Marines take a knee during a security patrol through the Kajaki green zone, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Ross.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZEEBRUGGE, Afghanistan (April 22, 2011) — Kajaki District is usually dangerous, occasionally beautiful, always strategically important, and for the last six months its security has been lead by a single Marine Corps artillery battery.
The mission of shielding the Kajaki Dam and the area around it from insurgents has drawn the Marines of Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 8, away from their traditional mission of providing long-range support by fire and into the full spectrum of the counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan.
“The [improvised explosive device] threat here is very high, and we’ve had numerous direct fire engagements with insurgents,” said 1st Lt. Joe E. Sawyer, 26, the battery’s executive officer and a New Brockton, Ala., native.
Situated along the Helmand River to the north of the volatile Sangin District, Kajaki is blessed with natural scenery. Rocky hills rise above the ‘green zone,’ a winding area of irrigated farmland. The Helmand River flows into the Kajaki Dam near here. There are foaming rapids and a sparkling reservoir. In the fields, farmers grow wheat alongside opium-producing poppy. The latter is currently in full bloom, coloring the area with vivid pinks, whites and reds.
Despite its lush appearance, Kajaki has long been an area under threat by insurgents. The counterinsurgency campaign in Kajaki revolves mostly around the dam and the communities surrounding it, said Cpl. John T. Gizzi, 21, an assistant squad leader from Tucketon, N.J.
“With the way the insurgents influence the people, they’d like to control the dam and its power output so they can tax it,” he explained.
The U.S. government helped fund and build the dam in the 1950’s and installed hydroelectric turbines in 1975. Today the dam provides most of the electric power in Helmand province. When ongoing repairs and improvements to the turbines and power grid are completed, the dam has the potential to power most of Helmand and Kandahar provinces, said Sawyer.
The strategic potential of the dam has proved irresistible to insurgent groups. The closest bazaar was shut down several years ago. Many of the villages around the dam have been abandoned by all except insurgents and their sympathizers, said Sawyer.
With much of the local populace either dispersed or suspected of supporting the insurgency, the Marines of Bravo Battery have focused on reminding the insurgents that Marines can and will strike and interdict areas outside the immediate area around the dam and FOB, said Gizzi.
“We patrol frequently,” he said. “We’ll push to contact to the north or south [of the dam] and make sure they know we’re here.”
This active patrol presence is very different from the traditional artillery mission, although converting artillery units into provisional infantry rifle companies has occurred several times previously in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another artillery unit, India Battery, 3rd Bn., 12th Marines, preceded Bravo Battery as the main security force in the area.
During their engagements with the enemy, Bravo Battery Marines have unleashed virtually every ground combat weapon system available to the Marine Corps, including machine guns, rockets and mortars. This is unusual because while many non-infantry Marines train to use these weapon systems, using them in continuous combat ops is typically an infantry-only task.
At Kajaki, Bravo Battery has had to adapt. Teams of artillerymen who had never touched a mortar system before pre-deployment training have fired hundreds of rounds here, said Sawyer.
Of course the artillery Marines get the artillery pieces involved as well. On several occasions during this deployment, cannoneers with Bravo Battery have found themselves firing their M-777 A2 lightweight howitzers from their hillside FOB in support of fellow artillerymen engaging insurgent fighters in the green zone below. A battery firing in support of its own personnel is practically unheard of since Vietnam, said Sawyer.
“That guy who’s out on patrol, when he comes back and he’s sitting in the chow hall, the guy to his right is the guy who was pulling the lanyard in support of him the night before,” he said. “The next day they switch.”
The battery has done much of this fighting alongside the local Afghan uniformed police unit, said Cpl. Anthony J. Chavez, 24, a provisional rifleman and Albuquerque, N.M., native.
The Kajaki AUP outfit, mentored by police advisors with 1st and 3rd Battalions, 5th Marines, includes dozens of men originally from Kajaki who were displaced by the insurgency.
“They’ve gone out and found IEDs for us,” said Chavez. “We take them out with us on pushes. They’re helping us keep the insurgency pushed back here.”
With the end of their deployment now in sight, the Marines of Bravo Battery have a lot to be proud of, said Sawyer.
“We’ve definitely kept the insurgents on their toes,” said Gizzi. “We’ve been able to push them back further and further and gain some territory.”