The Marines in Sangin

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 2 months ago

Tony Perry, who has become one of the most significant war reporters in the MSM, gives us this report on the Marines in Sangin.  I must quote a significant amount of it, point you to the source article for the rest, and then I’ll make a few observations.

Marines tell of snipers who fire from “murder holes” cut into mud-walled compounds. Fighters who lie in wait in trenches dug around rough farmhouses clustered together for protection. Farmers who seem to tip the Taliban to the outsiders’ every movement – often with signals that sound like birdcalls.

When the Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, deployed to the Sangin district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province in late September, the British soldiers who preceded them warned the Americans that the Taliban would be waiting nearly everywhere for a chance to kill them.

But the Marines of the Three-Five, ordered to be more aggressive than the British, quickly learned that the Taliban wasn’t simply waiting.

In Sangin, the Taliban was coming after them.

In four years there, the British had lost more than 100 soldiers, about a third of all their country’s losses in the war.

In four months, 24 Marines with the Camp Pendleton-based Three-Five have been killed.

More than 140 others have been wounded, some of them catastrophically, losing limbs and the futures they had imagined for themselves.

The Marines’ families have been left devastated – or dreading the knock on the door.

“We are a broken-hearted but proud family,” Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly said. He spoke not only of the Three-Five: His son 1st Lt. Robert Kelly was killed leading a patrol in Sangin.

The Three-Five had drawn a daunting task: Push into areas where the British had not gone, areas where Taliban dominance was uncontested, areas where the opium poppy crop whose profits help fuel the insurgency is grown, areas where bomb makers lash together explosives to kill and terrorize in Sangin and neighboring Kandahar province.

The result? The battalion with the motto “Get Some” has been in more than 408 firefights and found 434 buried roadside bombs. An additional 122 bombs exploded before they could be discovered, in many instances killing or injuring Afghan civilians who travel the same roads as the Marines.

Some enlisted personnel believe that the Taliban have developed a “Vietnam-like” capability to pick off a platoon commander or a squad or team leader. A lieutenant assigned as a replacement for a downed colleague was shot in the neck on his first patrol.

At the confluence of two rivers in Helmand province in the country’s south, Sangin is a mix of rocky desert and stretches of farmland where corn and pomegranates are grown. There are rolling hills, groves of trees and crisscrossing canals. Farmers work their fields and children play on dusty paths.

“Sangin is one of the prettier places in Helmand, but that’s very deceiving,” said Sgt. Dean Davis, a Marine combat correspondent. “It’s a very dangerous place; it’s a danger you can feel.”

Three men arrived in Sangin last fall knowing they would face the fight of their lives.

1st Lt. John Chase Barghusen, 26, of Madison, Wis., had asked to be transferred to the Three-Five so he could return to Afghanistan.

Cpl. Derek Wyatt, 25, of Akron, Ohio, an infantry squad leader, was excited about the mission but worried about his wife, pregnant with their first child.

Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez, 26, of Deming, N.M., an infantry “grunt,” had dreamed of going into combat as a Marine since he was barely out of grade school.

What happened to them in Sangin shows the price being paid for a campaign to cripple the Taliban in a key stronghold and help extricate America from a war now in its 10th year.

When Lance Cpl. Juan Dominguez slipped down a small embankment while out on patrol and landed on a buried bomb, the explosion could be heard for miles.

“It had to be a 30- to 40-pounder,” Dominguez said from his bed at the military hospital in Bethesda, Md. “I remember crying out for my mother and then crying out for morphine. I remember them putting my legs on top of me.”

His legs were severed above the knee, and his right arm was mangled and could not be saved. A Navy corpsman, risking sniper fire, rushed to Dominguez and stopped the bleeding. On the trip to the field hospital, Dominguez prayed.

“I figured this was God’s will, so I told him: ‘If you’re going to take me, take me now,’ ” he said.

His memories of Sangin are vivid. “The part we were in, it’s hell,” he said. “It makes your stomach turn. The poor families there, they get conned into helping the Taliban.”

