There came a hellacious sandstorm. We knew the next day would be hot. Bringing technology like night vision and aircraft to a third world country means we own the night, but when nature acts, those that have lived there for 8000 years always get the upper hand. Sandstorms are few and far between but when they come through, all of our technology is for not, and the tough skin of the afghan people allows them to get out and work. And by work I mean place Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and attack our Combat Outposts (COPs) as we are buttoned up.

We were in the southern most Area of Operation (AO) of the dreaded Helmand province, called the Garmsir district. Nearing the end of 2008 and well into 2010 battles like NowZad, Marjah and Sangin gave Helmand great potential to trump the more mountainous regions as a hotbed for enemy attacks, thus becoming increasing deadly for those of us who directly attacked their weapon of choice: IEDs. We were there because it was the heartbeat of the poppy cultivation and the few trading posts called Bazaars were breeding grounds for trafficking bad people and bad things. The Marine Unit 3/1 had just arrived to replace the war dogs I had come to love known as 2/2. It was an east coast-west coast swap. I was there from First Marines to support west coast units, but the dramatic planless flip from Iraq to Afghanistan had left specialized units like EOD teams of cycle and we were asked to deploy 3 months early and stay the length of First Marines 6 month cycle to get things back on track. This meant when 3/1 arrived I had been there months already and would be the most experience Marine around when 2/2 went home.

Weapons company held the southern border of our AO and did so from a walled, square two story hospital turned Command post we called Karma. Over the top of their wall, due south was a no mans land of poppy and desert with a small village in the distance. Immediately past the wall was a canal the size of a large stream. Past the no mans land and village in the distance, just a few miles, was a hell called Safari Bazaar. A place I would become all too intimate with later on in the deployment. The company commander had his platoons split between this COP and one just north of it, but heavy activity on thier southern border caused him to put all of his eggs in one basket in the most protected structure in the area, a structure also much closer to enemy activity: Karma.

While we slept in our tents at Pasteh Niem, on the night of June 6th, the Marines positioned by platoon in our various outposts felt the combat effects of the sandstorm as well. One team of snipers were sitting on a hide 6 clicks south of our FOB watching a suspected IED hoping to catch a bad guy attention to arm it. They’re snipers, I believe you can connect the dots on what would happen if they did. We awoke the next morning to a few 9lines (structured and abbreviated calls for help). The first was a situational report (SITREP) stating that our fellow 2 man Eod team down at Karma was held up in a building within the village south of our Battalion Area of Operation (AO) with their four man sniper team and a Forward Air Controller. The second was a report of an “unknown detonation” south of our sniper hide.

My opinion on unknown detonations wasn’t exactly a popular one but it was a safe one. I couldn’t understand a need to go chasing them. It could only be one of a few scenarios: 1) If it were a civilian stepping on an IED they’d come to us with their inured, 2) if it were an enemy combatant setting off an IED he was placing, score one for the home team, 3) if it were a distraction to get us out there, why play into it? But who was I to disagree with a 20 something year old naval academy grad on his first deployment. We were there to keep the peace and build civil relations much more so than to kill the enemy or as it seemed: stay alive. So, with Alpha company 3/1’s first patrol after arriving a few days earlier, we set out on foot to find the cause and effect of the unknown detonation.

Our Battalion AO was a fertile agricultural region between the southwestward hook of the Helmand River and its parallel little brother, Cowboys Canal. The main supply route for our AO was route Cowboys, which straddled its like-named canal. It was the only road our trucks could drive on, and thus was the most heavily and frequently laden with IEDs. We’d already been blown up on it our first week there, and had rendered safe dozens of found IEDs along the 6-10 clicks that stretched through our company AO. So walking through the bordering poppy fields and irrigation canals was the safest options.

Every farm along the way had a 5ft wide 5ft deep much smaller canal around it to both irrigate the crop and provide natural land borders. As we moved towards our objective we got a call: the radio operator working with our snipers on their hide had rolled his ankle (fucking rookie) and we were within a few hundred yards of them along our planned route. As is standard operating procedure (SOP), the medevac became our primary objective. We turned from our echelon formation in a poppy field into a staggered line due east towards a canal separating the field we were in from that rubbled building the snipers had been hiding in during that twilight sandstorm. We had to maneuver around a large dirt mound covered in vegetation. We were led by a green (new) 3/1 Marine sweeping with a metal detector, followed by a dog handler, a grunt with medical training, the patrol leader and company XO, Eric my teammate, myself, and the rest of the patrol. As I moved to the dirt mound the front of the patrol had left my sight…. BOOM! A loud burst, a sound all too familiar 3 months into a hot deployment, dark earth clouded just ahead of me. I knew what had happened, the dangerous soil of Afghanistan had attempted to claim another tribute from our ranks. Soon as the familiar stimuli reached cognitive awareness we all took a knee and raised our weapons waiting for that obvious next step, gunfire. Instead, I heard cries for help. One of our guys was injured. Someone ahead of me yelled out “who’s got a metal detector” I began to formulate a plan, and before anyone else could react, I grabbed my sweeper and started bounding in a zig zag line around the dirt mound to the blast 25 yards ahead of me. As I passed Eric and the XO (still confused) the next marine burst out “I’ve got a combat life saver pack” I grabbed his hand and told him to stay in my hip pocket. I swept us up to the canal and spotted Butler, the dog handler, bobbing in the water, blood everywhere. I handed my weapon back to the marine and jumped legs first into the murky water. As my feet planted my head stayed above water, sweew, step one. I maneuvered to Butler and found him struggling to breathe seeing only the top of his head and face. I went under, placed his shoulders on top of my left shoulder and stood with all the as if it were max day in the squat rack. As my knees locked I reached up and over his body with my left hand and grabbed what remained of his jaw to open his airway. He let out a yell.. he could breather, step two. I knew he had stepped on an IED, meaning whatever was under the water could be worse than his face. I remember thinking to myself, “fuck I don’t want to see this” “please have legs, please have legs” then as my will to save his life overtook my reluctance to see a bloody mangled set of legs I started to reach down, before I could, I felt two boots kick my shins. “Thank fucking God!” Hes got legs. At this point my own legs began to sink and I knew I had to shed some weight. I reached frantically and found a knife on his chest, I took it and started cutting at his vest. Before I could calm down and work methodically to make a meaningful tear, I felt him begin to get lighter. I had made our way back to the bank and the other Marines were pulling him up by the back of his vest. I could tell he was too heavy for the the two pulling so I took a deep breath, sank and grabbed him and the knees, bear hugging those precious legs, still intact, still moving, and strongly stood one more time, throwing him on the bank like a log out of water.

