HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (12/25/2011) — 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.
Marines of Lima Company on patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on December 20, 2011. Photo courtesy of the
U.S. Marine Corps
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.
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
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
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.
a combat correspondent,” I replied. “I'm what the Americans
call a POG – personnel other than grunt.”
aren't a POG right now,” said Johno, as we looked down at
our muddy boots. “You're with us now, mate.”
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
normal,” I thought, and tried to get some sleep.
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.
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
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
“This is World War II shit,” yelled
Connelly, as we ran behind the tanks. He was joking, but I
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
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
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
“We still have the Triangle of Death,” said
Johno, as we smoked cigarettes in the compound.
sounds like a video game,” I joked. “The Triangle of Death
... the last level of Operation Sond Chara.”
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
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.
seems pretty quiet; hopefully they won't attack us. What do
you think?” I asked Royal Marine John Baiss, 9th Troop
“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.”
getting used to gunfire, so I was confident when I started
snapping away – trying to get some images of the lads in
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
of Lima Company are special. They have something most people
in the world will never have or understand – their
And the next day we yomped forward ...
By USMC Cpl. John Scott Rafoss
Headquarters Marine Corps
Marine Corps News
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