HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
We “yomped” forward. Carrying two days of food rations, including six liters of water and hundreds of machine gun rounds, mine detectors, grenades, ladders, radio equipment, heavy javelins, and other explosives; their packs were heavy. My pack was just the bare necessities – water, a few meals, and my camera.
The sky was gray. It was raining, muddy and cold. I’m tired. Everyone else must have been tired, too, but the Royal Marine Commandos are elite – they weren’t showing it.
“That’s what we do, we yomp,” said Sgt. Noel Connelly, of the groups’ hiking with packs.. “Just like the Falklands in ‘82. We’re bootnecks. That’s what bootnecks do… yomp.”
We stopped and rested on the side of the road. Reports over the radio were saying the tanks couldn’t get through because insurgents have dug ditches in the road. The tanks had to find a new route and that would take time. So we waited and endured the mud and cold rain.
“Hey USMC, do you want a smoke,” said Connelly, platoon sergeant for Royal Marine’s 9th Troop, “L” Company, 42 Commando, as he took out some English cigarettes. “These are healthy cigarettes.”
We all huddled underneath improvised cover and the Royal Marines talked about football in England. They asked me questions about the U.S. Marine Corps – What is my training like? Is boot camp like the movie Full Metal Jacket?
“What do you do?” said Cpl. John Owens, an assault engineer nicknamed Johno.
“I’m a combat correspondent,” I replied. “I’m what the Americans call a POG – personnel other than grunt.”
“Well, you aren’t a POG right now,” said Johno, as we looked down at our muddy boots. “You’re with us now, mate.”
After smoking about four cigarettes, we got the call to move forward. The tanks had found a route through a field. So we picked up our packs and started to yomp to the village of Zargon Kalay. Our superiors said Zargon Kalay is filled with die-hard enemy insurgents, but they said that about the last village and nothing happened.
The mosque, which is in the center of the city, was becoming more visible with every step. We were a few hundred meters away when Lima Company split up into different parts of the open ground in front of the village. It was farm land. 9th Troop moved to the right flank and we maneuvered along the edge of an irrigation stream.
We approached a compound and the bootnecks at the front of the patrol positioned themselves on the roof to get good arcs for their machine guns. The rest of the platoon waited in the open outside of the compound.
I sat by the edge of the irrigation stream, bored. All of a sudden something flew past my head and it had a distinct sound. It was the first time I heard that sound. Cracking and whizzing – bullets sound a lot different when they are coming at you.
Without even thinking, I jumped into the irrigation ditch. I looked up and saw Marines jumping off the roof. The trees behind them were being ripped apart.
My heart was pumping while I sat in the stream. I looked at the plants in front of me and thought about staying alive. “Am I dreaming?” I thought. “This can’t be real. A picture isn’t worth my life.”
I was embedded with 9th Troop, Lima Company, 42 British Royal Marine Commando during the 18-day combat operation known as Sond Chara, which is Pashtun for Red Dagger. An outsider, and the only reason I was with them is because of my eagle, globe and anchor, and my camera.
It all started like the beginning of an American football game – like we were getting ready to run on to the field. We were all pumped up in that helicopter. We felt like Spartans during the Battle of Thermopylae. But this wasn’t a game, or a movie, or a book about legendary battles in the past. This was now.
I felt like I was in a Higgins Boat heading toward Normandy. I looked up and saw the crew chief scanning the horizon for insurgents with his night vision goggles.
We landed in the desert and it was quiet. I couldn’t see anything. Everyone else had night vision goggles. I didn’t even have a night vision lens for my camera. All of the bootnecks were silhouetted and we moved towards an Afghan compound a few hundred meters in front of us.
We stopped in our tracks when we heard gun shots in the distance. It was Kilo Company. They landed about an hour before us and they were already in a firefight. There was a lot of gunfire. But this wasn’t the O.K. Corral, it was Helmand Province.
“They have a casualty,” whispered one of the radio operators. “He was hurt from the back blast of a javelin.”
My stomach started to sink when I heard that. But I kept quiet and kept moving forward with the bootnecks. Johno blew a hole in one of the walls of the compound and the bootnecks rushed in to the clear the compound of insurgents, but there were none.
