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In the Province of Poppies and R.P.G.s

(6/26/2008) Every marine prepares for battle in his own way. These were the Marines of Alpha Company, Third Platoon, First Battalion of the Sixth Marines. They were preparing for a fight.


Eric Rousell of Montauk, deployed with the Sixth Marines in Afghanistan
Words and Photographs by Ralph Dayton

The Third Platoon is part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a 2,400-person-strong force sent to Afghanistan earlier this year to neutralize the Taliban’s influence in Helmand Province, where more opium poppies are grown than anyplace else in the world.

Word had just reached the platoon that United States reconnaissance aircraft had been observing Taliban militants bringing weapons into the local bazaar all day long. It was suspected that the weapons were coming from Pakistan, to the South. Tonight Alpha Company’s mission was to cross a critical irrigation canal that had thus far served as the frontline in an ongoing engagement between them and the Taliban. The marines would cross the canal and penetrate deep into enemy territory. Everyone realized this could get ugly.

On this evening the lieutenant and sergeants had little time to contemplate. Together they planned the assault and reviewed maps of the surrounding area. Some sat and stared into space, thinking about what the night would bring. Some tried to relax, passing around the only two magazines anyone brought: Maxim and Men’s Fitness.

Eric Rousell of Montauk sat and silently read a passage from a pocket Bible the company chaplain had given him.

Like most East Hampton locals, Eric Rousell was born at Southampton Hospital. He grew up in Montauk and went to East Hampton High School, graduating in 2005. Grandfathers on both sides of his family served with the Navy. One grandfather, Kenneth Rousell, served in the British Royal Navy, starting out as a gunner’s mate and ultimately working his way up to gun captain. Hospital Corpsman Third Class Eric Rousell followed in his grandfathers’ footsteps, joining the U.S. Navy in May of 2006. He chose to become an “HM3,” a corpsman, an enlisted battlefield medical specialist trained by the Navy and attached to a unit of Marines (the Marine Corps being part of the Department of Navy). Most marines refer to any corpsman as “Doc.” Accordingly, Hospital Corpsman Third Class Rousell is known as Doc Rousell.

Although Navy corpsmen wear a Marine Corps uniform in the field, they have the choice of wearing either a Navy or a Marine uniform in the rear or on dress occasions. Doc Rousell chooses to wear a Marine Corps uniform at all times. He has requested that if he is killed in action he be buried in a Marine Corps uniform and be given a Marine funeral.

As devoted to the Marines as he is, Doc Rousell intends to leave the service upon completion of his current Navy contract. He will return to Montauk to work with his parents, Ken and Linda, in the family excavation business. He says he’d like to serve as an emergency medical technician in the Montauk Fire Department.

On this day the platoon was holed up in a farmhouse compound in the center of the Garmser district of Helmand. Like virtually every Afghan farmhouse, it was surrounded on all sides by defensive walls, a tradition borne of centuries of warfare. The landscape could have been mistaken for the ends of the earth: barren desert.

The main source of sustenance in the region is the Helmand River, which originates in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan and flows all the way to Iran. And — in this part of the world — where there is water, there are poppies, and there is life. The harvest each year from the fields of Helmand finances the Taliban’s fight.

Earlier in the week about 400 marines had been helicoptered into the area to secure routes to an abandoned U.S. forward operating base. The first day of that effort the marines advised local farmers that anyone not associated with the Taliban should leave the area. The next day Taliban fighters attacked the marines in full force, with small arms and rocket-propelled gren?ades (R.P.G.s). The marines responded in kind — and also called in mortars, artillery, Cobra helicopters with Hellfire missiles, and Harrier jets with 500 and 1,000-pound bombs.

Despite the marines’ overwhelming firepower the Taliban continues to fight tenaciously.

Several marines repeated some version of the following: “The Taliban are amazing. As hard as we hit them, they just keep coming out of the woodwork. You have to respect them; they stand and fight.”

Eric Rousell’s company, Alpha Company, was chosen to be the tip of the spear in the latest operation, penetrating first and farthest into the Taliban stronghold. The ultimate objective for the night was to secure a new compound about a kilometer from the one presently occupied. The goal was to secure the new compound well before dawn; large numbers of marines moving in daylight would, obviously, draw attention in a neighborhood like this.

The marines moved out in single file under cover of darkness, wearing night-vision goggles; they walked with a gap between each man, to minimize casualties should they take fire or someone step on a land mine. Each carried an automatic rifle and wore body armor with magazines of ammunition strapped on, a Kevlar helmet, and a rucksack weighing at least 100 pounds. All buildings or compounds they came upon along the route were “cleared” — meaning, searched for occupants or weapons (which, at this stage of the operation, were detonated or destroyed). Anyone encountered was shot on sight.

The Sun Also Rises

On the morning of May 14 — after a similar night, a similar mission — the marines had just reached the last compound to be cleared as the sun started to rise. Roosters began to crow.

