Experiencing Life, Death With Marines In Marjah

Marines from India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment have been clearing improvised explosive devices around the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in southern Afghanistan. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has finished her traveling assignment with the group. During her time with the Marines, she witnessed Lance Cpl. Alejandro Yazzie, 23, be killed in a firefight with the Taliban.

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Next, we'll talk with a reporter about how she prepares to witness a matter of life and death. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled with U.S. Marines as they took back a Taliban-dominated district in Afghanistan. When she finished, this NPR correspondent sat down to talk about capturing the sounds and the stories of a deadly advance into Marjah. She spoke with our own Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE: I was one listener who literally jumped when I heard this sound.

(Soundbite of bomb)

MONTAGNE: At this moment, Soraya was standing next to a Marine who had just found and detonated an IED - one of the many dangers of being the first to arrive near the Taliban stronghold of Marjah and finding themselves at sunrise in a cold and desolate landscape.

And what did you carry with you?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: I had pared down my equipment to a backpack in which I only took one satellite dish. And I had one change of clothes, I had some shampoo that bills itself as shampoo that you don't need water for, because I figured maybe after a week or 10 days I might actually want to, like, wash my hair; some bubblegum and little things sort of to get me through.

And my Kevlar, which, of course, is very heavy. You know, when you're wearing the body armor and helmet and all that, it just adds a lot of pounds.

MONTAGNE: This then is your introduction to a group of mostly very young Marines with whom you will be rather intimate and in a sense depending on for your life and your well being.

SARHADDI NELSON: Yeah, it's always a challenge because, again, especially with Marines, it's hard for them to have women in fighting units, 'cause they're just not used to it. I mean, simple things like, you know, you need to go to the bathroom - there's no place to go. You have the Afghan soldiers on one side, you have the Marines on the other, and you really can't go away too far because you could step on an IED.

So it really gets to the point where you just have to kind of close your eyes and just suspend modesty and just go. It's as crude and rudimentary as you can possibly imagine. I mean, it makes camping in a national park look like a luxury.

MONTAGNE: Just to remind people of what your story sounded like, let's play some tape of one of the patrols that you went out on.

(Soundbite of radio)

Unidentified Man #1: What's your situation?

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1: Who got hit?

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1: Roger.

SARHADDI NELSON: The first patrol I was supposed to go on, the one you're hearing here, actually what I ended up doing was going to the rooftop and watching - well, hearing, I should say - I couldn't really see the Marines very well 'cause they were down in the grass - but they were more or less pinned down by gunfire, so they had to call in air support. And so I was just also having to duck myself because there were bullets flying overhead from this little turret-type thing that I was kneeling in.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SARHADDI NELSON: So, it's - you're constantly aware of the danger and you really have to temper your desire to get the story with being smart and making sure you don't become - not just a casualty but an impediment to the people trying to carry out this operation.

MONTAGNE: You were there with this group for in a sense a brief time but obviously a very intense time, sleeping amongst a whole platoon full of Marines?

SARHADDI NELSON: I was in a room with maybe 20 or 25 Marines. It was freezing. I mean, it was basically a petrol station that had been - the glass had been blown out from the various IEDs that they had detonated. I was in this room, and you have to picture it's just a concrete floor, rat feces everywhere, and all of us were so cold.

It's interesting - I'm not sure how much they would want me to talk about it -but they would spoon. I mean, it was just to stay warm, you know? But, yeah, I mean, you just somehow managed, and you got to be very close, and you got to sit around and talk and just, you know, about families back home. And it was kind of, I mean, in a way it was nice.

MONTAGNE: I'm going to turn to something that is probably hard to talk about, something that didn't seem entirely expected, even in the circumstances you were in, that one of the Marines, Lance Corporal Alejandro Yazzie, was killed. You were right there. And I just wonder if at that moment, if everything changed.

SARHADDI NELSON: It did. I mean, you have to picture when this happened, the patrol, it had been three hours of really intense pressure. We were constantly under fire. I think at that point the platoon officials or leaders had decided that they were going to stop for the night. It was just not safe to push forward anymore. And so we started to approach this field, and it was at that point that these gunmen, you know, jumped up and started firing - or at least it was described as three gunmen to me. I never saw them, I just heard the bullets.

And so everybody dropped down, squatted down, but we were exposed. We were all just behind these mounds of dirt. And Lance Corporal Yazzie, who I'd gotten to know over the last previous days - I didn't realize where he was standing - and I just, I mean, I saw him get hit, and certainly the captain next to him realized that he'd been killed. And it was just, there was nothing anybody could do, because at that stage the gunfire was so heavy.

I mean, I just put my tape recorders where I knew I could capture what was going on. But then I just sort of curled up as much as I could under my vest and just prayed - I mean, 'cause I really thought this might be it. And I kept thinking is this worth it? And then at some point when, I guess, the gunfire died down a little bit, they carried Corporal Yazzie to - sorry, give me a second here.

(Soundbite of sniffling)

SARHADDI NELSON: Anyway, there was just nothing they could do. I mean, you know, it was that fast.

MONTAGNE: If everyone had a job to do at that moment, and your job was recording it, did it hit you right then or was it...

SARHADDI NELSON: No, it hit me pretty fast, especially when I saw who it was. And the Marines - I mean, at that point they didn't know. There were people crying and - I mean, I really wanted to portray this. I felt it was very important to chronicle what sacrifices these guys make. I mean, I felt it was part of this story of this patrol that had such a hard time just taking less than a half mile of land.

MONTAGNE: Lance Corporal Yazzie was laid to rest over the weekend. He's from the Navajo Nation, so the flags of the U.S., the Marines and the Navajo Nation were flown. How much of that did you know in those days you spent with him in this offensive?

SARHADDI NELSON: I didn't know what his ethnic background was, but what I can say is I thought he had the coolest name of the guys that I was with. And one evening, sort of part of the comic relief, I was telling Yazzie, I said, you know what, Yazzie? I said, you have got the coolest name.

And there was another - what I'm assuming is a Native American, just based on his name, his name was Corporal Birdchief(ph), and he's like, hey, wait a minute, what about my name, Birdchief? You know, and Lance Corporal Yazzie was like, no, she said it was my name, sorry. That's my title or whatever.

And so what struck me about him, unlike the others, he was a little quieter, he was a little shyer, but very sincere, very nice, and just - I could tell when he would just mention that he wanted to talk to his wife, his eyes would just light up in a way that I knew he was very much in love with her. And I know he was trying to call her on Valentine's Day on my phone and couldn't reach her and he had planned to call her that night again. But he definitely was thinking about her and their unborn child.

MONTAGNE: Are you okay?

SARHADDI NELSON: Yeah, I'm fine.

MONTAGNE: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was traveling with India Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines. Soraya's story, with sound of the firefight in which Lance Corporal Yazzie was killed, upset his family, but his wife Colandra(ph) also told NPR she was glad he was interviewed before he died, because now she knows his last thoughts were of her.

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