Like many wounded Marines, Dominguez never saw a Taliban fighter. “We don’t know who we’re fighting over there, who’s friendly and who isn’t,” he said. “They’re always watching us. We’re basically fighting blind.”

His mother, Martha Dominguez, was at home the night of Oct. 23 when a Marine came to her door to tell her that her son had been gravely injured. She left her job right away and rushed to his bedside in Bethesda. She’s never been far away since.

When Dominguez’s father, Reynaldo, first visited the hospital, he was overcome by emotion and had to leave. “Mothers are stronger at times like this,” Martha Dominguez said.

Juan Dominguez has since been fitted with prosthetic legs and a “bionic” arm and is undergoing daily therapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He and his girlfriend have broken up.

“She wanted someone with legs,” his mother said.

When he’s discharged, Dominguez wants to return to Deming to be near his 8-year-old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife, and open a business painting and restoring cars.

But his immediate goal is to be at Camp Pendleton, in uniform and walking on his prosthetic legs, when the battalion returns in the spring.

By some accounts, no district in Afghanistan is outpacing Sangin in “kinetic activity,” military jargon for combat.

“Sangin is a straight-up slug match. No winning of hearts and minds. No enlightened counterinsurgency projects to win affections,” said Bing West, a Marine veteran who was an assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan. “Instead, the goal is to kill the Taliban every day on every patrol. Force them to flee the Sangin Valley or die.”

Read the rest at the link.  This is a gripping tale of brave Marines in a fight for their lives.  Perry – whom I will always stop to read – sadly lists the Marines who have perished in this particular fight.

Kinetic activity is preceding reconstruction, as it must, but take note again of this important statement: Dominguez never saw a Taliban fighter. “We don’t know who we’re fighting over there, who’s friendly and who isn’t,” he said. “They’re always watching us. We’re basically fighting blind.

I know that I have debated others over the notion of a large versus a small footprint in Afghanistan, and I have also agreed to the idea that the support to infantry ratio is far too high, in Afghanistan and everywhere else.  But if we’re losing men to unseen fighters, if we’re not in the homes of the folks, if we’re not setting in place roadblocks, if we’re not taking census, if we don’t know the people we are aiming to secure, and not seeing the enemy we are supposed to kill, then there simply aren’t enough Marines in Sangin.  Period.  Further debates are meaningless and irrelevant.

I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating.  When we waste time and resources throwing billions of dollars at wasteful MEUs for Marines to go to every port city in the Mediterranean and Israel to get falling down drunk, pretending that we are actually going to conduct large scale forcible entry on a near-peer state, while fellow Marines get their legs blown off in the Helmand Province, we have a moral problem.  No, not a morale problem – a moral problem.

  • Turner

    Before we call the MEU immoral, lets not forget that it was this option that allowed us to initially strike in Afghanistan in 2001. The MEU is out there for Egypt, North Korea, HOA, and lots of other places where a national security and force projection is required. Having seen the waste that goes on here in the MEU work up, I am not saying that it would not help to free those assets. I will say, though, that a 2300 Marine MEU being possibly mis-allocated is not the root problem. Kill the Regimental staff where 60, say that with me, 60 officers ( let alone the rest of the support staff who will never wear the Improved Scalable Plate Carriers that they deployed with instead of one of several Infantry Battalions headed out the door) alone reside in the S-3 shop are causing the typical rifle company to deploy with 30 less Marines and all the requisite gear than they normally do. Get those nations who fail to recognize that this is actually a war to leave and rotate in Army or Marine units. Lets kill the inefficiencies the global sludge fest and NATO has caused and get those on the deck who have the will and the means to make a difference. By the way, we just signed an authorization to shrink the corps anyway, so those Marines may not be available for your idea anyhow. The issue is that the unfortunate reality is that our existence as an extension of policy has sealed the fate of this being a short sided fight. The MEU is irrelevant here. We have other moral fights that would bare much better fruit in this debate.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    No, no, and again no. I’m not calling the MEU immoral. I’m saying that doing MEUs while we have Marines under fire and dying is immoral. Distinctions.

