Targets On Their Backs, Marines Enter Afghan Town The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — are prepared for anything as they move into the southern village of Sorhodez in the Marine offensive to wrest Afghanistan's Helmand River valley from Taliban control.
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Targets On Their Backs, Marines Enter Afghan Town

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Targets On Their Backs, Marines Enter Afghan Town

Targets On Their Backs, Marines Enter Afghan Town

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

It's day three of the U.S.-led offensive in the Helmand Valley River of south central Afghanistan. NPR's Graham Smith accompanied the 2/8 Marine Battalion as it moved into the village of Sorhodez(ph), and here's his report.

GRAHAM SMITH: On the eve of the offensive, after final battle briefings and rehearsals, the Marines walked across two kilometers of shin-high sand they call moon dust, to the edge of the helicopter landing pad where they slept, or tried to.

(Soundbite of a helicopter)

SMITH: Reveille at 3:30. MREs are the breakfast for those who want one. And the Marines line up at the helipad.

First Sergeant Derrick Mays.

First Sergeant DERRICK MAYS (U.S. Marines): We already have the first four already on deck, so we should wait on the next three to show up here shortly. And they'll just start mounting the birds.

SMITH: Fox Company's first platoon is up and away. A half hour in the sky, then a banking fast descent to a green field, with two small fires burning in it from flares they've dropped.

Unidentified Man #1: Follow me straight ahead. Get up, let's go.

SMITH: They run through a furrowed field into a safer position. There's no enemy fire.

Unidentified Man #1: Watch your step, single file.

(Soundbite of radio)

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

Company commander Captain John Sun knows it's important to find out soon.

Captain JOHN SUN (U.S. Marines): Here's the deal. We've got about 30 minutes of air coverage. This is a pretty good spot in terms of cover and concealment, but not good enough. In about 10 minutes, start, do the cordon on the compound, you know, make that gate. And then we're going try to go talk to the owner.

Unidentified Man #2: Machine gunners!

SMITH: The Marines move across the road and into the courtyard, where Captain Sun knocks on the door.

Captain SUN: Okay, you ready?

Sergeant MAYS: Yup.

Captain SUN: (Unintelligible) this is the gentlemen.

SMITH: His name is Daoud(ph). He is obviously nervous. The Marines are too. They're taking bets on when they'll get shot at.

Sergeant MAYS: Guarantee you, in the next three to four hours.

Captain SUN: Yeah. I hope not. We got...

Sergeant MAYS: Once they figure out we ain't going nowhere.

Captain SUN: But right now seems pretty good 'cause there's a lot of children and I don't foresee anything happening now. That's why we need all the time in the world to get a place set up and then start pushing out patrols. Get them before they get us.

Sergeant MAYS: Yup.

SMITH: In fact, that will turn out to be the biggest fight these Marines will face on their D-Day, convincing the locals to let them have a place to live. Daoud says they can't stay at his place. He'll walk the captain through town to see if someone else can help.

After securing the compound, Captain Sun, Sergeant Mays and a squad of Marines roll down the street past cautious clusters of men and young boys.

Captain SUN: A salaam a lakum.

Sergeant MAYS: We are probably going to walk about another 200 meters or so, meet the local elder, and try to do some negotiations.

SMITH: The Marines finally have a chance to really look around. There are fir and fruit trees. There's a canal of running water and the outer walls of neat houses are all up and down the street.

The patrol reaches the house of the village leader but he's not home. Captain Sun approaches the village mullah, Zae Nudin(ph), hoping he may have a suggestion or some clout.

Mr. ZAE NUDIN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: Instead, he has a list of complaints: the police cause problems, the 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.

Mr. NUDIN: (Through translator) The problem is now that you're coming from this side and the Taliban coming from this side. Then the children and the families are scared because of that and this...

Captain SUN: It's going to take a little time to stop the Taliban, but that's why we're here, and we'll protect the people. We'll protect your people here in the village.

Mr. NUDIN: (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: The mullah has no suggestions about a place to stay. Other men gather around. Finally, they say they'll talk to Daoud. Since his place is on the edge of town, if there's an attack on it, the fight may not affect the rest of the village as much.

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

Captain SUN: Just to be clear, we have the whole house, right?

Mr. NUDIN: (Foreign language spoken)

Captain SUN: We really, really appreciate it.

SMITH: The Marines go back across the field to give Daoud time to move out.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

SMITH: He takes three large cartloads of carpets, furniture and clothing away. Then Daoud approaches Captain Sun again. He wants to give the money back. When pressed, he explains...

Unidentified Translator: They say that just get the money back because when you leave here, the Taliban will cut him because of helping you.

Sergeant MAYS: We're not leaving.

SMITH: Nevertheless, the Marines take the money. Daoud leaves. He says he'll tell the Taliban the house was taken by force. The Marines, meanwhile, move in, making sure to sweep the premises for bombs.

Fox Company has come through this day, their objective achieved, and without a shot fired.

For NPR News, this is Graham Smith in the village of Sorhodez, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

SIMON: And to see photos of Fox Company Marines on the ground in Afghanistan, you can come to our blog,

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