Marines Engage Enemy in Hours-Long Firefight

December 16th, 2013 By Cpl. Paul Peterson

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, Nad Ali District, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2013. Chandler positioned himself to cover a group of Marines clearing a desert compound shortly after receiving fire from insurgents.
(U.S. Marine Corps photos by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

A threatening calm settled around 2nd Platoon as the whir of helicopter blades faded into the night. It was 5:15 a.m. with daylight 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.

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, Dec. 4, 2013. 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.

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.

Sgt. Steven Pendleton, a Knoxville, Tenn., native and squad leader with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, searches for insurgents while standing in a the doorway to a desert compound near the Bari Gul Bazaar, Nad Ali District, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 4, 2013. Pendleton helped cover a group of Marines moving across an open field during a 4-hour firefight with insurgents near the bazaar.

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?

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