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MARJAH, Afghanistan — Shots snapped overhead angrily, and the Marines jumped into canals lining both sides of the dirt trail. Within seconds, the squad was trudging through knee-deep sludge, maneuvering to fire back against four gun-wielding insurgents.
"That sounds like it's getting close!" yelled one of the troops in the group, which included 10 members of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, an interpreter and six Afghan National soldiers. An insurgent carrying a 7.62mm RPK machine gun opened fire again, as if in response.
No Marines were killed in the gunfight, which occurred May 19 shortly after noon. It lasted about five minutes, giving way to a manhunt in which the Marines gave chase, aided by aerial reconnaissance provided by Cobra gunship helicopters, an F/A-18 jet and an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Firefights like this are fairly typical for the Marines in Marjah, home to at least 80,000 civilians. That is especially so for Marines at the Yellow Schoolhouse, which was built along with Marjah's canals by the U.S. in the 1950s. The rundown campus is Ground Zero for the war against the Taliban in northern Marjah — centrally located so troops can respond to numerous threats, but a potential target in its own right. Marines intend to reopen the school for its intended purpose, but there's no announced timetable for when that may occur.
The patrol base is like no other used by Marines in Afghanistan. Inside the wire, there are no officers based at the school and almost no staff noncommissioned officers. Staff Sgt. Ryan Clay, platoon sergeant of India Company's 3rd Platoon, oversees day-to-day operations, with two squads of Marines managing their own patrols most of the time. Outside the wire, the Marines contend with regular ambushes, and have heard repeated rumors that the Taliban is preparing to launch an expansive attack on the base.
"We've been here for a month, and we've been in more firefights here than we have during the rest of our time in Afghanistan," said Cpl. Anthony DePrimo, squad leader of India Company's 3rd Platoon, 3rd Squad, which was involved in the May 19 firefight. "You never know what's going to happen here."
Making the school work
The school itself is a testament to good construction. Surrounded by mud compounds, its two pale yellow, one-story buildings have thick concrete walls that are intact more than 50 years after the school was built. There is also a 7-foot-high wall surrounding most of the football field-sized property, which has not been used for its intended purpose in years.
The renovations won't be easy, however. The courtyard is filled with uneven craters and ruts, and the buildings are open-air, with glassless windows and holes in the roof. The Marines have nailed plywood in some of the windows, but most are open for ventilation — an issue when sandstorms whip through.
"It was pretty run down when we got here," Clay said. "A lot of the locals' money went to the Taliban, so I don't think they spent much money keeping the building up" when it was in use.
Marines pushed through the grounds during the initial assault into Marjah in February and March, finding 12 improvised explosive devices in its classrooms and courtyard, said Capt. Bill Hefty, India Company commander. The Corps moved into the buildings in April, after they paid children living in the neighborhood to cut tall grass back with knives, added guard posts to the roof and spread barbed wire across the main entrance, which leads out onto a street with a bazaar and a mosque nearby.
The conditions are still austere. The Corps ensures the Marines have enough food, water and ammunition, but "wag bags" used to dispose of human waste were missing from May 17-20, part of the time Marine Corps Times embedded with Marines at the schoolhouse. Because the building is open-air, it is overrun by day with black flies and by night with mosquitoes, gnats and other insects. There is no working generator, so Marines power their gear and recharge their batteries using a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle on site. Birds nest in the ceiling of at least one of the rooms where tiles are missing.
There are also concerns about safety. Marines say they receive regular threats on the schoolhouse, including one May 20 in which the battalion learned that 100 Taliban fighters were gathering at a mosque within a mile, intending to overrun the patrol base. Nothing happened, but the battalion sent reinforcements to bolster forces and Marines staged gear for a possible attack, loading dozens of rifle magazines and preparing for a fight. Black Hawk and Cobra helicopters and an F/A-18 jet roared overhead in a show of force.
Battling the insurgents
Outside the wire, action has been more predictable. Patrols are regularly ambushed within a few hundred meters of the schoolhouse, with anywhere from three to 10 Taliban gunmen opening fire on Marines at a moment's notice.
The May 19 ambush occurred when the Marines had been patrolling for several hours, a typical tactic the Taliban uses in an attempt to catch Marines when they are tired and vulnerable. The insurgents coordinated the attack from two locations, opening fire on the patrol from the west and south as the Marines pushed east on a small dirt road splitting two agricultural canals in central Marjah.
As the Marines worked their way down the trail, the last member of the patrol, Lance Cpl. Thomas Haas, saw two gun-wielding insurgents maneuvering from behind a farm compound.
"I saw one of them running, crouched down in blue with an AK47," said Haas, 27. "The second was wearing white and had a white cap, and he was carrying an RPK," a 7.62mm machine gun frequently used by the Taliban.
Before the insurgents could open fire, Haas opened up with his M16A4 rifle, causing them to scatter. The insurgents returned fire, and then two more joined the fight, opening fire with AK47s from about 300 yards to the south.
The Marines took cover and began to slosh back toward their attackers. Several Marines opened fire, including Lance Cpl. Jonathan Francis, who accurately launched four 40mm grenades from an M203 launcher. The compound caught fire after it was hit with machine-gun fire from an M249 squad automatic weapon.
The gunfire lasted no more than five minutes. The insurgents escaped south, with two of them on small motorcycles. Another group of Marines detained five men nearby. By nightfall, four of them had tested positive for having gunshot residue on their hands, Marines said.
Another recent incident that weighs heavily on these Marines was a May 4 attack that occurred as a patrol responded to rocket-propelled grenade fire that landed just north of the base. A team led by Cpl. Jason Ducote, squad leader of 3rd Platoon, 5th Squad, investigated, and eventually detained a man who claimed to have been sleeping during the RPG attack and not to have heard anything.
However, the detainee broke away from the group as they began investigating a second site. Ducote began to give chase, but realized it was a trap: There was an armed anti-personnel IED nearby.
Ducote grabbed the Marine behind him, Staff Sgt. Toben Hill, and threw him into a ditch. The IED exploded a second later, knocking Ducote unconscious and seriously injuring his back. Ducote is recovering at Camp Leatherneck, the Corps major hub of operations in southern Afghanistan. He may be able to return to his unit.
Still, the Marines press on. Many of them say they are fed up with getting shot at, but prefer to stay where they are, on an island of their own in which they sometimes cook chicken purchased at the local bazaar and watch movies together at night on a makeshift projector beaming images onto a white sheet hung on a wall.
"When you get shot at together, you get really f—ing close," said Cpl. Rob Reese, a civil affairs officer who has gone on regular patrols while attached to 3/6 at the schoolhouse. "Life is a little harsher here, but it goes by faster. This is the real Marine Corps. This isn't someone pretending to be a Marine."