandler was still behind me, cheek nestled against his machinegun, screaming out for a smoke grenade. Rounds zipped and cracked over our heads. 

Chandler and Gulbronson shouted back and forth – Run or stay put? 

Their packs were heavy, gear cumbersome, and it was nearly 100 yards to the compound. There would be no moving without support.

A smoke grenade landed in the field and spit a green cloud between us and the shooters. Bravo Company’s snipers and machine gunners fired back at the insurgents. Fire over the field slackened. We ran.

FORWARD

An hour earlier, we were smoking our last cigarettes in the dark just off the flight line. It was a pleasant enough December morning for Afghanistan. Now my lungs burned as my legs pumped against the soft soil. My bootlace snapped and released tension around my right foot. I barely noticed.
Chandler and Gulbronson hunched under the weight of their packs. Gulbronson wrangled his grenade launcher and rifle with both hands in an awkward lurching motion. Chandler cradled his machine gun against his hip, left arm swinging his weight forward. His combat pack sagged with spare ammunition. It looked backbreaking.

Our ungraceful race ended against a dirt wall 20 yards from Pendleton’s squad. They were still tracking down enemy shooters and preparing for an assault on another compound when we finally linked back up.

We walked through a small doorway—a shambled, metal sheet that served as an improvised gate which rattled each time a Marine passed through it. I heard voices coming from the courtyard of the compound. Our interpreter was speaking with the homeowner to see what he knew about the insurgents. 
The firefight had caused me to lose all sense of time. It felt like noon, but was only 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. In any case, the sun was still rising. I hoped the glare from the east was hitting the insurgents still firing into the field.

By this time, helicopters in the air reported insurgents were massing around our position. The area was almost empty of women and children, who had either fled or hunkered down 
inside their homes.

Pendleton gathered his squad to move to the next building. They loaded high-explosive rounds and fired their grenade launchers at a shooter before sprinting from the compound.
Pendleton and his Marines dashed into the open, which sparked a brief burst of machinegun fire that quickly dwindled. I bounded with the second team at a full sprint.

CASUALTY

Pendleton set his Marines to clear another compound. For the next 30 minutes, Marines sifted the area for any signs of insurgency. Marksmen posted at doorways and along walls to watch for insurgents as explosive ordnance technicians searched for lethal aid. 

To the south, Salka continued to patrol behind us in an effort to reinforce our squad. From the doorway, I watched as Salka and his Marines bounded across the open field. Machinegun fire echoed out as the Marines ran toward us with gear strapped to their shoulders. Enemy fire continued as they sprang forward in ten-meter dashes and dropped to the ground, using their body armor to absorb their impact with the soil. 

I saw Lance Cpl. Indy Johnson bounding forward when a round struck his helmet. He dropped to the ground, momentarily dazed but unharmed. He collected himself and resumed his movement toward cover.

MEDEVAC

Nearly an hour into the firefight, a call came across the radio that a Marine had been hit. I knelt inside a small, walled-off garden when a surge of gunfire rang out in the distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but Bravo Company was providing suppressive fire as a team of Marines ran into the open to grab the injured Marine. They dragged him back to cover and immediately began first aid. 

Salka relayed the injury of the Marine over the radio—gunshot wound to the abdomen. Salka requested a medical evacuation and a helicopter was inbound within minutes. 

Each squad of Marines held their positions and prepared to support the evacuation. The fields around the bazaar fell silent as the medevac moved in to pull out the wounded Marine. 
As the helicopter made its approach, the insurgents concentrated their fire in an attempt to shoot it down. 

Streams of bullets from AK47s and machine guns erupted from compounds around the area. 

Lance Cpl. Brian Schaefer was posted at the south end of the building held by Pendleton’s squad. The fire seemed to come from around the corner as Pendleton slid in alongside Schaefer in an attempt to pinpoint its location. The two Marines peered out, shoulder to shoulder.

The helicopter banked hard to avoid the incoming rounds and flew around the landing zone for a second pass as Pendleton and another Marine fired their grenade launchers to provide suppressive fire. 

On the second pass, the pilots decided to land.

A WAY OUT

By the time the helicopter landed, Pendleton had already rallied his team to continue forward.

He squeezed himself into a doorway to check if the path was clear for his men. Another Marine climbed atop an empty oil drum and peered over the wall. Nothing moved.

The squad shuffled out of the building, ran along the outside wall and stacked at the northernmost corner of the compound. With the casualty evacuated, we pushed north before enemy fighters could regroup.

One by one, the Marines stepped into the clearing and headed to a nearby compound, where they eventually linked up with the rest of the platoon. We still had nearly two miles to patrol before we reached our extraction point.

For the next three hours, we pushed further into the bazaar, and enemy fire became less organized. We stopped at the final compound before pushing our way out of town. 

Bravo Company paused long enough for the Marines to suck down some water and burn a cigarette. Riflemen collapsed against dirt walls for a few minutes rest.

EXTRACTION

As we left the bazaar, insurgents once again attempted to pin us down in an open field. Helicopters flying overhead provided cover fire for the Marines, killing one insurgent fighter, as the Marines took shelter in a building. 

By the end of it, I was pretty exhausted. We had been running, crawling, walking and running again in full gear for more than twelve hours. We had patrolled nearly four miles of the district and zigzagged in and around the bazaar for who knows how many more. We spent almost four hours under constant fire from the enemy. The energy I got from the bag of gummy bears I ate for lunch was gone.

Evening loomed as Bravo Company streamed out of the village and converged on the extraction point to wait.

Dusk settled over us as we finally slipped back onto our helicopters under the cover of darkness. I was thankful for the thrum of the CH-53. The beast of a helicopter jetted superheated air over my shoulders as I boarded and searched for a seat in the dark. I trusted its raw power and the three .50 caliber machineguns bristling along the fuselage. 

Salka climbed on the helicopter with the last group. He was clearly proud of his men. I spoke with him afterword. Even in the chaos of the fight, he said they made his job easy. He led, and they all knew what had to happen when things got rough.
Before the patrol, he told me to just do my thing and follow the Marine in front of me. I broke one camera lens, damaged another. My boots reeked like a zoo. But I didn’t have to fire a 
single round. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s the details that get lost or shuffled about. I sat down to speak with some of the Marines after the mission, including Lance Cpl. Indy Johnson, who took the round to his helmet, in an effort to stay as true to memory as I can. 
Everyone made it out that day, and 2nd. Lt. James Salka firmly believes the swift action of his men saved the wounded Marine’s life. The battalion confirmed its suspicions of insurgency in the area by finding evidence of weapons caches. Even more telling was the organized resistance they stirred up around the bazaar. As for the wounded Marine, he is expected to recover.

USMC Lance Corporal Matthew R. Rodriguez. 11 DEC 2013.

Died following an improvised explosive device attack while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Rodriguez was assigned to 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Pendleton, California.