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Marines at 'ManBearPig' Patrol in Nawa's Wild West

NAWA, Afghanistan – Within minutes of leaving the protective barriers of Observation Post Khers for a security patrol Dec. 21, a squad of Marines and Afghan national army soldiers heard the sharp pops of small arms fire nearby.

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Regimental Combat Team-7, 1st Marine Division Public Affairs
Story by Sgt. Brian Tuthill
Date: 12.24.2009
Posted: 12.24.2009 08:41

"They always shoot at us," said Sgt. Mike L. Osburn, a squad leader with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, who led the patrol. "It wasn't very close. They don't really want to fight today."

For Marines operating from the joint Marine and ANA outpost, referred to by Marines simply as "ManBearPig," getting shot at by Taliban insurgents from a distance is a daily occurrence in this remote northwestern area of Nawa district. ManBearPig is argued to be one of the most dangerous and isolated posts Marines maintain in Nawa.

"Sometimes the shots come close, but usually they're not very accurate," said Osburn, a 25-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., who has completed previous combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with 1/3. "A few days ago we took machine gun fire that hit our guard tower and around the barricades. You always have to keep an eye over your shoulder.

"It's kind of like the 'Wild West' out here," said Osburn, who leads his Marines on security patrols through what he describes as very muddy, flat and unforgiving terrain where Afghans farm the desert landscape using irrigation canals. "It's not gun slinging every day, but it's not very friendly. When our patrol walks by, kids run into homes, people stop farming and just kind of disappear. It's like an old western where everyone in town knows the bad guys are about to show their face around the corner."

Another danger for Marines and ANA soldiers at ManBearPig is the threat of improvised explosive devices, both on and off of roads. One nearby road is so scarred by blasts and visibly peppered with waiting bombs that Marines, civilians and insurgents alike know to keep well clear of it. Not long ago, Marines discovered an unlucky insurgent who tried planting a bomb and was killed when he accidentally stepped on another bomb's pressure activation plate, said Osburn.

Bravo Company Marines say conducing counterinsurgency operations and working with the population at Nawa's northwestern edge is challenging due to the Taliban's undermining influence and intimidation of local citizens who are afraid to come forward. Sometimes the only way Afghan citizens will speak with Marines is behind a wall or building, where they know insurgents can't see.

"We embed ANA soldiers in each of our patrols," said 2nd Lt. Victor P. Barnes, Jr., platoon commander, 1st Platoon, Bravo Company. "They notice a lot of the little things in town faster than we do. They can tell when something's out of the norm."

Typically, ANA soldiers enlist from Afghan provinces other than Helmand and speak mostly Dari, but an advantage of serving alongside this unit of ANA soldiers is nearly all of them speak Pashto, the primary language in Nawa. This allows the ANA to take the lead in interacting with local citizens if an interpreter is not around, said Osburn.

"Living here with the ANA is very interesting, and we all get along great," said Barnes. "Thankfully, we have an interpreter, but we've learned some Pashtu, they've learned some English, and we're teaching them some of our tactics."

Last week, Marines also included ANA soldiers in their Marine Corps Martial Arts Program training to further enhance the soldiers' combat effectiveness.

When not on patrol in the often knee-deep mud which can stop vehicles in their tracks, Marines spend time at ManBearPig standing guard posts or enjoying precious hours of rest.
Some Marines pursue personal interests in their off time, like Lance Cpl. Ryan C. Jensen, a machine gunner with Scout Sniper Platoon, Bravo Company. Jensen said he has goals of developing his creative skills in many different ways over the months he expects to spend at the small camp.

At night Jensen often plays his harmonica, guitar, drumsticks, reads and writes, or draws in his sketchbook. Recently, he has begun writing rap lyrics for a satirical music video in which he and his platoon mates will star.

"I think we got the lucky card and will be at ManBearPig the whole deployment," said Jensen, a 24-year-old from Sonoma, Calif. "When you're not getting bullets flying over your head, this is a peaceful place. There's a lot to see here for inspiration you can write about. I really want to leave here having bettered myself."

But ManBearPig is certainly not all quiet or fun and games, Jensen warned.

"We've trained hard and we want to be where the action is," he said of his platoon. "We took a [rocket-propelled grenade] attack the first day we were out here and it was a real wakeup call. Right now, this is the place for fighting bad guys."