By this time, which must have been an eternity, the XO had called in an air evac and they had popped smoke to signal our location. I waded across the canal to the far side, the side we were attempting to get to and climbed up. The sweeper was there, dumbfounded and dizzy, he said, “where’s the dog? We lost the dog?”

He was right, he had led the patrol to a tree laid over to use as a footbridge. He had folded his metal detector and put it away to walk across the bridge. When he got to the other side he didn’t pull it out to sweep the opposite end of the bridge, next in line was the dog, and just behind him, Butler-his handler, as butler neared midway of the bridge the dog activated the IED directly under him. The blast consumed the dog and blew Butler into the canal injuring his face and left arm.

As an EOD tech in the situation my training led me to the blast hole. I need to gather as much information and evidence as possible to piece together the puzzle, knowing that IEDs almost always came in pairs I also needed to find any secondary. As I searched on my hand and knees for any wires or disturbed earth I reached deep into the blast crater, “What the Hell!!!” The ground was warm and began moving under my finger tips. As I pulled my hand back a family of moles came barreling out. “Wow, this takes the cake” soon the Blackhawks landed, lightning fast in what seemed to be 10 square feet surrounded by trees. Those guys were impressive. They loaded Bulter and the lead sweeper and away they went on the bird, injured but alive and further from this hell. We got everyone across the canal and I could tell the incident had taken its toll on the Marines. This was their first patrol, just weeks into Afghanistan and only a few days into “the shit” they had just popped their cherries. Realizing they were all looking to me for answers I simply picked up the remnants of Butlers vest, something they shoutout sent with the bird, and clipped it to the back of my own. I knew they were hurting, confused, and tired. This patrol became mine to lead, Butler’s bloodied body armor, my cross to bear.

By this time we were just a few hundred yards from the snipers and they had watched the whole thing while tending to their own litter and trying not to be seen. We moved to them, said a few gruesome jokes about death and readied to carry the litter another 100 yards east to main route Cowboys. By this time the patrol was so tired the XO had made the decision to walk the shoulder of Cowboys back in hopes of finding easier terrain as the poppy fields were row after row of foot tall mounds ready for planting.

I was a haus back then, I was used to the blasts and ready to get the “fuck out of here” as I saw the Marines struggle to carry the litter I grabbed one end myself with both hands and motioned for the other two to split the front. As we stepped off I got an early feeling, like we had survived a perfectly placed IED attack virtually unscathed. Nearing route Cowboys we sent two marines ahead and they had commandeered a local bungo truck. The truck sat running across a narrow concrete bridge across the canal on the eastern side of route Cowboys. As we made it midway across the bridge with the litter, my fears came to fruition. Pap.. Tat tat tat tat, we were being ambushed from behind, from the same place we had been hit. All the 3/1 Marines, freshly minted with a wounded buddy took off in charge towards the gunfire with a thirst for enemy blood. I had one end of a litter and two jarheads at hand. I saw the bungo truck speed off without us snd decided to bring the litter back to very small empty build between us and the ambush. I laid the litter down, stations each marine at each corner and hovered over him. We had two marines hunkered down across Cowboys and the rest of the patrol were in full fledged combat 50 yards behind us. The firefight last two hours as the enemy began retreating immediately causing a long and tedious chase.

Finally the Marines regained their wits, patrolled back to us with nothing more than a blood trial to show for their efforts and we began our long walk back to our COP. This time I let the other Marines carry the litter. When we got back to the COP after nightfall I realized it was a good thing I did because our friends south of Karma who had need held up had received s casualty and were in pinned down, we were going to have to go save them.

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When we arrived back to our main base, FOB Sharp, long after dark. The process of returning was tedious for a man so tired and I remember walking in the tent, throwing my gear off and feeling like I had lived, like I was alive, like these bad guys wouldn’t ever have a chance at my head because I as a fucking badass. Thats about the time the radios went off. We had a encrypted motorola’s we used for to communicate to each other as an EOD team, the Company COC used them to communicate to use when we were needed as well.