First Contact

First Contact
First Contact

LCpl Gavin Ellis fires on a suspected insurgent who had engaged the Marines from 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment while they were conducting a sweep of a compound near Patrol Base Boldak March 3. Photo by Sgt Bobby J. Yarbrough.

LCpl Emilio TherienGonzales climbs on the top of a compound to try and locate a shooter who fired on the Marines from an adjacent compound near Patrol Base Boldak March 3. Photo by Sgt Bobby J. Yarbrough.

PATROL BASE BOLDAK, AFGHANISTAN (MARCH 11, 2013) - The air was still and the fading sounds of morning prayers echoed throughout the valley as our convoy lumbered to a halt. The lead vehicle had become stuck in a field and couldn't move. The patrol leader, Sgt Brandon Bond, radioed to Marines in the stopped vehicle and asked if they could move. It was almost 5 a.m. and Bond knew people would soon begin to leave their homes and move. 

The vehicle was immobile, so we dismounted our vehicles and began to patrol on foot to two compounds that lay just 400 meters to our north. The Marines with Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, had watched the compounds over the last few weeks and believed insurgents were using them for refuge. 

The glimmer of the moon outlined the bodies of the Marines around me as we crossed the rutted fields. The fields had been irrigated the day prior and with each step mud clung to the bottom of my boots. We trudged through the mud for five minutes, approached the compounds and cordoned the area. 

Dogs howled in the distance as I took a knee. I provided security to an outside door as some of the Marines and their interpreter entered the compound. When all the occupants inside the compound had been gathered up and placed in the courtyard, I entered. 

Petty Officer Third Class Brandon Henthorne and LCpl Kevin Romero were already questioning some of the occupants. They began using the Secure Electronic Enrollment Kit (SEEK), a biometrics machine used to gather the personal information, fingerprints, and retina scans of individuals. 

Henthorne, the platoon's corpsmen, had never taken the lead in questioning individuals before. But calmly, he and Romero took turns questioning the men inside the compound. I snapped a few photos as they worked and then entered the inside of the house. 

As I pulled back the fabric that draped across the door, beams of light danced across the walls inside. LCpl Gavin Ellis and LCpl Chris Harrison were searching each room with flashlights for any signs or evidence of insurgents. I took photos of the Marines as they respectfully and meticulously combed every inch of the compound. 

The Marines finished searching and we walked back outside. The sun was rising and rays of sunshine poured over the compound walls. Henthorne and Romero had interviewed the last person when 2ndLt James Clement asked Ellis to escort me across to the other compound.

We left the compound door but stopped just 15 feet away. Ellis had grabbed a pick from inside the compound and began digging. He had canvassed the outside of the compound and thought an area of dirt was an ideal location for a weapons cache. Ellis continued to dig for a few minutes and after finding nothing, we patrolled 50 meters to the other compound.

As we walked inside, three goats, two turkeys, a dozen chickens and a single cow stood in the courtyard. Four men were already assembled along the back wall—amongst them, a man the Marines recognized one of the individuals they hoped to find during the sweep. 

For the next half hour, the Marines searched the compound and interviewed the residents. I helped provide internal security alongside LCpl Thomas Foster, a light armored vehicle operator who serves as the platoon's dog handler. We talked about his life at Twentynine Palms, his five weeks of dog training, and what we believed Afghans' perception of Marines is. 

At around 7:45 a.m., the Marines from the first compound consolidated into our compound. By now, two vehicles were stuck in the mud. A few Marines grabbed some pieces of wood that were lying around the courtyard to prop under the tires for traction.

A Quick Reaction Force (QRF) with a wrecker had already been dispatched from Camp Leatherneck, so now our unit just had to wait. LCpl Emilio TherienGonzales posted a few Marines around the compound to observe the activities of the locals and watch for anything suspicious. The rest of the Marines sat on a concrete slab in the middle of the courtyard, smoking cigarettes and talking about prior patrols in this area. 

Over the radio, Marines had requested help with one of the stuck vehicles. Henthorne, Foster and his military working dog Diamond volunteered to assist since it was the vehicle they had ridden in during the convoy. 

As they exited the rear door to the compound, I stepped just outside the frame of the door to snap of few pictures of them walking away. Two shots rang out, both hitting a small mound of dirt about 20 feet to my right. As I turned around, a third shot was fired, hitting the ground in between Henthorne and Foster.

