The platoon was only 200 yards from its base when Lieutenant Robert Kelly, the 29-year-old son of a US Marine Corps general, hauled himself out of an irrigation ditch and on to a Taliban mine buried in the mud bank.
The force of the blast hurled him back into the ditch, slicing off both his legs above the knees. The men nearest the explosion — Corporal Travis Buckholz and Corporal Vatividad Silva — grabbed his body armour and dragged him out of the water.
Buckholz, 21, pulled out a tourniquet to stem the blood and rolled his commanding officer over. But when he saw the lieutenant’s face he stopped still with the tourniquet clenched in his hand.
“I knew when I saw it there was nothing we could do for him. Half his face was missing,” Buckholz said.
“When we got back to base it was like someone had stolen the life out of everyone. All you could see were pale faces and blank looks. I sat on the stairs and fixed my eyes on one spot for hours.”
Death has become an all too frequent reality for American marines fighting in the Sangin district of Helmand, just as it was for British forces before them. The British suffered a third of all their Afghan war casualties in this valley labyrinth of canals, tree-lines and fields of opium and corn.
When the men of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines arrived their commanders could not understand how the British had failed to pacify Sangin, where inter-tribal feuds, the opium trade and a vicious insurgency have combined to make the district the most dangerous for Nato troops in Afghanistan.
The British strategy was privately criticised. The Americans believed an undermanned British force had become hamstrung by the large number of patrol bases they were maintaining in a ring around the centre of the district.
No sooner had they assumed command at the start of October than they began to tear down more than half of the 22 bases that 106 British soldiers had died defending. Hundreds more were wounded, many so severely that their lives would never be the same again. The Americans abandoned some of the terrain that the British had clung to at grave cost and directed their extra manpower at other areas that had not been penetrated before.
But the marines are already paying a devastating price for this early aggression.
In their first six weeks in Sangin, the marine battalion lost more men than the last British unit had in six months. The evacuation helicopters have flown in and out of northern Sangin up to four times a day to pick up the dead and wounded.
So far, 24 marines have been killed and 85 wounded. That is more than 15% of their total combat strength, with four more months of fighting left before they are replaced.
The effect has been humbling. “The British shed a lot of blood here,” said Captain Matthew Peterson, the commanding officer of the hard-hit Lima Company. “They sacrificed a lot of men holding onto Sangin.
“Let’s not forget that the British started what we are doing … We are building on what they were doing.”
Some soldiers say that despite the British sacrifices, they were unprepared for the intensity of the violence in Sangin.
Veterans of the Iraq war have described it as more dangerous than Falluja, the scene of some of that conflict’s most ferocious fighting.
“It all just happened so fast,” Buckholz said. “We knew Sangin would be tough but we didn’t realise how fast it would happen. As soon as we got here it was, like, bam. There was no time to ease into it. People started dying immediately.”
It was on November 9 that the full magnitude of what they were up against struck Buckholz.
Before the pale winter dawn broke over the valley, the platoon loaded up their day sacks with enough ammunition, batteries and food to last for a three-day operation.
As the sun rose over the green zone — a dense patchwork of mud homes, ditches and fields that hug the Helmand river — the marines left patrol base Almas, a small, ramshackle outpost previously occupied by British troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines, in single file.
The high risk of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) made progress slow. Every metre of ground had to be painstakingly swept for bombs as the marines scanned the ground for tell-tale signs: discoloured earth, wire cables or the purple strips of cloth the Taliban tie to trees to warn comrades and locals.
Buckholz stopped at an irrigation ditch that ran perpendicular to a line of trees. Holding on to a young tree for balance, he catapulted himself across an irrigation ditch and turned to face Kelly, the general’s son, who was following him.
“Use the tree, sir, to sling-shot yourself across,” he told Kelly, whose resilience and motivational abilities were deeply admired by his men. He could make the most mundane task sound “kick-ass”.
“No, man, you’re good. I don’t mind getting wet,” Kelly replied, and jumped into the knee-high water, his day sack loaded up with rockets.
Kelly, who had left college early to enrol in the Marine Corps rather than miss the action in Iraq, waded through the ditch and pulled himself up the opposite bank with his arms. As he placed his knee on the bank, he detonated a yellow plastic jug laced with 20lbs of homemade explosives. A piece of his boot smacked Buckholz in the face.
As the two corporals, Buckholz and Silva, stared at his ravaged features, the platoon medic told them to look away. “He said ‘no man should have to see that’,” Buckholz recalled.
The men placed Kelly’s body on a fold-out stretcher and carried him back to base. Mindful that the Taliban often lay four or five IEDs in the same spot to hit stretcher bearers and medics, they took two hours to complete a walk that would normally have lasted 20 minutes.
