Uneasy quiet, then a Taliban ambush
MARJAH, Afghanistan — Lance Cpl. Matthew W. McElhinney faded in and out of consciousness as the morphine kicked in.
Other Marines grasped his hand, squeezed it and talked to him, trying anything to keep him awake.
“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”
“Stay with me.”
“Don’t worry. You’re going to be OK. You’ll be calling your family within a day.”
There had been no real fighting for Company L, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment since the second week of the Marjah assault, which had started almost a month earlier. McElhinney’s platoon had been patrolling for nearly two weeks on the northern outskirts of the town without drawing a shot.
But in one violent day, on March 10, their war abruptly resumed. McElhinney took a shot to his lower back, from a Taliban round that found a sweet spot just beneath his Kevlar vest and armor plate.
“It’s almost as if these [expletive] know exactly where to shoot,” said Navy corpsman Jonathan Duhart.
Deep into an opiate stupor, McElhinney said something that made the other Marines laugh. “This is the only morphine you’re ever going to get,” one of them said. “Got it?”
He began to fade again.
A Marine told McElhinney to squeeze his hand, urging him to keep talking.
“The Marine Corps is about to treat you a lot better than it ever has,” he said. “A soft bed and three squares a day.”
Someone yelled that a medevac helicopter was inbound. Staff Sgt. Matthew Campbell marked the landing zone by tossing a smoke grenade into a poppy field next to the abandoned school where the Marines were stopped when the shooting began.
Within minutes, the helicopter landed, and McElhinney was hustled aboard. Less than 45 minutes had elapsed from the moment he was shot until he was loaded aboard the bird.
Earlier that day, a platoon from Company L had awakened before dawn. For three hours, the Marines trudged, along with a group of Afghan soldiers, through muddy poppy and wheat fields to reach the school, which Taliban fighters reportedly were using as a base.
The graffiti on the walls of the wrecked concrete building left no doubt that the Taliban had been there. The childish, Picasso-like drawings showed stick figures shooting down helicopters and blowing up tanks.
A man who owned a shop across from the school confirmed that the Taliban were still around. Just the day before, the insurgents had been cruising up and down the dirt road on their motorbikes. At night, they had set up checkpoints and stopped any traffic that happened by, the shop owner said.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them are the same [expletive] we see digging out in their fields right now,” said Capt. Josh Winfrey, the Company L commander. “But there are definitely more people around than there were the last time we were here, which is definitely a good sign.”
After sweeping the ruined school for booby traps and bombs with a mine detector and a black Labrador retriever named Gus, the grunts dropped their heavy packs, topped off their Camelbaks and grabbed a quick bite to eat from their First Strike Rations.
As they ate, two young Marines talked about how puzzled they were by the lack of action they were seeing.
The Taliban went underground during the second week of the Marjah offensive, staying hidden but striking Marine convoys with a steady supply of mines and homemade bombs. The Marines of Company L had not taken direct fire since Feb. 24, two weeks earlier.
“I ain’t going to lie,” one Marine said. “I thought there was going to be more to Marjah than this.”
“I did, too,” the other one said. “But I don’t know what.”
A patrol of Marines and Afghan troops left the school in late morning to check several of the compounds to the south and the east. Within an hour, they were taking fire. They reported back by radio that they were about a half mile east of the school and receiving small-arms and machine-gun fire from what appeared to be a bunker to the north.
The shooting was clearly audible. The Marines took out the bunker with an antitank rocket. They checked it, but found no bodies. The Taliban fighters appeared to have popped off a few rounds and fled.
The Marines continued the patrol. Ten minutes later, they were hit again. A short burst of automatic weapons fire rang out, answered by two loud explosions as the Afghan troops fired back with rocket-propelled grenades. The Taliban fire ceased.
The running gunbattle continued for several hours into the afternoon, with the Taliban firing on the Marines, then retreating. Winfrey called for air support. Soon a Reaper drone was overhead, circling at 13,500 feet, armed with two Hellfire missiles and one 500-pound bomb.