Like clockwork the Taliban militants opened fire on Alpha Company, bullets peppering the walls and zipping by their heads. Realizing they still needed to cross a poppy field about 50 meters wide, the squad leaders yelled, “Push, marines! Push to the objective!” Under heavy enemy fire, the marines did as they were ordered, one by one leaving the cover of the wall they had hunkered behind.

Single file they hustled across the field, through the poppies, as a few opened up with automatic rifles to suppress the opposing fire. The first few marines to reach the compound wall scaled it and helped the others lift their rucksacks up and over. That was when the Taliban fighters launched a full assault with R.P.G.s. The marines responded with 203 grenades. (One or two marines in each squad carries a 203-grenade launcher mounted to his M4 automatic rifle.)

Cpl. Andrew Rouser of Knoxville, Tenn., quickly determining one source of R.P.G. fire, launched a grenade from a distance of about 50 meters directly into the window from which the Taliban were firing. There was a deafening “Boom!” and an explosion of smoke, dust, and debris. Problem solved, as the marines might say.

Cpl. Noah Smiley of Archer, Fla., the platoon’s forward observer, was on the radio that morning, transmitting coordinates of the Taliban’s position to the mortar company located about a mile away. The mortar company went by the call sign “Apache Rain.” It rained down mortars on the Taliban position. With the compound secured, the two demolitions experts in the platoon, Staff Sgt. James Rytych of Kansas and Cpl. Ryan Rhyme Time Reimert of Kutztown, Pa., proceeded to blast gun ports in the walls with C-4 explosive. The marines then occupied the gun ports, securing the perimeter of the compound.

Thus began a typical day of this operation . . . all before 7 a.m.

Perchance to Dream

As of mid-May, these marines hadn’t bathed in about a month. Their body odor was so strong the flies sought them out and harassed them continually. Midday temperatures in Helmand reach about 110 degrees this time of year.

Most days, those not on guard duty look for a shady spot to try to catch some sleep. They also routinely sleep on the bare ground — which means, generally, on rocks, sand, or concrete. Often the only shade to be found is in an animal stall; they are too exhausted to care about the dried animal droppings all around them. When they do sleep, they wake up bitten by fleas, ants, and mosquitoes. Antimalaria pills are standard issue.

The platoon sends out a squad every night to rendezvous with the resupply convoy that delivers M.R.E.s (meals ready to eat) and eight liters of water for each marine. The M.R.E. has been researched and developed by the United States government to provide all the necessary protein and calories for a soldier to fight. It comes tightly packaged in a beige plastic bag. Inside are a number of other plastic-wrapped items: an entree, side dish, cracker or bread, peanut butter, jelly, or cheese spread, dessert, candy, beverage powder, hot sauce or seasoning, spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, and a “flameless ration heater” that heats the entree when water is added. M.R.E.s are not too bad, the marines say, but after a week or two in the field it becomes a bit of a chore to force them down. The marines make a sport of trading items — penne pasta for a beef patty, cocoa powder for iced-tea mix. Cheese spread and Skittles are worth their weight in gold; a pack of Skittles can even be traded for a few cigarettes. Cigarettes are no longer included in M.R.E.s, as they were in decades past. Still, tobacco is what many of the guys crave most: chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

This particular operation was only supposed to last one week. At the end of the first week word came down the chain of command that the Taliban resistance was so substantial that the operation would be extended another 30 days. The marines were almost all out of tobacco. One joked, “Tell the folks at home that if morale is low, it’s because we’ve run out of chew and smokes!”

Doc Rousell’s daily routine is busy and exhausting. There is one other corpsman in the platoon, and they take turns going out on patrol with a squad and manning the radio for the platoon leader. Doc Rousell seldom gets to sleep more than an hour or two at a time. Even when not on patrol he’s on pins and needles worrying about the welfare of his marines.

One morning last month, the platoon left the compound at 4 a.m. to set an ambush for the Taliban fighters who generally only move and attack during daylight. All was quiet until daybreak when a maelstrom of gunfire erupted. Within minutes Doc Rousell yelled, “One of our marines just got shot!” He’d heard it over the radio. “I don’t know who it is yet.”

Obviously this was not good news. For the marines who remained in the compound on security, the gravity of the situation sank in as the gunfire down the street raged on. Doc Rousell jumped to his feet and ran to the compound entrance, anxiously awaiting any additional word or sign. Word quickly came back that it was Sgt. Jeffery Schuh of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who had been shot. Within minutes the marines broke contact with the enemy and came sprinting back to the compound. Doc Rousell met each one as they ran through entrance, slapping them on the back and asking, “You okay? You okay?” And then there came Sergeant Schuh, sprinting through the doorway with a huge grin on his face. He’d taken a bullet in the side plate of his flak jacket. Other than a massive bruise to his ribs and a completely shredded side plate, he was fine. Ironically, it was Sergeant Schuh’s birthday.

Happy birthday, Sergeant Schuh, they all said. Just another day in Afghanistan.