The Marines arrived under the protection of the night, but by daylight the crackle of enemy fire was upon them.
It wouldn’t stop for six days.
Going into the mission, 1st Lt. Kenneth Conover III thought his platoon of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, would face resistance. But not everyone agreed.
Their deployment to Sangin in Helmand province had been almost eerily calm since they arrived three months earlier.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t think anything had happened,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Brodrick, Conover’s platoon sergeant.
“So when we went out there for Qaleh-ye Gaz, it was kind of like one of those, ‘Yeah, everything’s going to be the exact same as it is here.’ It turned out that it wasn’t.”
The unit was there to clear the village of fighters and gather intelligence for a small group of Navy SEALs who would help build a local fighting force.
Nearly 100 Marines were inserted by helicopter under cover of darkness June 22, 2012. They stayed put until daybreak, as ordered.
By the time the sky brightened, they were surrounded.
“As daylight broke, that’s when things went south for us,” Conover said. “The enemy in the area was smart, well-trained and it was a well-coordinated attack.”
During the fight, 25-year-old Conover repeatedly put himself into the line of fire to lead his men in the unrelenting assault, narrowly escaping bullets and mortars along the way. For his actions, he would receive the Silver Star.
He would not be the only Marine singled out for bravery during that mission. Sgt. Kenneth Rick, now 26, also received a Silver Star; Brodrick, now 29, and Sgt. Nicholas Brandau, now 28, each received a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor.
Of all the firefights Brodrick saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, “this was probably one of the worst that I experienced,” he said.
The unit was hit hard during the fight, losing two Marines in the first two days. In all, there would be 40 significant enemy encounters, including 23 direct-fire engagements and 10 enemy attempts to overrun the unit’s position.
‘You’ve got to go’
The insurgents came in waves.
First, the enemy attacked with several bursts from machine guns, followed by a sustained assault that included 10 rounds of 82 mm mortars from the south, east and west.
“The ground shook as rounds snapped past and impacted near First Lieutenant Conover from every direction but North,” his medal citation states. “One mortar impacted just 15 feet from First Lieutenant Conover.”
The soft-tilled farm field absorbed the blast. “Though the situation was dire, First Lieutenant Conover remained dauntless,” his commendation said.
As rounds zipped past him, Conover held steadfast in his exposed position, “in order to embolden his men, as well as maintain a position which helped his command and control, regardless of the danger.” He remained in that position, commanding the fight, until his men were in the safety of their newly established compound.
With a 150-pound ruck on his back, he then made a 25-meter dash to safety.
“First Lieutenant Conover made sure that he was the last individual out of the kill zone and that everyone was secure,” the commendation stated. “Miraculously, there were no friendly casualties.”
That luck wouldn’t hold.
About an hour after the platoon consolidated inside the compound, insurgents tossed six grenades over its mud-walled exterior. The platoon’s radio operator suffered serious shrapnel wounds to his back.
While Brodrick called for a medical evacuation helicopter to extract the injured Marine, a team pushed out to secure a landing zone. As combat engineer Lance Cpl. Steven Stevens swept the ground for improvised explosive devices, he was struck down by an RPG and a hail of bullets.
Still under attack, Rick, Brandau and another Marine rushed to save Stevens.
Brandau said the fear before charging out was so intense, he nearly vomited. But he had to do something, he said.
“There’s not much of an option,” Brandau said. “You’ve got to go.”
By the time they got Stevens back to the compound, he was dead.
The next night, after another day of firefights, Brandau and Rick led a patrol to destroy an enemy machine-gun position they had identified. On the way there, Lance Cpl. Niall Coti-Sears stepped on an IED. He was alive when they got him on the medevac flight, but by the time the bird landed at Camp Bastion, he was dead.
The company first sergeant delivered the news by radio. Inside the patrol base, the Marines were dealing with the loss of two fellow platoon members.
“We had to come together and talk about what happened and make sure everyone was able to accept we lost some of our brothers, but that we couldn’t sit back idly,” Conover said. “We had to buckle down. There was no time to dwell.”
As they sat around the patrol base that night, Conover and his men were determined to push out into the area, patrolling on foot to find what the insurgents were fighting to protect.
The time to grieve would have to come later.
Over the next several days, the fighting was relentless.
“I mean, essentially we were surrounded,” Brandau said. “Every time we stepped outside the wire, we were getting shot at.”
During the six days in Qaleh-ye Gaz, the platoon cleared a 2-square-kilometer area of enemy fighters with 12 confirmed enemy kills, five confirmed enemy wounded. In addition, the operation resulted in three detainees, including one high-value Taliban leader.
‘Just a group of guys’
The final hours in Qaleh-ye Gaz would present unexpected challenges.
Conover had crafted a plan to pack up and move out to a landing zone, where they would board choppers to get them back to their main base a few miles north. But as Conover led his men from the compound, they realized helicopters had missed the intended landing zone of dry terrain and landed on a flooded farm field. The Marines, weighted down with heavy rucks, were forced to wade through knee-deep mud.
Three Marines ended up stuck in the bog, which meant one final act of leadership.
“First Lieutenant Conover knew he had to take bold action,” the commendation stated. “He mustered every bit of physical stamina, charged onto the aircraft, dropped his rucksack, and dashed off the aircraft back into the thick mud to assist his Marines.”
On three separate occasions, “by the force of sheer willpower, he and his Platoon Sergeant plowed through the muck of the open field to pull their Marines free, grab extra gear, and haul everything onto the aircraft,” the commendation stated. “He personally ensured they all got to the aircraft in time before it had to lift off due to low fuel.”
Back at their base, the Marines finally had a chance to grieve.
“As we pulled our gear off, we let our emotions out and talked about our brothers we had lost,” Conover said. “The two guys who were killed, you could not think of two better young infantry Marines.”
“The platoon as a whole, it was just a group of guys that was willing to sacrifice themselves for everybody else,” Brandau said.