The drone’s engine made a high-pitched whine, but the aircraft remained invisible to the naked eye. Campbell, the staff sergeant, communicated with the Reaper’s operator, who reported that six men dressed in black could be seen scurrying from the spot where the Marines were last hit.
One of the men appeared to be carrying something under his clothes, but the operator couldn’t tell what it was. Without positive identification of a weapon, the drone operator could not engage them.
Back at the school, local men walked along paths through nearby fields, seemingly unconcerned about the fighting. A little boy in a blue shalwar kameez, or traditional dress, ran out of a compound about 100 yards to the east. He stopped next to a field and stared at the Marines and Afghan troops for a few minutes. Then, just as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.
The patrol was still out at 5:15 p.m. when shooting broke out near the school. A Marine reported seeing shots coming from about 200 yards due west. The troops at the school scrambled for their body armor and weapons.
Within minutes, Taliban fire came pouring in from three sides. Bullets cracked and zipped through the air, pinging off the concrete walls. Marines and Afghan soldiers dashed for whatever cover was available. But there were large openings in nearly every wall, presumably for windows that were never installed, and there was precious little protection to be found. Later, several Marines would discover bullet pockmarks where they had been standing or sitting just moments before the gunfire broke out.
The scene grew more chaotic as the Marines hurried into position and began returning fire. But with all of the noise from the guns, it was virtually impossible to tell exactly where the Taliban were positioned.
Suddenly, a man screamed in pain.
“Oh God!” he cried, and he screamed again.
McElhinney lay belly down in a patch of grass on the west side of the building. He’d been shot in the right side of his lower back, just above the buttocks but below his bulletproof vest. He was on the ground, writhing in agony, as Duhart, Campbell and another Marine stripped off his body armor and worked to stop the bleeding.
Campbell left the scene briefly to retrieve more help. Duhart and the other Marine covered McElhinney with their bodies as more shots cracked overhead. An Afghan soldier standing in an open doorway let loose with a volley of light machine gun fire. He wasn’t firing at anything, just blasting rounds into the air, until a Marine yelled for him to stop.
Winfrey called for a medevac helicopter. They were soon joined by another Navy corpsman, John Pascual. They stuffed dressings into the wound, but McElhinney was bleeding profusely.
He was also in a lot of pain, and screamed every time the corpsmen touched his wound or tried to move him. Finally, they injected McElhinney with morphine and stripped off his shirt and then his trousers. The morphine immediately calmed him. They placed him onto a portable stretcher, then moved him inside the school and started an intravenous drip. They covered his naked body with a poncho liner and tried to keep him alert until the medevac bird arrived.
With McElhinney lifted to safety and the Taliban long since disappeared, several Marines gathered in a back room, trying to dissect what had happened. One insisted that McElhinney was shot from the north and that the bullet had come all the way through the building.
With the shooting coming from nearly all directions, it was impossible to pin down, but the Marines finally reached a consensus that he was hit by a single round fired from the southeast.
“He was hit right below the SAPI,” Duhart said, referring to the Small Arms Protective Insert, a ceramic bulletproof plate that fits inside the Kevlar flak vest and provides extra protection against rifle shots.
Duhart was silent for a moment, pulling on the last drag of his cigarette. He cursed the Taliban with a few choice words and left the room.
“They strike-coordinated this [expletive],” said another Marine, Cpl. Joseph Williams. “There’s no way that all the Taliban around this place just decided to start shooting at us at the same time.”
The Marines were angry. They were getting conflicting information.
“Every person we talked to today insisted that they hadn’t seen the Taliban in two days,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Barlow. “They all need to die.”
As darkness fell, the Marines and the Afghans moved into a nearby compound that offered better protection against further attack.
The next day, they got hit again with another ambush, but there were no casualties. On the third day, they packed up their gear and walked back to their company outpost, several miles away. Their fight with the Taliban in the area was not finished, but it would have to wait for another time.