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The inside story: How hero logisticians helped shut down a Taliban breach

Marines, coalition forces adjust to enemy's use of vehicles as suicide bombs

Sep. 9, 2013 - 05:09PM   |  
Texas Marine recognized for valor in Afghanistan
Lance Cpl. Joel T. Murray, a engineer heavy equipment operator with Combat Logistics Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 2, stands as his citation is read during an awards ceremony at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, on July 23. (Cpl. Paul Peterson/Marine Corps)
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Cpl. Ryan McSweeney, a recovery vehicle operator, received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with combat 'V.' (Cpl. Paul Peterson/Marine Corps)
Cpl. Ryan McSweeney, a recovery vehicle operator, received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with combat 'V.' (Cpl. Paul Peterson/Marine Corps)

Lance Cpl. Joel Murray was unloading shipping containers from a logistics convoy with another Marine when the world went dark. A truck laden with explosives had just detonated outside his dusty base in Afghanistan.

Forward Operating Base Shir Ghazay spiraled into “controlled chaos” after the May 13 blast, Murray said. Standing about 300 yards away, he was hit in the face with a rush of dust that made it difficult to see more than a few feet. As he and Lance Cpl. Ryan Head hustled to get their body armor, they quickly discovered that the base was under attack by armed insurgents maneuvering through the 100-foot breach in the wall that the explosion created.

“To me, what it looked like was a volcano. It was like watching ‘Dante’s Peak,’” Murray said of the explosion. “It looked like a massive cloud of smoke and dust.”

The 3 p.m. suicide attack in Helmand province’s Musa Qala district, which mortally wounded three soldiers from the Republic of Georgia and injured dozens of other U.S. and Georgian personnel, is one of many on coalition bases in Afghanistan this year. In nearly each case, it was initiated with a vehicle loaded with explosives, followed by other enemy fighters continuing the attack with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles or other weapons. The attacks have rattled nerves and maimed or killed scores of people, underscoring the threat coalition forces face as the drawdown in forces continues over the next year.

Georgians and the Marines have worked together in Helmand province for years. Shir Ghazay has served as home to some of the Georgians, a company of the Marine Corps’ M1A1 Abrams tanks, and a detention facility that Navy Seabees built last year, among other missions.

The attack on the major operating base could have been even worse. In July, Marine officials recognized Murray, an engineer heavy equipment operator, and Cpl. Ryan McSweeney, a recovery vehicle operator, with taking quick actions to take out the armed insurgents as they made their way through the breach under cover of the dust, and then treating the casualties caused by the blast. The Marines, with Combat Logistics Battalion 8, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., received valor awards July 23 aboard Camp Leatherneck, the Corps’ largest base in Afghanistan.

Murray, of Hallsville, Texas, received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with “V” device. McSweeney, of Middletown, Ohio, earned the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with “V” device. Murray’s award citation says 57 soldiers, civilians and Marines needed to be evacuated from the base after the attack. They sustained injuries ranging from lost limbs to possible concussions. Seven sustained “significant injuries including broken bones,” said Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan. Most were checked by medical staff for traumatic brain injury symptoms due to the explosion.

Suicide attack trend

U.S. forces have reckoned with vehicle-borne suicide bombs for years. One of the most famous examples occurred April 22, 2008, when Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter stood their ground and opened fire on a tanker truck rolling toward their security checkpoint in Ramadi, Iraq. The truck, carrying more than 2,000 pounds of explosives, exploded and killed both of them, but the Marines prevented it from killing or wounding Marines and Iraqi police inside. For their heroism, the Marines were awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor.

Massive truck and car bombs had been more rare in Afghanistan’s countryside, however. Many of the villagers there do not have vehicles, and there are fewer urban areas where explosions can inflict large-scale damage. Still, recent attacks in southern and eastern Afghanistan include:

■Observation Post Orbi was attacked by insurgents June 6 in Now Zad, another district in Helmand province. Seven soldiers from the Republic of Georgia were killed and an additional nine were wounded, Georgian military officials said, according to The New York Times. U.S. Marines were present at the time, Gilmore said, but none was killed.

■An outpost operated by Polish and Afghan forces in Ghazni province was attacked Aug. 28, killing four Afghan policemen and three civilians, military officials in Kabul said. An additional 10 Polish soldiers and 52 Afghan security forces were wounded, according to media reports. The attack was reportedly launched with a car bomb that exploded at the base’s main gate, spurring a six-hour firefight involving 10 to 15 insurgents.

