Targets On Their Backs, Marines Enter Afghan Town

Marines from Fox Company move to their positions. i i

Marines from Fox Company move to their positions after landing by helicopter in a green field. Graham Smith/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Graham Smith/NPR
Marines from Fox Company move to their positions.

Marines from Fox Company move to their positions after landing by helicopter in a green field.

Graham Smith/NPR
Capt. John Sun of New York City (second from right) and First Sergeant Derrick Mays (left). i i

Capt. John Sun of New York City (second from right) is Fox Company's commanding officer. He is accompanied by First Sgt. Derrick Mays (left). Graham Smith/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Graham Smith/NPR
Capt. John Sun of New York City (second from right) and First Sergeant Derrick Mays (left).

Capt. John Sun of New York City (second from right) is Fox Company's commanding officer. He is accompanied by First Sgt. Derrick Mays (left).

Graham Smith/NPR
The Marines find what appears to be seed stock for next year's poppy crop. i i

Inside the compound in Sorhodez, the Marines found what appears to be the owner's seed stock for next year's poppy crop. Graham Smith/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Graham Smith/NPR
The Marines find what appears to be seed stock for next year's poppy crop.

Inside the compound in Sorhodez, the Marines found what appears to be the owner's seed stock for next year's poppy crop.

Graham Smith/NPR
A child in the village of Sorhodez holds a bag of candy given to him by the Marines. i i

A child in the village of Sorhodez holds a bag of candy given to him by the Marines. Graham Smith/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Graham Smith/NPR
A child in the village of Sorhodez holds a bag of candy given to him by the Marines.

A child in the village of Sorhodez holds a bag of candy given to him by the Marines.

Graham Smith/NPR
A villager named Daoud (left) left his house so Marines could use it as a base. i i

A villager named Daoud (left) moved his belongings out of his house, allowing the Marines and Afghan border police to use it as a base. Graham Smith/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Graham Smith/NPR
A villager named Daoud (left) left his house so Marines could use it as a base.

A villager named Daoud (third from left) moved his belongings out of his house, allowing the Marines and Afghan border police to use it as a base.

Graham Smith/NPR

After final battle briefings, the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment walk for more than a mile across the shin-high sand in Afghanistan that they call "moon dust" to the edge of a helicopter landing pad. They settle in to catch some sleep — or try to.

Known as "America's Battalion," the 2/8 is part of the massive Marine offensive launched Thursday to wrest the Helmand River valley from Taliban control. The Taliban were driven from power after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 but have seen a violent resurgence in much of the country's south and east. Taliban fighters attacked a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least two American troops and wounding several others in a two-hour battle.

On this day of Operation Khanjar, the battalion prepares to move into the southern village of Sorhodez.

The Marines line up at the helipad after a breakfast of MREs. "They already have the first four are on deck," says First Sgt. Derrick Mays. "Next three will be here shortly, and then we'll start mounting the birds."

Fox Company's first squad is up and away for a half-hour in the sky, then makes a banking fast descent to a green field, with two small fires burning in it from flares that they've dropped.

The chopper lands, and the Marines dash through a furrowed field to a safer position. "Follow me — straight ahead — get up, let's go," Mays yells.

There is no enemy fire. The men take positions along a head-high berm and in the field, squads spreading out, set to take their objective: a compound with 15-foot-high walls just across the street. They have no idea what could be inside.

The company commander, Capt. John Sun, knows it's important to find out soon because the helicopters circling overhead have other missions to fly today.

"Here's the deal. We've got 30 minutes of air cover," Sun says. "This is a pretty good spot, but it's not good enough. In 10 minutes, we'll do the cordon on the compound, then we can go talk to the owner."

The Marines move across the road and into the courtyard. Sun approaches a door, his interpreter at his side. "OK, you ready?" Sun asks. Then he knocks.

A lock slides open and a man answers. His name is Daoud, and he's obviously nervous. The Marines are, too — some are taking bets on when they'll get shot at.

"I guarantee that within three to four hours, we'll get shot at," Mays says.

Sun notes that there are a lot of kids now in the area. He says the company needs to set up an outpost, to "get a place, get patrols happening, get them before they get us."

In fact, that will turn out to be the biggest fight these Marines will face on what is their D-Day: persuading the locals to give them shelter. Daoud says they can't stay at his place. He walks the captain through town to see if someone else can help.

After securing the compound, Sun and Mays and a squad of Marines roll down the street, past cautious clusters of men and young boys. Many are smiling. All are curious.

The Marines wave and exchange asalaam aleikums with the Afghan residents.

"We'll walk another 200 meters to meet the local elder and try to do some negotiations," Mays says as they pass fir and fruit trees. A canal runs alongside the outer walls of houses all along the street.

The patrol reaches the house of the village leader, but he is not home. His son, a doctor at a nearby clinic, says he doesn't have the authority to arrange accommodations without his father.

Sun approaches the village mullah, Zay Nudin, hoping he may have some clout. Instead, the man has a list of complaints. The police cause problems, British forces killed a 10-year-old boy and his father two weeks ago, and he's afraid the Marines will bring the fight to his town.

"The problem is that you come from one side and the Taliban from the other and the kids have to escape," the mullah says in Pashto with a laugh. "It will take a little time to beat the Taliban, but that's why we're here — we'll protect your people in the village."

But he has no suggestions for the Marines about accommodations. Other men gather around and agree to talk to Daoud. Because his place is on the edge of town, they reason, any attack on it might not affect the rest of the village as much.

Daoud finally agrees to house the men. Sun negotiates a two-week lease for a hundred dollars. The man is given a voucher to get more money from the provincial government.

"Just to be clear, we have the whole house?" Sun clarifies. Then the Marines go back across the field to give Daoud time to move out.

Daoud hauls away three large cartloads of carpets, furniture and clothing. Then he approaches Sun again — he wants to give the money back. The interpreter tells the patrol: "He says to get the money back because when you leave here, the Taliban will cut him because of helping you."

"We're not leaving," Mays says.

Nevertheless, the Marines take back the money and Daoud clears out. He says he'll tell the Taliban the house was taken by force. The troops move in, bringing dogs and metal detectors to sweep the premises for bombs.

Fox Company has come through this day, their objective achieved and not a shot fired.