When a helicopter had taken Kelly away, the platoon went into shock. The marines greeted each other with blank, uncomprehending stares. The base was silent. Only when it came under attack four hours later could the men drive the thought of Kelly’s death out of their minds for a moment.
“It’s strange to know that being able to shoot back at the f***ers who did this acted as a kind of relief. It helped purge some of the grief,” said Buckholz, who later heard that an IED had been unearthed 5ft from the spot where he had yanked Kelly from the ditch. “Some of the men were even back to joking that night. I wasn’t.”
Last Wednesday, the soldiers of 1st Platoon, Lima Company, had another chance to purge their anger. They pushed east from Almas over freshly ploughed fields, marshland with pools of stagnant water and irrigation ditches to check the work of an Afghan contractor on a flood barrier near the Helmand river.
Half an hour into the patrol, two bullets cracked overhead. The marines hit the ground, unable to seek cover for fear of stepping outside a lane that had been cleared of IEDs. “They’re just pot shots,” said Lieutenant Mike Owen, Kelly’s replacement.
The platoon and five Afghan soldiers pressed on into clumps of sand-coloured elephant grass that sprout from the fine sand and round pebbles on the eastern bank of the river. There, the Afghans stopped a middle-aged motorcyclist with wires in his pockets. Two of them stayed behind to guard him.
As the marines neared the bank, the remaining Afghan soldiers shouted at a group of four men on the opposite side of the river. One of them appeared to be carrying a rifle. Another was towing a raft stacked high with the yellow jugs used to make homemade bombs.
Three of the men started running as the Afghan and American soldiers opened fire with their assault rifles.
Three marines near me popped off single shots at the man towing the raft, while a machinegunner loosed off a volley of fire.
“Cease fire, cease fire. I think they’re down,” shouted Sergeant Donald Roberts, 29, as he peered through his rifle scope. But two shots from the other side of the river snapped overhead.
“There’s still movement on the other side,” said Captain Alexander Vanston, a civil affairs officer who had come to inspect the flood barrier. “There’s a boat full of a bunch of yellow jugs. He’s still pulling.”
“There his ass is, I see him,” said Roberts, standing in a tall clump of reeds and shooting over the head of the crouching captain.
The rest of the squad opened fire at the man still stubbornly pulling the raft through the water 200 metres away. “I got him, I got him,” Roberts said. “Hey, he’s still f***ing moving. He’s let go of the f***ing shit. Hey, Tiller, you got him? Get that high-powered scope on his ass.”
Corporal Andrew Tiller, carrying a high-powered rifle, opened up yet again. The rounds kicked into the water around the make-shift boat as it bobbed down river.
“There you go. There you go. Light his ass up,” shouted Roberts.
A radio crackled into life with confirmation that the raft-puller had finally been cut down. Intercepted Taliban messages suggested later that he had been responsible for paying fellow fighters such as the detained motorcyclist to plant IEDs.
The soldiers called in surveillance aircraft to look for bodies and weapons and, with the light fading, headed back to base.
They were strung out in a long line across a field when they came under fire from two sides.
There was confusion as the soldiers tried to locate the firing points. Then Owen, the lieutenant, ordered his men to open up on a cluster of compounds. The valley erupted in a deafening crackle and thud of gunfire and grenade rounds. A thin layer of smoke curled out of the buildings and hung above the mud.
“Bring the rear element up now,” Owen screamed above the din as he waved the last men in the patrol forward.
“Hey, reporters, time to f***ing move,” one of the soldiers shouted. The Sunday Times photographer, Lalage Snow, and I raced across the field and jumped over a mud wall, almost landing on top of some marines who had hunkered down there as the rounds passed overhead.
“Hey, keep rear security. They’re coming from there and there,” said Buckholz, pointing to the east and west of the patrol line. “Okay, hey, start f***ing moving, let’s go. Go, go, go.”
One by one, the marines sprinted back out into the open in single file, firing at buildings only 50 yards away before crossing a narrow footbridge and ducking into the safety of the base. Some of the marines hugged inside the dusty outpost, adrenaline coursing through their bodies.
“Out here it’s the small victories that count,” Owen said. “I got to this place and into cover and I didn’t get blown up. I am good. I got a picture that I needed from the mission and I didn’t get blown up or shot. It comes down to that.”
Two days later, an IED was discovered below the bridge we had all used. “Well, I’m never coming back with my legs,” said Buckholz sardonically when he was told.
The dangers were typical of those the marines face in Sangin’s green zone. Lima Company has taken 19 casualties in the first 10 weeks of its deployment, and that does not include the men who escaped with “million-dollar wounds” — bullets that passed harmlessly through flesh or shrapnel that needed only stitches to heal.
