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Cpl. Aaron Rooks, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade
LASHKAR GAH, HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – 09.28.2009
The evening began with a small group of U.S. Marines and U.K. soldiers gathered around a campfire of dimly-lit candles and a teapot boiling over a small fire.
They talked among themselves for a few hours about girlfriends and wives back home, ice cream and weightlifting, among other topics. Not once, though, did they mention the insurgents located just to their north.
The group seemed almost unaware of the nearby dangers as the conversation continued. Only about 20 individuals manned the small area at Checkpoint North near the city of Basharan, but they seemed calm, collected and happy. They each went their separate ways later that evening, off into the shadows to their respective tents for the night.
"After so much time, everything becomes a way of life," said Cpl. Gavin Molitor, a radio operator, Firepower Control Team Alpha, 1st Brigade Platoon, 2nd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan. "Usually by the end of each day, everyone will gather around together and chat for a while. It helps us get by from day to day. But the overall mentality is to never get too relaxed or comfortable. We always have to be ready."
Everyone awoke the next morning to the sound of an explosion nearby that removed the calm serenity at the small checkpoint.
The Marines and U.K. soldiers left their mosquito net beds to support firing positions around the camp within seconds of hearing the explosion. They later learned that an improvised explosive device near a checkpoint to the south caused the blast. Each man then returned to his living area and started his day.
Random explosions from IEDs and small arms fire attacks have become a part of life for those manning CP North.
"We wait to get shot at," said U.K. Lance Sgt. Lee Davis, a vehicle commander with Number IX Company of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards. "We get shot at, then we wait some more until the next time."
The U.K. soldiers of Number IX Company and the four Marines of FCT-A, 2nd ANGLICO, currently man one of the northernmost posts in the Lashkar Gah area of operations. Although much of the area to the south is cleared of insurgent forces, the region to the north of the checkpoint remains a hostile, uncharted territory.
Staff Sgt. Robert Jernigan, team leader, FCT-A, 2nd ANGLICO, said the small number of coalition forces who man CP North creates his greatest worry living from day to day at the checkpoint. This is why Jernigan and his three Marines are currently attached to the U.K. infantry unit.
The Marines have the capability to call for indirect fire support, both from aircraft and artillery, when forces on the ground can't suppress the enemy in combat engagements.
"This whole area is a historical contact point for enemy forces," said U.K. Lance Sgt. Richie Tudball, a platoon sergeant at the checkpoint. "It's nice to know that if we ever get into a bind, the Marines can have an aircraft above us in about 90 seconds' time."
The checkpoint was calm for the remainder of the day. Jernigan said it has become very common for insurgents to attack their post regularly for a few days, then none at all for the next few.
They gathered around the same camp fire that evening, much like the night before and conversed about their prior deployment experiences and what they planned to do when they returned home, then went to sleep for another night.
The following morning, the Marines joined a group of between 10 and 15 U.K. soldiers to patrol the terrain around the checkpoint to clear the roadways for resupply convoys and provide security for locals in the area.
"They're reassurance patrols," Tudball said. "We know the Taliban is out there. We want them to know that we are not afraid of them."
The patrol took the soldiers and Marines through fields of crops and waist-high rivers, from CP North down to another U.K. post known as Tapa Parang and finally back up to the checkpoint.
The patrol returned to the checkpoint about an hour later, unscathed. But the normal trend reemerged when insurgents launched a small-arms attack on the checkpoint from the north and northeast shortly thereafter. The firefight lasted for about 20 minutes until insurgent fire ceased. The Marines and U.K. soldiers then returned to their daily routines inside the checkpoint. Some jumped into the nearby irrigation stream to cool off, some rested in their mosquito nets.
"We are continuing to hold this ground despite our limited numbers," Jernigan said, noting that he believed insurgents ceased their actions because of a helicopter then flying near the checkpoint. "That's why we're here, to provide the fire support to help us continue to hold this ground."