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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour in Afghanistan. For a week now, U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers have struggled to push hundreds of Taliban fighters out of the key southern stronghold of Marjah. Militants are using roadside bombs and snipers to slow the joint force to a crawl one mile at a time, one village at a time. Since this operation began, at least a dozen coalition troops have been killed.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been embedded with the Marines. And this past Tuesday, she accompanied a Marine and Afghan patrol as it attempted to move deeper into Taliban territory. Their effort, she reports, came at a painful price. Before we begin, a note of caution: This story includes some disturbing scenes of combat.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The Marines from India Company with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment are itching to move out. They drape extra ammunition belts over their shoulders. They check their weapons. They wait impatiently for the Afghan soldiers who are hours late.

Unidentified Man #1: I will move it.

NELSON: The joint patrol finally heads out at around 2 p.m. Marines with portable minesweepers walk ahead, clearing the path for the armored vehicles rumbling behind. American and Afghan troops fan out over wheat and opium poppy fields. Their objective on this sunny afternoon seems modest: Push south about a mile from their base here in northwestern Marjah.

First Lieutenant Justin Gray heads India Company's 2nd Platoon.

First Lieutenant JUSTIN GRAY (2nd Platoon, India Company 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment): Yeah, essentially we're just going to we're going to push south and speak with the locals, find out what we can do for them and basically give them the advice of hey, you don't want to get caught in the crossfire because there's going to be fighting. The Taliban wants to fight us and we want them out of Marjah. So it's best for the locals to just - get out of town.

NELSON: The locals have already obliged. Compound after compound, the Marines and Afghans' search are empty.

Unidentified Man #2: Hurry up, I'm starting to clear. I need a cordon.

NELSON: In fact, the whole village seems abandoned. There is no sign of the turbaned farmers who toil in the fields, or women in brightly colored tunics who wash clothes and dishes in the fast-flowing canal. Nor are there children playing on the dirt streets.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: Yet the patrol is not alone. Like villains in a video game, Taliban militants in black tunics pop up on rooftops, from behind mud walls or in trenches.

(Soundbite of radio)

Unidentified Man #3: Fox 21, Building 5. He's still out in the open.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: They fire at the patrol with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, then disappear.

Unidentified Man #4: Hey, suppress. Suppress that (beep) building.

(Soundbite of radio)

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: Marine Captain Jordan Condo, who's with the Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, gets bad news from the aircraft he's talking to on his radio.

Captain JORDAN CONDO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company): Building 16, sector 21, a guy with RPG machine gun moving north.

NELSON: Lieutenant Gray of the Second Platoon suggests a quick fix.

1st Lt. GRAY: OK, let's blow them up before they can establish that ambush site. Hey, easy day.

NELSON: Captain Condo receives approval for Harrier jets to carry out Hellfire missile attacks.

(Soundbite of explosion)

NELSON: The ambush site is destroyed. Condo says the militants are badly wounded or dead.

Capt. CONDO: Good for us because we would eventually - met that ambush site.

NELSON: Still, the encounters with the Taliban take their toll. Just before sunset, the patrol leaders call it a night. It is too dangerous to push on. The Marines and Afghans have barely covered a half-mile in nearly four hours. They approach a field near an empty mosque, searching for a place to set up camp. Three militants, hiding nearby, train their weapons on the approaching group.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: The Marines and Afghans take cover, crouching behind mounds of dirt. They return fire.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #6: To the east, right.

NELSON: Among them is Lance Corporal Alejandro Yazzie, a combat engineer from Rock Point, Arizona.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #7: Corpsman up! Corpsman up!

Unidentified Man #8: Corpsman!

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #9: Get me a corpsman up. Corpsman up!

NELSON: He's dead.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #10: We got a KIA.

Unidentified Man #11: What's up?

Unidentified Man #10: KIA.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #10: Get that (Beep) right now. (Beep) (Beep) Give me the radio.

Unidentified Man #11: I got it, I got it.

