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PATROL BASE TORBERT, Afghanistan — When Red Platoon needed an engineer for an overnight mission to secretly observe the goings-on in several small villages, Cpl. Eric Torbert said OK, he’d do it.

Torbert always said OK. Just the night before, he’d agreed to a reconnaissance mission.

He was a Marine. He didn’t have a lot of choice. But Torbert never complained.

“Never, ever,” said Cpl. Danny Moore, who outranked his friend by a few months and was the other engineer from the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, with the infantry platoon.

“I’d tell him to do something stupid, he’d just sort of huff and say, ‘OK,’ ” Moore said. “Torbert was laid-back.”

A self-taught heavy metal guitarist from Pennsylvania on his first enlistment, he had 10 months before he was due to get out of the Corps. He planned to head to California and to the woman he’d married in June.

He put on his gear and grabbed his minesweeper and night-vision goggles. And as combat engineers do, Torbert, 25, took his place at the front of the patrol to search in the dark for IEDs.

It was Dec. 18: Torbert’s last night on Earth.

The nine-man patrol, of the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, headed out silently, single file. With platoon commander 1st Lt. Andrew Yager right behind Torbert and his minesweeper, they wound their way around an Afghan cemetery and started up the hill, the “key terrain” that was their goal.

Torbert found an IED. Then an IED found him.

There was a deafening roar. It pelted the Marines behind Torbert with a torrent of rocks and dirt. There was moaning — it was Torbert — and then the harsh realization of what had happened. Torbert had stepped on the pressure plate, buried a few inches deep, of a fertilizer bomb big enough to take out a truck.

“It was a 40-pound charge. No one survives a 40-pound charge,” said 1st Lt. Taylor Boubel, Blue Platoon commander.

Torbert’s legs were gone. Both arms were broken, a lung collapsed. Blood poured from him.

Marines tied four tourniquets on him, applied pressure bandages and called for a medevac. They followed their training, though Yager knew it was useless. And within 20 minutes or so, Torbert was dead.

“If he’d been blown up and in the operating room in 30 seconds, he still would have died,” Boubel said.

Torbert was the first 3rd LAR Marine — and so far the only — to die in combat since the unit arrived in the south of Helmand province in November. His death was a tragedy, one that has left some Marines with misgivings about the nature of combat, the judgment calls required and the finality of one wrong move.

“When you get right down to it, here’s a 25-year-old guy, he’s gone, he died horribly, and there’s no way you can dress that up,” Yager said.

The son of a Montana ranching family, Yager, 24, said he feels responsible for Torbert’s death.

“He died executing my orders,” Yager said. “I told him to walk there specifically. You can’t excuse that away. If not for me, he might not have died, and that’s tough to take.”

But he does not feel guilty, Yager said. Commanders must weigh risk, he said, with missions that must be done. They have to be smart, they have to keep their men alive, but they also have to be aggressive.

“It’s always a balance,” he said. “Never put Marines at risk just to be bold.”

They knew the risk of IEDs was high, Yager said. They know IEDs in Afghanistan and their portion of Helmand were by far the biggest threat. They also know it’s more difficult to find IEDs at night.

But intelligence indicated that “unspoiled observation” of the villages, on high ground the command had been eyeing for some time, would be beneficial, Yager said.

As it turned out, the platoon didn’t get unspoiled observation, and some Marines said they shouldn’t have tried.

“We don’t get into firefights here, and everybody already knows we’re here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Marion Eggers, of the 1st Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, 1st Marine Logistics Group. “The juice has to be worth the squeeze.”

Eggers and his EOD technicians, based at Forward Operating Base Payne, defuse explosives, and they respond to IED blasts in the battalion’s area, including the one that killed Torbert. They look for patterns and trends in the explosives and do a sort of crime-scene analysis.

They’ve seen a lot of friends die.

“I have a bracelet on my wrist with nine names on it,” Eggers said. “And that’s just close friends.”

The bomb experts said they give the same advice repeatedly: Don’t do night patrols in areas with IEDs unless there’s a compelling reason.

“These are lessons paid in blood and to see them not heed it — it’s frustrating,” said one of the technicians, all sergeants and above, as the others in the group nodded in agreement. “We all say the same thing and look at each other and wonder when they’re going to wake up and stop doing stupid things.”

But then, EOD has its own mission, which differs from that of platoon commanders.

“Our mission isn’t to win the war,” Eggers said. “Our mission is to get the warfighters home, period.”

Torbert was memorialized in the FOB Payne chow hall by some 150 Marines at the beginning of the year, and his photo went up on the wall at battalion headquarters there. The patch of desert where he died was mine-swept, bulldozed and rendered safe, and became the site of a patrol base named after him.

Since then, the Marines have stepped on two more IEDs, although neither was lethal.

“I’m prepared for it to happen to me,” Yager said. “I’m prepared, professionally, for it to happen to them,” he said of his Marines. “But personally — I’m not prepared for it to happen to them.”

There will be countless more patrols, he said, in the next three months before the unit returns home. And some of them will be done at night.

“It’ll happen again,” Yager said.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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