PATROL BASE FIRES, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
Six CH-53E Super Stallions chopped through the early morning air, June 5. Moving swiftly under the cover of darkness, they transported their passengers to an uncertain objective where Marines have rarely gone before.
The Marines of 1st Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and partnered soldiers from the 1st Tolay, 2nd Kandak, Afghan National Army, were inserted at two landing zones on the outskirts of Ghughori Baba to carry out Operation Maneuver One.
The unit is from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California and is currently deployed to Sangin, Afghanistan a district roughly 300 miles southwest of Kabul, the nation’s capitol.
The village of Ghughori Baba sits on the western side of the Helmand River across from 1st Platoon in the 33rd Georgian Light Infantry Battalion area of operations. Because of the river’s geographic limitations to partnered patrols insurgents have been known to use the small village as a staging area for insurgents and weapons caches. The restrictions make it the ideal staging place for enemy fighters before moving across the river to engage and operate against friendly forces.
“The enemy’s center of gravity is their ability to exploit our boundaries. They know we have the Helmand River that separates us from Ghughori Baba, so that is a huge obstacle for us. They think we won’t cross it,” said 1st Lt. Charles Poulton, the 1st Platoon commander. “However, their critical vulnerability is their false sense of security.”
“My end state to exploit was to conduct a helo (helicopter) insert to clear the city. The intent was have them wake up at dawn and have them (insurgents) surrounded and not be able to go anywhere,” said Poulton, from San Clemente, Calif. “Once we were able to do that we let them know that we can get over there and there is no safe place for the enemy to harbor or hide their weapons. Now the enemy knows that they can’t hold their supplies there because we can come over at the drop of a dime.”
As a prior-enlisted reconnaissance Marine Poulton achieved the rank of gunnery sergeant and was also a Marine scout sniper. Needless to say the insert was not his first, but it was the first helo-borne mission for most of the Marines of 1st Platoon. From talking to his Marines, Poulton could say in confidence that the Marines loved the experience of inserting by helicopter and will never forget the operation.
Lance Cpl. David A. Ortega, a squad automatic rifleman for 1st Platoon, from Beumont, Calif., described the insert as: “Probably one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life.”
Once the powerful helicopters touched down the Marines emerged not knowing what they were going to encounter and how the local Afghans would react. Marines of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, conducted a similar operation during their seven months in Sangin, but since that time no Marines have set foot in Ghughori Baba.
“Our knowledge of the village was limited going into the operation,” said Cpl. Mathew Z. Parks, the intelligence specialist for the Co. B, from Sacramento, Calif. “The Marines had to be ready for anything since the terrain in Ghughori Baba differs from this side of the Helmand.”
First Platoon typically find themselves patrolling out of Patrol Base Fires into the green zone, an area of fertile land along the Helmand river, so the desert village was a change of scenery and provided different challenges for the boots on the deck during the operation. Ghughori Baba is a small city with high walls, alleyways and roads that the enemy could exploit, said Cpl. Michael T. Minor, a team leader for 1st Platoon. Minor, 25, is from Seagrove, N.C.
“The urban environment in the town was designed for war,” said Sgt. Andrew M. Metelski, a squad leader for 1st Platoon. “It was pretty nerve racking moving through the city.”
The Marines made one very important mental distinction before inserting, the village’s terrain may prefer the enemy but by no means do the people prefer the enemy.
“Ultimately what this fight comes down to is the people,” said Staff Sgt. Justin B. Clemens, the platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon, from Kansas City, Miss. “We are here to protect the people and provide security.”
This meant that they had to mind their P’s and Q’s as ambassadors to the people. The dynamic mission required the Marines to remember that their mission was designed to credit the Afghan army and promote the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as much as possible. This meant they had to show the people that the two forces were united.
“The whole purpose of the operation was to win over locals. The more interaction you have with the people when you treat them right, the more they trust you,” said Sgt. David A. Leon, a squad leader for 1st Platoon, from Buckeye, Ariz. “A lot of the people seemed friendly. I think we threw some of them off guard, but for the most part the locals just seemed really surprised that we acted in the positive way we did.”
The Marines intimidating nature combined with their actions during the operation, encircling the village and emplacing Marine’s on rooftops, could have sent the wrong message to the villagers.
Poulton and the squad leaders knew it was imperative to the mission’s success that the elders understood the security measures were to ensure the safety of the people and the partnered forces.
“When we do operations with Marines we are the first ones dealing with the locals and going into compounds,” said Sgt. Shir Khan, an Afghan squad leader with the 1st Tolay, 2nd Kandak of the Afghan army. “We want to do research on the area and find the insurgents and the bombs. It is part of our job to help our country men.”
All members of the operation strove to display their respect for the Afghan culture by displaying the right customs and courtesies when interacting with villagers.
“It goes back to that old saying ‘Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.’ These guys may be borderline insurgents or sympathizers but they are not directly fighters. If we go in there and treat those guys respectfully, their mindset toward us might change and deter that one person from planting an IED or that one guy from shooting an RPG at us,” said Metelski, from Phoenix and a 2003 graduate of West View High School. “It is important that no matter what you do to treat the people with the respect that you would want to be treated with.”
The next morning the Marines filed back onto helicopters to extract out of the area after maintaining a 24-hour presence in Ghughori Baba and accomplishing their mission without incident. Poulton said that the true success of the operation will be if the villagers come across the river to the shuras held at Patrol Base Fires and take advantage of the Afghan government work projects.
Immediate results of the operation were seen by Marines of 1st Platoon patrolling out of the patrol base fires within 24-hours of the operation.
“We have been in our area for the past two months and it had the same vibe as Ghughori Baba. We changed that by just doing what we were trained to do throughout our work up,” said Poulton. “It’s not sexy, but it is the next best thing. If you can’t kill an insurgent, flipping the most dangerous place in the world, Sangin, Afghanistan, is the next best thing.”
“We want to touch as many people as possible. I want to get to know the people of Ghughori Baba and figure out their problems,” said Poulton. “We are not giving the people an excuse to side with the enemy.”