Unidentified Man #10: Give me the radio.

Unidentified Man #11: I already called them.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: It's Yazzie who is the KIA, or killed in action. A bullet struck him in the head, killing him almost instantly. The 23-year-old is the first Marine in this battalion to die in the offensive. Yazzie had planned to call his wife on my satellite phone that very night. The Marines go after the Taliban gunmen. Captain Condo again calls for air support. This time, two Cobra helicopter gunships respond.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: Cobra helicopters two of them hitting the trench where the three gunmen were, who killed Corporal Yazzie.

But the gunships hit the wrong trench. They leave to refuel as darkness falls. Yazzie's body is gently placed in the back of an armored vehicle. He is driven back to company headquarters to begin the trip home, a half a world away.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from Marjah in Afghanistan, southern Helmand province.

And Soraya joins us now. Soraya, you were very close by when Lance Corporal Yazzie was hit and died. This is a man you had spent some time with over the last week.

NELSON: Yes. The combat engineers of which he was a part, they were staying in the same, crammed room that all the other enlisted Marines were staying in, and that's where I was as well. So he was literally, sleeping maybe five feet away from me - and sweet young man. I got a chance talk to him a little bit, and very much in love with his wife. He tried to call her on Valentine's Day. Basically, I had let them use my sat phone to try to reach out to their wives. And he was the only one who wasn't able to get her that day on the phone.

So he had come to me on the day he was killed and asked, you know, could I try one more time? I really would like to talk to her. And I said, that's fine, just tonight, you know, when we're done with the patrol. And of course, he never made it back from the patrol.

BLOCK: His death, Corporal Yazzie's death came in what clearly sounds like a heavy firefight that you were in the middle of. And your story sheds light on a new problem that troops are facing in this battle from Marjah, and that's snipers. That had not been a big concern before, in Afghanistan.

NELSON: Yeah. It's definitely an interesting tactic that they've adopted. I mean, you can't really picture these as snipers with professional sniper rifles and that sort of thing. I mean, they are marksmen. They take aim. But there's also, at the same time, they're doing what Marines described as ineffective fire. It's more like just taking potshots, trying to draw the Marines out in hopes of getting them to step on IEDs, which are just so prevalent in Marjah.

BLOCK: We had spoken before the operation in Marjah began - we spoke with the man in charge of U.S. Marines in Helmand province, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson. And he talked about the need to get through what he called an IED crust. But the way you're describing it, it sounds like those IEDs are even worse than expected.

NELSON: They're absolutely terrible. In fact, I was describing earlier where we were sleeping. And the night after I arrived there, the teams of which, again, Corporal Yazzie was one of the guys - Lance Corporal Yazzie was one of the guys looking for IEDs. They uncovered two of them, literally five feet from where we were sleeping.

And so it's just - even areas that they had gone over with a fine-tooth comb, you know, in the areas where they're operating, where they've set up bases, you still find more. I mean, it seems like the Taliban spent many months just planting these IEDs all over Marjah.

BLOCK: Soraya, the NATO commander of operations in Southern Afghanistan says that it'll be another month before the clear phase is over in Marjah. Is that the sense you are also getting from your time there with the troops?

NELSON: I think at a minimum - I mean, some of the commanders that I was speaking to were saying that they're prepared to do it for 60 or 90 days if that's what it takes - like Lieutenant Colonel Christmas, who was the head of the battalion that I was embedded with. And I mean, it's just very difficult because even areas - even though the Marines are making progress, they're moving in, I mean, the problem is the areas they already control, they're still taking fire from.

I mean, it's like these Taliban just sort of melt in and out. And you know, again, they will fire at them indiscriminately, and sometimes with purposeful aim. And it just makes it impossible to sort of say, OK, this area is clear, let's let civilians start moving back in. Let's start doing the things that we told the Marjah elders we were going to do, like build schools and repair wells, and sort of bring normalcy back to that area.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome, Melissa.

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