I moved in and dropped my pack immediately. I was already tired and we were only two hours into the operation. I took a seat by one of the walls, and one of the Marines on the rooftops opened up his machine gun. An Apache came in and dropped a bomb on top of the insurgent vehicle he had stopped. The sky glowed from the burning car and I listened to the rounds cook off in the car.
“This isn’t normal,” I thought, and tried to get some sleep.
We stayed at the compound for a couple of days and were mortared everyday, but I was slowly getting used to the bootneck lifestyle. We were given orders to take the village we called KK. We left at about four in the morning. It was about an eight-kilometer hike, yomping through the farming fields, with a break about halfway. My boots were covered in mud. I tried to scrape it off, but the mud had a funny smell, and when I brought it up to my nose, I realized it was manure. We picked up our packs and yomped on.
We got to the village and everything seemed normal. Children were running around playing. Afghan men were working in their fields. Tractors were transporting goods. Camels were walking by bundled up with supplies. The locals said the insurgents had left the day before. So it was a good day – a quiet day. We rested in the village and got ready for the next hike.
We hiked another eight kilometers to Forward Operating Base Argyle. When we got there, we stayed on the outside of the FOB inside an old fortress, which was built by Alexander the Great thousands of years ago. It was a beautiful ancient fortress. We rested there for a day and started yomping again, this time about six-kilometers hto the Village of Zargon Kalay.
After we were shot at in the field near the irrigation ditch, we moved forward to another compound. I set my backpack down by a wall and moved into one of the rooms to take a break and eat. Then I heard the cracks again.The insurgents were dug in and were firing rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small-arms fire.
A Royal Marine ran inside to get supplies. Connelly asked him what what the situation was outside. With typical combat humour, he replied, “We’re all going to die!”
I was shaking. I’m not sure if it was because I was cold and soaked from the irrigation ditch or because I was scared. When the fighting died down a little bit, I ran outside for my pack. I needed my smokes. When I got to my backpack there were bullet holes all over the wall above it. I grabbed it and ran back inside.
We drank tea and listened to artillery, tanks and helicopters take down the insurgents in the village. It sounded like they were using everything they had in the UK arsenal.
I wasn’t used to this kind of thing. In my mind, this was the kind of stuff soldiers and Marines did in Vietnam, World War I and World War II. I didn’t realize how bad war could be in Afghanistan. I was used to drinking coffee at the beer garden in Kabul or eating at Pizza Hut in Kandahar. I normally took pictures of handshakes and ceremonies, not combat.
We got the order to move forward to the next compound. But there was a problem. We had to move through an open field where an hour ago, little lead hornets were buzzing around. But one of the bootnecks had a good idea.
We popped smoke grenades and ran behind tanks. The first try didn’t work, because when we went into the open, we were fired on. But it worked on the second try. We ran for our lives behind those tanks. I thought it would make a good picture, so I put my head down next to the tank’s exhaust and took pictures with my camera over my head. I wasn’t even looking at where I was shooting.
“This is World War II shit,” yelled Connelly, as we ran behind the tanks. He was joking, but I didn’t laugh.
We made it to the next compound, and puffed down cigarettes. It was the best cigarette of my life, but it was hard to smoke because my lungs were filled with tank exhaust.
7th Troop moved into the outskirts of the village that night and we stayed back as over watch. We listened to them fight. They were getting some – we had already gotten ours.
The next morning we moved forward into the village. We met up with 7th Troop at a compound. They pushed forward street by street and made it a few blocks away from the Mosque and now it was our turn to move forward.
The village was quiet. Everyone had fled and I hoped the insurgents were all dead. We moved into a burned-out school right across the street from the mosque. I tried to get pictures of the Marines patrolling though the mud, but getting good images was the last thing on my mind.
We started taking small-arms fire from the west of the city. We moved through the village, forward to the sound of the guns. I thought human beings are supposed to run away from the sounds of guns, not yomp in the mud toward it. I thought to myself, “these Lima Company bootnecks are the real deal.”
I looked up and watched a javelin missile fly high up into the sky. It was shot off by Marines on the roof of the school, who had locked onto the insurgents. I was happy the javelin did all of the work for us and we moved into a compound behind the mosque and stayed there the night.