I stepped back through the door and relayed to Sgt Dennis Rose, who was already positioned in the doorway with his rifle perched on a 55-gallon barrel, where the shots had impacted and the direction they came from.

As I moved left of the door, TherienGonzales climbed the back of a Marine to position himself on the top the compound wall to try and locate the shooter's position. 

Another round struck the outside wall near the doorway where Rose was positioned. TherienGonzales saw the shooter's head pop over the right corner wall of the adjacent compound and yelled out the shooter's location to the other Marines. Rose fired at the shooter's position. 

The residents inside the compound began to scream and rushed to take cover inside one of the bedrooms. I moved towards the compound wall closest to the shooter. Ellis was already positioned behind a stack of cut tree limbs and dried poppy stalks and had begun firing on the shooter's position. I took up a position to his left on the corner of the wall, using my scope to locate the shooter. 

The shooter popped over the top of the wall again and fired two more shots. Ellis fired again and I squeezed off one round before the shooter dropped down behind the wall. 

By now, the turret gunners inside the vehicles had located the shooter's position and began firing. I left my position along the wall, grabbed my camera and then followed TherienGonzales through a small opening that leads into the holding pen for the goats. Using a pick ax, he pierced the wall and dug out a hole big enough for him to position his weapon and take a shot. 

I crawled back through the opening and began taking photos of Ellis as he continued to fire on the shooter's position. More shots rang out from the shooter's position, but were immediately overshadowed by the sound of machine gun fire from the turrets. The rounds fired from the machine gun barely missed, skipping just above the shooter's head.

I followed Ellis as he moved to the front entrance of the compound to meet Clement, who had positioned himself along the outside corner wall near the front entrance. From there, he had good concealment and could see the shooter's position perfectly. Between firing rounds, he radioed the turret gunners and guided their aim onto the shooter's location.

Clement decided to assault the compound where the shooter was firing from. One of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles pulled around to the side of the compound and Clement, Ellis and I climbed in. We drove through the fields to the northeast corner of the compound, opposite where the shots had originated from, and exited the vehicle.

With rifles at the ready, we assaulted into the main compound. I was the last to enter. A single man and a handful of children exited the inside of the house. The man was the owner of the compound and said he knew nothing about the shooting, but would escort us through the remainder of the compound. 

We exited back through the front door and continued to move along the outside of the compound wall. As we turned left along the back wall, a shot rang out from behind us to our right. I took a knee and looked in the direction from which I thought the shot had come. Seeing nothing, we continued along the wall to a small door covered in fabric. The owner entered the door and about 30 seconds later, he exited along with four others—two adult males and two boys. 

Exposed to potential fire, we gathered everyone and continued to move around the compound wall. Through a large opening, we entered the courtyard from where the shooter had fired. We conducted a quick search of the immediate area and told the men to take seat. 

In the back corner, a yellow jug was propped against the wall with a 50-pound bag of seed on top of it. It was in the exact location from where the shots had been fired.

I provided security as Clement called over the radio for vehicle extraction and Ellis conducted a hasty sweep looking for any other signs of the shooter. The shooter had left nothing else behind. 

We conducted a quick search of the men, loaded them into the MRAP, and drove back to the compound where the rest of the Marines were located. The Marines interviewed each man and loaded their information into the SEEK. Each one of them had clean records, so they left the compound on their own accord.

The QRF had arrived by now and the wrecker was able to free all the vehicles from the mud. We all loaded back into the vehicles and the convoy headed back to Patrol Base Boldak.

On our way home, the convoy again took sporadic fire and Marines assaulted another compound. This time we found spent cartridges which were the first rounds discovered in several months.

For the remainder of the patrol, I thought of only two things as we rode home. 

First, I had always wondered what goes through a person's head when they are fired upon. The answer, for me at least, was nothing. There is no time to think about anything, you simply react to the circumstance before you. 

And lastly, I thought about how the Marines of 2/7 are by far the most collected and professional infantry Marines I have ever met. At no point during the exchange was there confusion or disorder. Everyone knew what their job was and they completed it. It was nothing short of amazing to me.

As we drove back through the gate at Patrol Base Boldak, I silently thanked God for his hand of protection over our patrol that day and prayed he would watch over the Marines of 2/7 in the future. This was the first time I had been shot at, but for them it was simply just another day in Afghanistan.

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