Line in the Sand: An Afghan Firefight, First-Hand
Kurghay, Afghanistan—We were rambling down the pass from the Bedouin’s tents when the first bullets winged by overhead. Long, drawn-out whistling sounds, almost musical, nothing like the zip I’d heard in flicks. The Sergeant thought it might be overshot fire from a couple klicks away, aimed at a vehicle unit—Cat One—halfway between us and an insurgent position on the far side of the valley. Then Lance-Corporal Stephen Johnson, a combat cameraman a few meters behind me, piped up.
“Hey Sarge,” he said calmly, “that one landed right by my foot.”
Sergeant William Stacey is the sort of Marine that war films are made about. Unflappable, assured, and grimly competent, he is charismatic in spite of the ridiculous mustache that he and half the Corps seem to sport (not, as I first thought, a Movember thing—these last the whole deployment). At 23, he is young for a Sergeant. Both his parents are history professors.
Sgt. Stacey joined the Marines five years ago. He hesitates before answering why.“Saying I came in for the war makes it sound like for some reason I like it, which isn’t true,” he says, squinting a little in the desert sun. “But I came in because I felt like it was important. Now that it’s winding down, I feel like there’s other things I want to do.” When his contract expires, he plans to go back to school to study history.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Sgt. Stacey’s squad had taken the first contact of this operation, trading bullets with insurgents amidst a torrential downpour and lightning storm. A local caught in the crossfire took an insurgent bullet in the back. It ripped through his lung and out his chest, and the Marines pushed forward under fire to bandage, extract, and evacuate the man by helicopter. Until that day, this village—Kurghay, though there are a half-dozen alternate spellings—had been firm insurgent territory.
Sgt Stacey assembled his squad the next day, on the afternoon of November 27th, at the edge of a dirt-barricade circle they’d slept in the previous night. Sixteen of them with one reporter riding along, they were heading out to patrol the same southern side of town they’d just been attacked in. They would inspect a half-dozen compounds along the way.
The patrol started the same way as every other I’d been on. We wove down dirt paths in staggered file, between mudbrick walls and hunched clutches of children and old men. Flocks of irate turkeys winked at us through compound doorways. We wove through a maze of canals and crumbling walls to come out on the southern edge. Sgt. Stacey dispatched a team to check the first compound.
I was tooling around with my camera when there was a gunshot and everyone around me dropped to a knee. I copied and wondered what the hell had happened. We’d been listening to distant gunshots for several minutes now. What made this one different was lost on me.
The company XO, First Sergeant Andy Goulding, called out from my right. “Did you see that guy drop?”
“I saw him go down,” Sgt. Stacey said from me left.
“I mean drop—he got shot.”
“Couldn’t tell.” A pause while they peered through ACOG sights. “I thought it looked like he jumped down, into a hole or something.”
Every squad member with us panned their rifles across the southern fields, to where the farmer (whom I’d missed entirely) had suddenly vanished. They watched the spot for a good quarter hour. He never reappeared.
The patrol continued to crawl along the compounds, reaching a treeline and a pile of spent machine gun casings at the last of them. The squad had fought here the day before. I tossed a red onion I’d picked up in the fields and contemplated this. The onion seemed both lucky and, should circumstances require, a possibly useful, or totally useless weapon. One of the Marines lay prone in the middle of a pink and yellow flower bed. It seemed symbolic, but I couldn’t quite decide of what.
Their contact the previous day had fallen from a clutch of Bedouin tents along the valley’s northern mountains, about a klick from where we stood. Between us stretched unplanted poppy fields and the wadi—a wide, stony river bed, suspicious as hell IED-wise and avoided by every local we saw. There wasn’t much cover, but air support was in the area, and insurgents were typically reluctant to fire while a Blackhawk pregnant with Hellfire missiles lurked brooding overhead.
We moved open file across the poppy fields, adding an extra ten pounds of mud to each boot. Intermittently a Marine would pause, sight his rifle on the tents, and call out whatever was happening. Aerial surveillance updated the Sergeant by radio. A woman and child seemed to be ferrying items between the tents and a nearby creek bed. The radio reported “increased agitation and activity” as we closed.
Near the wadi we began to see IED telltales: stone circles, cairns, odd metal jutting from the dirt. Sgt. Stacey pushed a support fire team—a machine gunner and two others—to one side and a minesweeper out front. Back to single file. Into the wadi.