■Insurgents targeted a coalition convoy in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, with a suicide car bomb Aug. 28, killing at least four civilians and wounding 15 others, according to media reports. A photo published by the Getty Wire shows a Marine standing guard after the attack next to a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The MRAP had a flat tire, but its cabin appeared to be intact.

Gilmore said security at coalition bases in Helmand province is not declining. While the risks and threats associated with a drawdown are different than during active combat operations, maintaining force protection is a high priority at all times, he said.

“The Afghan National Security Forces are now in the lead and we are working closely to help them coordinate, plan and execute offensive operations to disrupt or destroy the Taliban and other insurgent groups,” Gilmore said. “However, our Marines have the authority and resources they need to ensure their own force protection.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledged suicide bombs pose a “unique deterrence challenge,” meaning it is difficult to convince the enemy that their chance of success isn’t worth what they stand to give up.

U.S. military officials do not discuss the specifics of how they prevent suicide bombs from affecting coalition forces. Generally, though, the measures include coordinating with other coalition and Afghan forces, building trust in local communities, establishing security perimeters and checkpoints and using surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence to grow a sense for what the enemy might do.

That doesn’t always prevent ugly attacks, however. At Shir Ghazay, the Marines were forced to tangle with insurgents at close range just moments after the blast rocked their base.

Hero logisticians

McSweeney engaged them first, using his rifle while in the turret of a 10-wheel Logistics Vehicle System Replace truck that did not have a machine gun mounted on it. He killed two insurgents, and then left the relative safety of the vehicle to run to the breach in the wall and make sure no additional enemy fighters were inside the wire, his award citation states.

Murray wasn’t wearing armor when the explosion occurred, and raced with a couple of Marines to find it immediately afterward, he said. As they returned from a bunker, they heard McSweeney engaging the insurgents from the truck, which had been rolled closer — less than 100 yards from the breach — after the explosion, Murray said.

“I saw Corporal McSweeney drawing his rifle up, and I saw the insurgents coming through the breach,” Murray told Marine Corps Times in a recent phone interview after redeploying to Camp Lejeune. “From there, we engaged them. Once we realized that they were down and we were clear to move up, McSweeney and myself moved up to the first casualty that we saw, which was a Georgian soldier. He had a leg injury. As I applied the tourniquet, Corporal McSweeney was providing cover for me because we were about 15 yards from the actual blast site.”

In the following moments, McSweeney, Murray and a couple of other troops scrambled to treat as many injured personnel as possible. They assisted in moving the wounded to a casualty collection point, and helicopters began arriving to transport them for medical treatment, Murray said. They were forced to rebuild afterward.

Georgia responds

The two attacks on Georgian bases had a serious impact in the Eastern European country, one of the U.S.’s staunchest allies in Afghanistan. The country, nestled along Russia’s southwestern border, has deployed infantry battalions to Helmand province since spring 2010, manning its own battlespace outside the wire. Each Georgian battalion gets assistance while deployed from a 100-man liaison team of U.S. Marines, who train the Georgians on U.S. weapons and equipment and help integrate the tactics as the two nations fight alongside each other.

The deaths prompted anti-war protests in Georgia. Within a week of the June attack, Georgian officials said the country had closed two of its bases in Afghanistan. The nation had at least three outposts at the time in northern Helmand, which saw an uptick in violence this spring as insurgents tested Afghan forces who were put in the lead providing security in the region.

Gilmore identified one of the closed bases as OP Orbi, the Now Zad outpost attacked in June. It had been scheduled for closure in July when it was attacked, but the damage to the base prompted the decision to close it early “rather than sinking the time and money into repairs only to shut it down a few weeks later,” he said.

After each attack on the Georgian bases in Helmand, Regional Command Southwest, commanded by Maj. Gen. W. Lee Miller, launched a joint investigation involving U.S. and Georgian military officials to assess what happened and “identify ways we might adapt our own security and safety measures to prevent, deter or mitigate future attacks,” Gilmore said. The investigation for the Shir Ghazay attack was completed June 21, and for the Orbi attack on July 15.

The military has not released the results of those investigations, but no one was found negligent in either case, Gilmore said. Following the Shir Ghazay attack, the HESCO sand block barriers that form the base’s walls were strengthened, the entry point was modified to further slow approaching vehicles and the nearby road was rerouted to put more distance between traffic and the base, he said.

“This accounted for an apparent shift in enemy tactics toward larger and more spectacular improvised explosive devices,” Gilmore said. “These changes increase standoff distance and slow traffic along avenues of approach in order to allow more time to discern enemy vehicles from friendly when they approach the FOB.”

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