    And directly on point, if we are doing MEUs at all, regardless of a shrunken USMC, then we have the troops available. A MEU is comprised by a BLT, and a BLT needs an infantry battalion. Infantry battalions are needed in Afghanistan.

    My point.

    Oh, and BTW, I don’t agree with shrinking the Corps. I assume you don’t either?

  • TS Alfabet

    Yes, that is a good, side point, Herschel.

    How on earth does anyone think it is a good idea to shrink the ONE thing that actually has the most bang for the buck in the U.S. arsenal: the Marine combat units?

    This should be another post altogether, but in short, for a variety of reasons, Republicans are giving the Dems a free pass to gut the military in exchange for, what? Some sort of vague, maybe someday, sounds-like-we-may-have-to mumbling from Dems that entitlements– which are the ABSOLUTE KILLER of the federal budget– will be trimmed just a wee bit?

    This is the most short-sighted nonsense ever. The Marines (and Army) need more combat units, not less. More than ever they need this.

    Is there waste in the Dept of Defense? Of course. There is waste in every bureaucracy. But I have found, almost without exception, that the waste is found at the administrative and support levels, not at the tip of the spear. Make the DoD get leaner, sure. But do that by reducing the number of high-level officers, the number of admin slugs at the Pentagon. Make THEM do with less and be more efficient and plough the savings into increasing the combat units and equipping them better. And, if you’re the GOP House, make sure that you tie every single dollar cut out of the Defense budget with a requirement that Dems agree to cut out $1.5 dollars from entitlement spending. Heck, just completely de-fund the Dept of Education, the FCC and the EPA and we would be well on our way to a better economy and a freer U.S. of A.

  • Turner

    In response to Herschel: We for the most part agree. Trust me, I understand the frustrations of watching a MEU take such a large chunk of support and assets. I will also say on the flip side is that the MEU should and will get more credibility in your eyes. The same man who took the 15th and 26th MEU into country in 2001 now owns CENTCOM. BLT 3/8 is there. BLT 1/6 flew over in 2008. Company E 2/4 assisted 2/6 in Marjah. I see more MEU’s getting into the fight. Again, though, lets look at some other pressing issues that was the center of my concerns. One, and the primary one, is the troop cap (that the MEU can circumvent) that is crippling our efforts. When Rifle Companies and Infantry Bn’s are deploying below their standard T/O to meet the cap, we have issues much bigger than the perceived immoral decision to maintain the current theater reserve status of a MEU. We could have a thousand Battalions ready to deploy right now. It is irrelevant. Instead, look who is in theater. Not a new concept, but how serious are we about leaning the force? What is the size of the NATO/ISAF staff(s)? Lets look at the McChrystal doctrine of leaning all of the large bases down to bare bones again, but be careful what we call un-needed support troops. How about we eliminate Regimental staffs, or at least minimalize them. All they are is a conduit to Division any way. Poke your head into a RCT HQ. Eliminate the redundant efforts, which are virtually all of them. I guarantee you do this, voila, we have the additional reinforced rifle company desperately needed in a place like Sangin. Then take all of the talent,gear,training, ammunition, ranges and assets they have consumed and accounted for during their training and distribute them into the PTP of a unit who will be fighting for their lives for seven months to a year. Lets look at something else… are we setting those boys headed down range up for success as best we can ? Are they getting the right training at the right time? Another question that touches the same nerve that you brought up with the MEU and the subject of allocation of forces. As for the topic of the size of the USMC, yes I agree. Cut other areas. What is going to happen to MCTAG other capabilites that have been provided by. Two weeks ago I read a headline article about the airforce doubling the number of

  • Turner

    To finish the last comment ( bad keystroke), the airforce wrote proudly about doubling the number of JTAC’S to about 153 that were forward deployed to Afghanistan…I’m sure there are other areas to cut than the Corps.


You are currently reading "The Marines in Sangin", entry #6202 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand,Sangin and was published January 30th, 2011 by Herschel Smith.

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