“We still have the Triangle of Death,” said Johno, as we smoked cigarettes in the compound.
“It sounds like a video game,” I joked. “The Triangle of Death … the last level of Operation Sond Chara.”
The Triangle of Death is an area about four kilometers behind Zargon Kalay. We called it that, because on the map, it looked like a triangle. Reports were coming in that all of the insurgents were fleeing there. That made the Triangle of Death Taliban land.
We hiked through more of the surrounding villages before reaching the Triangle of Death. But the insurgents had heard about Zargon Kalay and many of them were fleeing for their lives.
In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, we headed into a village we called Yellow Four. It was the beginning of the Triangle of Death. However, it had been quiet for the past few days and I was beginning to think the insurgents had learned their lesson.
Yellow Four is a little village holed up next to a big river with a big rusty crane in the center for exporting and importing goods. On top of the crane was a huge white Taliban flag. It seemed like an old trading port. But when we got there most of the villagers had fled.
We moved into the village with ease and took positions at an Afghan compound below the crane. I was pretty tired and I grabbed a few blankets to get some rest.
“It seems pretty quiet; hopefully they won’t attack us. What do you think?” I asked Royal Marine John Baiss, 9th Troop medic.
“They are just observing us right now,” he replied. “Give it an hour.”
I didn’t want to believe him so I put my head down for some rest. An hour later I woke to gunfire. Smalls arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were everywhere. I immediately put on my flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. I grabbed my rifle and camera and then sprinted outside to see what was happening.
“Someone put a wet on,” yelled Connelly, in the beginning of the firefight. We all laughed a little bit. A wet is British slang for tea.
Bootnecks were on the rooftops shooting and screaming. They were climbing on top as fast as they could to get more rounds downrange.
“I see them … I see them,” screamed Lance Cpl. Paul, as he unloaded his machine gun. “They are in the tree line.”
I was getting used to gunfire, so I was confident when I started snapping away – trying to get some images of the lads in action.
I climbed up on the rooftop with the help of some of the bootnecks who pushed me up. I crawled up next to Paul and tried to get a view of the insurgents in front of us. There was a ceiling of small-arms fire over our heads. I looked up and saw a rocket propelled grenade fly over our heads. I followed it with my eyes in slow motion.
“Get a … LASM down there,” someone screamed, which is like a rocket launcher.
Lance Cpl. Ben Whatley grabbed his LASM and went forward. We all bent down because of the backblast.
“He’s hit, he’s … hit,” screamed one of the bootnecks on the ground. I looked up and saw him lying motionless in front of us.
Once the bootnecks next to me saw what had happened, and with out hesitation, they stood up and moved forward through the small-arms fire to save him.
The firefight went on for about half an hour more. The bootnecks kept fighting, knowing their friend was badly hurt.
We found out a few hours later that Ben was dead.
After Christmas Eve, we no longer called it the Triangle of Death … just the Triangle.
On Christmas morning we moved forward into the heart of the Triangle. We yomped toward the white flags – insurgent flags. We were surrounded by white flags. This was their stronghold. It is a very eerie feeling walking through open ground, seeing white flags in every direction.
But it seemed the Taliban had learned their lesson once more and we weren’t attacked that day. So we moved into a compound for rest and to get good arcs for our machine guns on the surrounding area.
It didn’t feel like Christmas.
Once in the compound, Marines Greg Bennett, a machine gunner, and Denbigh Hopkins, an infantryman and former South African hunter, had smiles on their faces. In the back of the compound was a room filled with turkeys.
“Looks like it’s going to be Christmas after all,” said Capt. Oli Truman, commander of 9th Troop, Lima Company, 42 Commando.
That night we sat around the fire, ate grilled turkey and enjoyed each others’ company.
“Camaraderie is very important,” I remember hearing Paul say with his face glowing from the fire. “We should do this more often. It’s good for the troop.”
It wasn’t the best Christmas I ever had. But, spending Christmas with bootnecks out in combat, I grew a better appreciation for it.
The lads of Lima Company are special. They have something most people in the world will never have or understand – their brotherhood.
And the next day we yomped forward …