Two of the five Lima Company soldiers killed are thought to have been shot by a rogue Afghan soldier who crept up the ladder into a guard post at night and sprayed bursts of bullets with his machinegun.
One bullet set off a grenade round attached to a soldier’s webbing, according to his comrades. Taliban gunmen opened fire and the Afghan soldier slipped through the perimeter in the mayhem.
Other soldiers have had narrow escapes, including two snipers wounded by “friendly” artillery shells. One soldier survived a bullet that lodged in his skull. It appeared to have been fired by a rifle stolen from the British.
British officers who served in Sangin know these dangers only too well. Most have sympathy for the American marines stationed there.
“You do feel hugely selfish in thinking that at least the Americans will realise it wasn’t as simple as the Brits not being up to the mark,” said one officer who served in Sangin.
Diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks earlier this month showed that American generals, diplomats and politicians expressed dismay at the British effort there.
“We were all pretty pissed off when we heard,” said another British veteran. “To say that we had no success is both ignorant and extremely short-sighted. We were there for four years and we’d already tried what they are now trying, which is obviously not working judging by the casualties.”
Just as American commanders questioned the effectiveness of British tactics in Sangin, so British soldiers have begun to challenge the wisdom of closing down the patrol bases they spilt blood to keep.
The bases were designed to protect Sangin’s bazaar from Taliban attack and encourage economic development in the town, which is on an important trading route in northern Helmand.
British officers believe the closures will allow the Taliban to move through the district undetected.
“We increased the number of PBs (patrol bases) in Sangin and as a result the insurgents’ movement became more limited, as did their ability to lay IEDs freely,” said one.
Whatever the friction between the allies, they agree that the longer the Taliban are able to fight in Sangin, the more lethal an enemy they will become.
“They have an amazing ability to watch what we do and to adapt their tactics to ours,” said Owen. “They are the enemy you don’t know and can’t see.”
In Sangin, they have perfected the craft of guerrilla warfare. Murder holes cut in mud walls through which they shoot at passing patrols are now drilled at angles to avoid casting shadows.
Kite string and fishing lines are used to detonate IEDs from afar. Battery packs — often the only component that metal detectors can pick up — are hidden up to 400 yards away from the main charge, making it almost impossible to detect.
Rooftops used as firing positions by the marines are mined as soon as they leave.
The marines have resorted to using blue and white bottle caps to mark the routes they clear with their metal detectors. Last week, a member of Lima Company tripped and stumbled out of the lane. An IED blew off both his legs.
The 1st Platoon’s staff sergeant, Thomas Parks, even found an IED strapped to the inner tube of a truck tyre floating down the canal outside patrol base Almas. The tyre was covered with straw and vines, and attached to a command wire. The soldiers believe the aim was to blow up a bridge they use every day.
The men of Almas gathered to hear an address from their commander after one of their number, Corporal Derek Wyatt, was shot through the head by a Taliban gunman as he lay prone on a mud roof. His wife was only two days away from giving birth.
“There’s no panacea,” Captain Mathew Peterson told them bluntly. “It’s about situational awareness. The only ground that’s safe is the ground you are standing on. We must use cover wisely. We have to make ourselves harder to kill.”
But as the marines clear more areas, new patrol bases will have to be built to hold the territory. Some officers privately question whether they will find themselves overstretched, as the British did.
“We could end up spread too thinly over our area of operations,” said one. “Some of the patrols we’re sending out are already undermanned.”
The marines have had significant successes in Sangin. Last month, an airstrike killed the Taliban’s shadow governor, Mullah Abdul Qayoum, as well as Noor Muhammad, the Taliban leader in the Kajaki area of the province. Senior officers stress that some of the intelligence that led to that strike had been collected by their British predecessors. British special forces also played a role, the officers said.
Yet progress in Sangin is hard to measure. Efforts to win over the wild tribes that profit from the insurgents’ ability to protect the drug trade are constantly stalling; and the military and personal costs of the casualties are high.
“The first couple of times it f**** with you — you can’t believe that your friend was with you a few minutes before and now he’s dead,” said Buckholz, whose worn face belies his age. “But after a bit, it’s so sad, you become desensitised.
“That’s when you start to wonder whether that’s even more f***ed up. There’s the thought that you’re not dealing with it right now, but that you’re going to have to eventually. I don’t want to be a different person when I get home.”
– A roadside Taliban bomb killed 15 civilians travelling to a bazaar in the Khan Neshin district of Helmand yesterday. The device, apparently left for a Nato patrol, exploded when the villagers’ truck drove over it.