MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- It is glorified in film and photography, praised with emotionally charged words in literature and poetry and exalted during news reels. However, no format ever does justice to that three letter word – war, or its six letter counterpart – combat.
This inability to explain the experiences of battle serve as a tribute to those who have gone through it. It is paramount that an effort be made to wrap our minds around the ferocity of that singular event – combat – so we can better appreciate what service-men and women go through.
On Feb. 13, 2010, the Marines of Alpha and Bravo Companies, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, inserted into the Taliban-held town of Marjah, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Moshtarak.
The push into the occupied stronghold was conducted at night by Marines carried aboard CH-53 Super Stallion Helicopters and was the first critical step in a new counterinsurgency (COIN) policy that was to be enacted in Afghanistan to counteract the insurgency that had grown in strength and numbers over the past several years.
Many of the Marines and sailors who stepped off of the aircraft in the dead of night were on their second or third tour. Although they were veterans of a previous deployment to Garmsir, Afghanistan, many were leading Marines and sailors into combat for the first time, and would be forced to rise to the challenges before them, for the sake those they led.
They would be required time and time again to think not just of their friends, but also of their mission, and of the Afghan people whose safety hinged on their success.
With another deployment to Afghanistan looming on the horizon, these Marines must now take stock of what they have learned so knowledge can be passed on to those following in their footsteps.
Looking back on that day, Lance Cpl. Mathew W. Hunter, a mortar man, with Weapons Company, 1/6, bore an expression as if he could still feel the frigid morning air, and taste the grimy mud and dirt that he crawled through while pinned down in an open field with the rest of his squad.
“We were part of the biggest push since the beginning of the war,” said Hunter, of Kennebunk Port, Maine. “It means a lot, being part of that history. I remember going in on the bird, a lot of things were going through my head – a little nervous at first. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
After landing in the field and unloading their weapons systems from the aircraft, Hunter remembered seeing lines of red rise upward from across the city as several anti-aircraft guns opened fire on the receding transports, every fifth round a tracer, painting a tic-tac-toe board in the sky.
“I remember seeing those AA guns go off – that was the sign, it clicked that this was real,” Hunter explained. “Once daylight broke, it started and you couldn’t even move without getting hit. I remember thinking ‘I can’t do anything without literally running into a bullet.’
“It felt like a lifetime before we could move into that [compound],” Hunter said, referring to the building where they would remain under heavy attack for the next several days, under siege.
“It was an eye opener, seeing those rounds hit right next to you,” he continued. “Looking back, in all reality when we entered that day – it was simply hell. That first week and a half was just one continuous firefight. There’s no way to turn it off, those thoughts. I’m never going to forget Marjah. I will never forget that.”
Corporal Tim Stark, another mortarman with Weapons Co., 1/6, then on his second deployment and serving as Hunter’s squad leader, shared his perspective on the pressures of leading his Marines into that situation.
“You’re tested, but it’s a daily thing,” said Stark, of Westerlo, NY. “The hardest part is that you’re out there with your family. Those guys are your family. Sometimes it’s hard because you don’t want to put them at risk, but you have to do it. By going out there under fire and achieving that mission objective, it keeps the rest of the family safe.”
The pressures of leadership in combat can often compound when the dual goals of keeping ones Marines safe and achieving the mission objective are at odds with each other.
“The anticipation of what we were going into – you do a whole [training] work up, and then go into a city where we’re doing a push that’s supposed to change the war, all that, and this is the first time I’m leading these Marines,” said Cpl. Wesley H. Hillis, a machine gun section leader, Bravo Co., 1/6, who was on his second deployment when they inserted into Marjah. “In the first five minutes our corpsman was hit – the first guy lost was the guy charged with taking care of the others.”
In combat the Marines are forced to utilize the skills they have learned, but at the same time must remain cognizant of what they do not know and try to learn it on the fly.
“There isn’t a day off and you never know enough, like all those little things you find out later,” Hillis explained. “I’m pretty confident about the [deployment] up ahead, especially after seeing [our understanding of] COIN operations grow over the course of that tour”
“In Marjah, we had a firsthand view of the good that comes out of [COIN operations],” he said. “It was key for my junior guys to see the effect that seven months of building relationships with the locals had on combat. If I go out and put out that effort to make a connection with the people, that’s one more thing I’m doing to keep my guys safe.”
Beyond just following doctrine and going through the motions, it is imperative those on the front not only understand what to do, but why they’re being asked to do it, explained Capt. Ryan Sparks, who served as the company commander for Bravo Co., 1/6 during their last deployment.
“The biggest challenge is that it’s hard to understand what’s going on there, in the moment – it’s a monstrously complex situation, and it’s difficult to explain to the Marines why we’re doing things the way we are,” Sparks said.
“The reality on the ground is that they’re the ones who bear the brunt of counterinsurgency doctrine,” explained Sparks, referring to the challenges facing Marines, who are charged with the welfare and safety of civilians, which can often mean holding fire if there is a potential risk to non-combatants.
“As a leader, you have to have constant trust and confidence in your Marines, that they will survive in such a complex environment,” he said. “You have to put yourself in a place where you can help, which isn’t always at the point of friction. You can’t always lead from the front.”
The drive for leaders on the ground is often to be there, leading the Marines personally, but the reality often limits a commander’s ability to be present every time Marines are engaged in combat, which makes the leadership of non-commissioned officers on the ground critically important.
“I couldn’t have more respect for the weight of moral and ethical decisions they make, especially under the microscope that they operate,” Sparks said of his NCOs. “The things they achieve is simply amazing, in light of that pressure. They developed an understanding that in COIN there is no black and white. Those small decisions, can make all the difference. Working in such an ambiguous place, the question isn’t can or cannot - it’s should or should not. It’s great to see them understand that.”
Although the deployment is now behind them, the experiences and the hard earned lessons will stay with the men of 1/6 – the ‘Marjah Marines,’ as they prepare for yet another deployment to Afghanistan. New leaders will be put to the test, guided by their peers as they walk the tightrope of what is best for one another and what’s best for the mission.