MUSA QAL’EH DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
The blades of a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter stirred up the Afghan dust as it came in to land. The Marines inside heard the echo of the churning wind reverberate off the ground, and they knew they were close. The Marines flipped their night-vision goggles down, setting the nocturnal optic in place over their dominant eye in preparation to launch Operation Double Check.
Members of Afghan National Security Forces are working with Marines from 3rd Platoon, Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, in the operation. Flown in by 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), 3rd Platoon was one of four platoons in the battalion’s air assault element and has been instrumental in contributing to the successes of the operation, according to 1st Lt. Mark Capansky, the platoon commander for 3rd Platoon.
The Woodstock, Va., native said his Marines knew the terrain like the back of their hands and hit the ground with the goals of promoting legitimate governance and increasing security within the Musa Qal’eh district. They worked to clear the insurgents out of the area, while the Afghan Uniformed Police established new security posts around the southern Musa Qal’eh wadi, a dry riverbed and landmark within the district.
“That was the second time 3rd Platoon had (flown in) -- we did it for Operation Western Gambit. Flying in to conduct (Operation) Double Check, with the whole platoon flying in helo, you feel confident for the fact you rehearse it two or three times a day before the operation,” said Staff Sgt. Peter S. Ramos, a Patterson, N.J., native and the platoon sergeant for the platoon. “The Marines understand the ground; they know the ins and outs of the operation; by the time it comes (to depart), you’re fine. If anyone wants to fire at us when we have a whole platoon on the deck, that’s a poor choice on them.”
The Marines of 3rd Platoon quickly rose to their feet as the ramp lowered on the back of the helicopter, and they filed out with stern intent.
“As far as Echo Company goes, we try to maintain a standard when it comes to how we operate as a rifle company, and the Marines did what they were suppose to; we were at the right place, right time, right gear, so everything fell into place from there,” said Ramos, 30.
The platoon had its work cut out for it, with two objectives and minimal food and water to last until the group would be resupplied.
Ramos said each of his squads had a very specific role while clearing each objective with AUP patrolmen in search of propaganda, drug labs, improvised explosive device labs, and key leaders in the insurgency. This clearing operation has been no different than many others 3rd Platoon has conducted during this deployment, but what is different is the manner in which it has been conducted.
“We brought a couple of police with us and conducted searches of suspicious compounds in preparation for the AUP (security) posts to be built,” said Capansky, 25. “What was different from previous operations we’ve done is we flew in, and we targeted specific compounds, instead of doing a whole clear-on-line of the fairly large villages. Based on intelligence (gathered), we hit specific places.”
Third Platoon approached each compound with a cautious mindset and was prepared for a fight. The Afghan police performed “hard knocks” when they reached each compound entryway, rapping on the door with forceful comportment to let anyone inside know of their presence and intent. The Marines were there to support the AUP if necessary.
“That first night we went up to a suspicious compound (and) requested entry. Because of the threat of booby traps, when we didn’t get a response from any of the (local residents), we conducted dynamic breaches with explosives to make holes in the wall to allow ourselves to enter,” said Capansky. “We try to minimize that as much as possible, but with the police leading, if they were not comfortable with entering a compound, we were there to support.”
The engineers attached to the platoon for the duration of the operation rarely had to use the bundled blocks of C-4 explosives in their assault packs after the first few suspects did not answer, even though they were home. The unexpected explosions set the tone for the platoon’s momentum for the upcoming night searches, and they received little-to-no resistance.
The AUP patrolmen took the lead and 3rd Platoon rolled from one enemy bed down location to the next, where it seemed the only thing the Marines and patrolmen were fighting those first few days was the drastically dropping temperatures.
“It got real cold at night; the Marines maintained their discipline,” said Ramos. “The Marines kept their heads on a swivel; no matter how cold it was, they still did what they were supposed to do.”
Capansky said after enough of the objectives were cleared to establish the police security posts, his Marines’ focus shifted to providing outward security, while their brothers in 2nd Platoon turned inward to concentrate on mentoring the AUP.
“We’ve been focusing on holding the periphery -- setting the block, you might say -- to allow the other elements to build these posts and hold these posts,” said Capansky. “We’ve searched probably a majority of the compounds; we’ve been doing a lot of the night patrols and a lot of the longer patrolling operations so that 2nd Platoon could focus on getting the police out (in the community) and getting the police doing their mission, which is the main effort of this operation.”
The success of that main effort would not be possible if 3rd Platoon did not set the foundation for the AUP and 2nd Platoon to build from, according to Capansky.
Third Platoon’s support enabled its brother’s in 2nd Platoon and the patrolmen with the AUP to expand and execute their mission, which drew a chain reaction of yips, snarls and howls from the resident dogs, keeping the enemy on their toes in the dead of night, according to Capt. George S. Flynn III, a Woodbridge, Va., native and the commanding officer for Echo Company.
“When the dogs are barking at night, it makes somebody think twice, when they’re sleeping at night, about who is outside their door. It’s even worse when you wake up in the early hours and you see a squad of Marines standing on your front lawn,” said Flynn. “(It) definitely makes you think twice about the activities you’re doing.”
It is the fear of the unknown Flynn spoke of that helped keep the insurgents at bay to allow 2nd Platoon to help the AUP build legitimate governance in the area, further spreading the influence and footprint of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
“I think the most important part of this mission was getting these Afghan Uniformed Police posts built and getting some confidence in the area,” said Capansky. “I think us being able to hold the fight on the outside, to give them a little breathing room and give them a little bit of confidence, was important to the success. I am extremely lucky to have the platoon that I have.”
Editor’s note: Second Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 6 in 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Forces and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.