The helicopters landed before dawn on Saturday, alighting in a poppy field beside a row of mud-walled compounds. The U.S. Marines ran into the darkness and crouched through the rotor-whipped dust as their aircraft lifted away.

For the Marines of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, the assault into the last large Taliban stronghold in Helmand province was beginning. For almost all of them, this was to be their first taste of war. And an afternoon of small-arms combat was ahead.

But at first, these Marines, the vanguard for 6,000 NATO and Afghan troops streaming in to loosen the Taliban’s grip in Afghanistan permanently, met no resistance. On the last miles of the ride in, the Marines were silent as the aircraft flew 200 feet above freshly sprouting poppy fields. Irrigation canals glittered beneath the portholes, rolling past fast.

The Marines did not know what to expect, beyond the fact that at least hundreds of insurgents were waiting for them, and that many would fight to keep their hold on the opium-poppy production centre.

Company K is part of what many Marines call a surge battalion, one of the units assigned to Afghanistan after President Barack Obama decided last year to increase the U.S. troops on the ground. It arrived in Afghanistan a month ago, and had waited for this moment. Its introduction to the war was a crash course.

As the helicopter wheels touched soil, the aircraft filled with whoops, and the Marines stood and bolted for the tail ramp. They moved briskly. Within minutes, the first Marines of the 3rd Platoon were entering compounds to the landing zone’s north, checking for enemy fighters and booby traps. The rest of the platoon followed through the gate. Sergeants and corporals urged a steady pace. “Go! Go! Go!” they said, spicing instructions with profanity. By 3 a.m., Company K had its toehold.

The company’s mission was to seize the area around the major intersection in northern Marjah, clear a village beside it and hold it. By drawing this assignment, the company had become its battalion’s lead unit — sent alone and out front into the Taliban territory. It had been told to hold its area until other companies, driving over the ground and clearing hidden explosives from the roads, worked down from the northwest and caught up.

The Second Platoon took a position to the west, to block Route 605, a main road. The First Platoon was to the east, watching over another likely Taliban avenue of approach. The Third Platoon gathered in the southernmost compounds, with orders to sweep north and clear the entire village.

The Third Platoon’s commander, 1st Lt. Adam J. Franco, ordered a halt until dawn. A canal separated the platoon from the village. The company had been warned of booby traps. Lt. Franco chose to cross the canal with daylight, reducing the risks of a Marine stepping on an unseen pressure plate that would detonate an explosive charge. “Hold tight,” he said into his radio. The non-commissioned officers paced in the blackness, counting and recounting every man.

Being the lead company had drawbacks. The Marines had been told that ground reinforcements and fresh supplies might not reach them for three days. This meant they had to carry everything they would need during that time: water, ammunition, food, first-aid equipment, a bedroll, clothes and spare batteries for radios and night-vision devices. As they jogged forward, the men grunted and swore under their burdens, which in many cases weighed 100 pounds or more. Some carried 5-gallon jugs of water, others hauled stretchers, rockets, mortar ammunition or bundles of plastic explosives and spools of time-fuse and detonating cord.

In 3rd Platoon, two teams carried collapsible aluminum footbridges, each about 25 feet long when extended, which the platoon would use to cross the canal. At daybreak, the platoon bounded across one of its bridges and into the village, and dropped its backpacks and extra equipment, moving forward without excess weight. The Taliban initially chose not to fight, and the company’s first sweeps were uneventful.

At 8:30 a.m., as one of the squads searched buildings, a gunshot sounded just behind the walls. The Marines rushed toward the door, guns level to their eyes, ready for their first fight. A shout carried over the wall. “Dog!” the voice said. A Marine had fired a warning shot at an attacking dog, scaring it off. The young Marines shook their heads.

Minutes later, gunfire erupted to the south, where another unit, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, had also inserted Marines in the night. The firing was intense for about 10 minutes, then it subsided. It rose again a few minutes later, and subsided again. Much of the shooting carried the distinct sound of U.S. machine guns and squad automatic weapons. Then a large explosion rumbled near the source of the noise. A small mushroom-shaped cloud rose from the spot: an airstrike.

The Marines listened to the fighting far away. They still had no contact. Before the assault, Capt. Joshua P. Biggers, Company K’s commander, had said that as many as 90 per cent of the company’s Marines had not been in combat before. A few were brand-new — straight from boot camp and infantry school, men with roughly a half-year in the corps. But the captain also said that the bulk of the company had been together a year or more. These Marines knew each other well, he said, and had trained intensely for this day. “They’re ready,” he said.

Soon they were finding signs of the Taliban. A sweep of one compound turned up 12 sacks of fertilizer used to make explosives and a batch of new cooking pots, which insurgents have often used as the shells of bombs.

The compound’s only adult male resident, Abdul Ghani, said the fertilizer belonged to his son. The company detained Abdul Ghani. At 10 a.m., the day changed. Taliban fighters probed the 2nd Platoon, and a firefight erupted as the platoon moved toward the road. It subsided, but not before several Taliban fighters had been killed and the platoon had been fired on by small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

At 12:40, fighting broke out for 3rd Platoon. For almost three hours, 2nd and 3rd Platoons took sporadic fire from insurgents in several directions. At times, the fighting was intense and the gunfire rose and roared and snapped overhead. The fight briefly quieted after a B-1 bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb on a compound near the landing zone, levelling most of the house there.

For a short while after the airstrike, the village was quiet. But by late afternoon, the company, which had established a crude outpost in a compound, was taking fire again. Between exchanges of fire, a squad-size patrol led by Cpl. Thomas D. Drake pushed out across the fields to search the building that had been hit by the airstrike.

The Taliban let the Marines walk into an open field and approach a tall stand of dried grass. Then it opened fire in a hasty ambush. The Marines dropped. They fired back, exposed. Gunfire rose to a crescendo. Cpl. Drake shouted over the noise to the team in front, “You got everyone?” He shouted to the team behind him, which was pressed flat in the field. “Everyone OK?”

The Taliban firing subsided. “We’re moving!” the corporal shouted. The patrol stood and sprinted toward the withdrawing Taliban, and ran across irrigation dikes and poppy fields to enter the compound that had been struck. It searched the wreckage, took pictures, collected a few documents and returned to the small outpost just ahead of dark.

At night, Capt. Biggers reflected on the day. An explosives ordnance disposal team with the company had destroyed four large bombs hidden in the roads. The platoons had seized their first objectives. In its first day of combat, Company K had been fighting for hours without a casualty, and several Taliban fighters were lying dead in one of the fields. — © 2010 The New York Times News Service

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