As we moved a second Marine marked our path with shaving cream. Presumably less appealing to local wildlife than breadcrumbs. No IEDs, but even the Marines seemed relieved to reach the far side. Lookouts were posted to keep an eye down the valley, where the shots we’d been listening to on and off were coming from. Sgt. Stacey, the interpreter, and a clutch of marines moved up to the tents. They were met by a visibly panicking and overly-smiley Bedouin.
Whether he, himself, was an insurgent, or merely a co-opted assistant, was unclear. He allowed the Sergeant to look inside his tents, moving his wife, six daughters, and infant son outside to let him do so.
As we approached, Sgt. Stacey muttered, “Don’t look at the women.” They were sitting about three meters from us. I looked at the goats instead.
Nothing unusual in the tents. Gunfire started up again once the air support left, though it seemed to be aimed at Cat One, a vehicle unit parked a klick or so down the valley. Sgt. Stacey told the Bedouin we would be leaving anyways, to avoid endangering his family. On the way we swung over to check the creek bed for whatever they’d been stashing there. But then there were whistling sounds, and Johnson said, “Hey Sarge, that one landed right by my foot.”
For a moment, everyone seemed to ponder whether they were actually aiming at us. Then more puffs of dirt kicked up, and Sgt. Stacey started barking orders.
In a matter of seconds the lookouts spotted an AK-47 at a compound down the valley. We dropped back into the wadi to keep the bullets away from the family, the insurgents’ tempo picked up, and the support fire team we’d left on the far side snarled back with their M240. Halfway across the wadi, the Marines in front of me turned and began to move upstream, open file. We’d lost the shaving cream trail. I muttered a few choice words under my breath and followed the swivel until we found it again, fifteen meters farther up.
It wasn’t until we reached the other side that my resolute focus on not screwing up subsided enough to remember my camera. I wrestled it from its pouch. The first shots were terrible. But as I grew used to the machine guns’ cockerel chatter, the distant firework pop of the AKs, they smoothed out and I found myself clambering around the squad, following Sgt. Stacey’s movement orders and lining up shots as best I could in between. Against all odds it was the golden hour, right before sunset.
The shooting slowed and we eased back to a better position, though still exposed. The range was now close to 800 meters; an impossible distance for accurate fire with an M16, let alone the insurgents’ AK-47s. Only the Marines’ two M240s stood a chance of hitting anything on purpose, but the insurgents had dropped their weapons and were ducking in and out of their compounds. The Marines lost their authority to fire.
Stacey bummed a cigarette. I remembered one squad member’s sage words after the briefing: “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” and promptly lit one up myself. The comms guy bummed one too, and we passed Stacey’s lighter around, kneeling in the dirt.
We holed up behind the support fire team, headed by one Corporal Lara. Marines called out movement and sighted individuals in a rapid crossfire of information. Cpl. Lara whispered, “Please pick up a gun, please pick up a gun.”
The machine gunner squinted down his sights. Said, “I wanna shoot you so bad right now,” like the lyrics to a love song. They knew the men they were watching were the same men who’d fired at them earlier—knew, but didn’t know. They’d lost visual contact with each one for a few seconds here or there. In theory, it could be another man in a black robe and white turban, a civilian in the same compound. Afghan clothing often looked similar, especially at eight hundred meters. The fallout of an error was too great to risk.
Sgt. Stacey told his comms man to ask COC (central operations and command) whether we should hold where we were, keep the insurgents pinned. His squad couldn’t approach without over-exposing on the empty fields of the valley, but Cat One might be able to maneuver and attack the insurgents’ flank—then again, Cat One wasn’t responding to radio hails.
The comms man picked up his receiver, opened his mouth, stopped, listened. Then turned to Sgt. Stacey and said, “Red Actual just called in a medevac.”
Stacey hung his head. “Fuck. Who is it?”
“Don’t know. Sounds like he was shot in the back.”
“They said critical.”
A pause while the Sergeant thought. “Alright, keep comms clear. COC doesn’t need any more shit to deal with while this is going on. We’re going to bound back to the treeline and RTB [return to base].”
There were no parting shots as we fell back across the fields. The sun dropped behind the southern mountains and sloshed golden hell across the sky, then the world began to turn blue.
“You know,” First Sergeant Goulding said, shaking his head as we trudged once again through calf-deep mud and weeds, “we have a great CO. But if there’s one thing he absolutely fucking hates doing, it’s giving ground to shitheads.”
As we entered town I fell in behind Sgt. Stacey, who said over his shoulder, “It’s funny how there’s literally a line in the sand. At least we pushed the line back. It’s a kilometer farther out than yesterday.”
Some callsigns in this article have been changed.
More photos from the firefight can be found at AK Diplomacy.
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