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Mesa, Ariz., Marine keeps watchful eye during Operation Black Sand

15 Aug 2011 | Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

COMBAT OUTPOST SHUKVANI, Afghanistan — As a torrent of bullets whizzed past their heads, the Marines in Observation Post 8 quickly dropped to the ground, narrowly avoiding what could have been their deaths. As they lifted themselves off of sandbags covering the bottom of the small bunker, they looked up to see Staff Sgt. Christopher Sharp smiling down at them.

“What are you ducking for?” chuckled Sharp. “They’re not going to hit you. They’re too far away.”

Sharp quickly turned around in his seat, a makeshift wooden bench situated toward the front of the bunker, and raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. The small arms fire that caused the Marines behind him to fall prone on the ground continued to buzz past their heads. The Marines were at the post providing support for Operation Black Sand, a mission designed to destroy a bazaar being used by insurgents to manufacture and distribute improvised explosive devices.

Sharp, a native of Mesa, Ariz., is the chief for Supporting Arms Liaison Team “Delta”, 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. His team is based out of Combat Outpost Shukvani, located on the western side of the Helmand River across from Sangin, in the southern tip of the Musa Qal’ah District.

With five combat deployments under his belt, Sharp is no stranger to being shot at. As a joint terminal attack controller with 1st ANGLICO, a unit that specializes in coordinating close air support for ground forces, Sharp has had his share of close calls.

“As a Marine I’m taught that once you take ground, you don’t give it back so I’m not going to duck down,” said Sharp. “I’m going to try to [locate] where the enemy is so that I can fire back or direct the fire back on to it.”

During Operation Black Sand, while combat engineers with 2nd CEB used assault breaching vehicles to move into the bazaar, Sharp primarily stayed inside the small, cubicle-sized sandbag bunker that overlooked their position. His mission was to be the liaison between his team and the combat engineer battalion’s mission commander, Capt. John Shubeck. Throughout the operation, Sharp and his Marines provided the engineers with surveillance, reconnaissance and close air support.

“As long as the CEB commander is up here, I’m up here,” said Sharp. “I’m supporting him. So whatever support he needs, I want to be right next to him to provide it for him.”

The operation lasted about a week; Sharp was busy about 20 hours each day, wearing a radio headset and peering through a pair of binoculars that seemed to be permanently attached to his eyes. For hours on end, Sharp scanned for insurgents firing at the coalition forces and attempting to get eyes on suspicious activity.

“The real challenging part about this operation is trying to find where the enemy is, which is kind of fun when they’re firing at you,” said Sharp. “The real hard part lies with [the combat engineers]. They’re the ones that have to destroy this bazaar and clear out all the IED’s. Those are the guys that are really in danger out there. I’m just here to support those guys. Making sure that the danger they can’t see, I can see and try to help mitigate them from taking small arms fire through close air support or artillery.”

During the operation, the night offered no rest to Sharp. Late one night, intelligence reports stated insurgents were approaching the coalition forces providing protection for the engineers near the bazaar. Sharp got on his radio and ordered a pair of illumination rounds to be fired.

“It lets them know, ‘Hey, I see you. You better relax and not start anything,’” said Sharp.

The rounds burst a couple hundred yards over the insurgents’ heads, giving away their position. The insurgents quickly scattered.

Once Sharp was convinced the threat was neutralized, he caught a few hours of shut-eye – his rifle, radio and binoculars lying by his side.

In addition to providing fire support, Sharp also coordinated casualty and medical evacuations.

On the morning of Aug. 6, a Marine with 2nd CEB was hit by an IED and needed immediate evacuation. In less than half an hour, the wounded Marine was on a helicopter and headed to a nearby trauma unit.

Shubeck has had 29 Marines in his command become casualties and had never seen a medical evacuation executed so quickly.

“Twenty minutes from IED strike to the Marine being on the bird…you don’t see that often,” said Shubeck, a native of Centerville, S.D. “That’s just a testament to how well versed [Sharp] is at his job.”

“I’m glad we were able to get the aircraft in fast for him,” said Sharp. “That’s the only thing I was worried about – making sure we we’re able to save his life. That’s the rewarding part right there: knowing that at least he survived…that and harassing the [insurgents].”

Ultimately, Operation Black Sand was deemed a success. The combat engineers with 2nd CEB leveled the Ladar Bazaar using line charges packing more than 1,700 pounds of C4 explosives.

While the line charges were being detonated, Afghans from surrounding villages came out to watch the fireworks show. Many of them were children. Sharp just shook his head.

“The kids around here have to grow up in this kind of environment,” said Sharp. “I’ve got two children of my own and I’d never want them in this kind of environment. I don’t even tell them what I really do over here. I don’t tell my wife that stuff until I get home because I don’t want her to worry.

"As long as she thinks I’m safe and good to go, then everything is kosher.”