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A Change in Mission
Lt. Arthur Karell and his Marine battalion were sent to Now Zad, Afghanistan, to train Afghan police. Instead, they had to fight the insurgents who had taken over the town.

By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Fix bayonets."

Not long after giving that order, 1st Lt. Arthur Karell was hunched in a dirt trench crowded with Marines. The hushed darkness bristled with eight-inch blades fitted beneath the barrels of dozens of M-16 assault rifles.

You fix bayonets when you expect to need the aggressive combat mind-set that's produced by the primal sight of massed blades. You fix them when you expect to search hidden places. You fix them when you expect the fight could push you within arm's reach of your enemy -- gutting distance. In modern warfare, that's extraordinarily rare.

The problem was, Karell didn't know what to expect. He was from Arlington. He'd traveled the world. This place, though, was like nowhere he'd ever been. The 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment had deployed to Afghanistan last spring to train Afghan police. But when Karell's platoon arrived in Now Zad, the largest town in a remote northern district of Helmand province, they'd rolled into a ghost town.

The Afghans who used to live here, more than 10,000, had been gone for several years, their abandoned mud-brick homes slowly melting into the dusty valley. Insurgents were using the place for R&R. At night, all you heard were the jackals, ululating like veiled, grieving women. The fact that Now Zad had no civilian residents, much less any police, had somehow escaped the notice of the coalition planners who had given the Marines their mission.

"They saw what they wanted to achieve but didn't realize fully what it would take," Task Force 2/7's commander, Lt. Col. Richard Hall, said at the time. "There were no intel pictures where we are now because there were few or no coalition forces in the areas where we operate. They didn't know what was out there. It was an innocent mistake."

So, with no police to train or civilians to protect, the Marines in Now Zad were left with the job of evicting the insurgents who had taken over the town. The fight to root them out began a year ago in the predawn twilight of June 15, in a trench.

Karell was about to lead the first assault of his first deployment. Some Marines in his platoon had done tours in Iraq, but Afghanistan was new to all of them. The dried-up irrigation trench they were in led toward the edge of Now Zad, then ran parallel to a thick mud wall that was taller than a man and that separated the town from a small forest.

No coalition forces had ever been beyond that wall. With the trees blocking their view, all they knew about what lay beyond was that whenever they got close, they were shot at. Whether the small arms fire had been coming from bunkers in the wall or the trench alongside it, they didn't know. So Karell gave the order to fix bayonets.

Silently creeping forward through the trench, Karell remembered feeling the same charged mix of fear and electric anticipation as when he rowed crew in high school and college -- that last 30 seconds before a race as the craft slid into place. He and his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Gabriel Guest, had been first to jump into the dark trench and had already decided they would be at the front when the assault on the wall began. "We're not asking them to do these things unless we're willing to do it," they'd reasoned between themselves, because the old cliche was true: "Everyone can get afraid out there."

Among the Marines in the trench, Karell was one of the oldest at 29, though he looked younger. Now Zad's blowing dust had cracked his voice, as if his teen years at Arlington's H-B Woodlawn high school weren't that long ago. After Harvard and the University of Virginia law school, he'd gone to work on K Street for Wilkie Farr & Gallagher, investigating corporate corruption in developing countries and watching the news from Iraq and Afghanistan. "Seeing these guys go off to these wars time and again, these young guys who are having kids they never see," Karell remembered, "I couldn't just sit there while that was going on." He's the oldest of six, his father the son of Finnish immigrants, his mother Mexican American. At the time, no one in his family was in the military.

He joined the Marines.

He's a good guy, said the Marines in his platoon, a good lieutenant. He called them gents. They called him the L.T. He walked with a slouching lope. One Marine thought the L.T. had grown up a California surfer. Another corrected him, said that was just the L.T.'s personality, the laid-back philosopher type. They said he laughed at himself, and that's why they liked him.

But the battalion surgeon, Cdr. James Hancock, called him a hunter. "Lt. Karell," Hancock said, "is just as liable to be running down a hall shooting at bad guys as any of the rest of them."

As the Marines in the trench neared the wall, Marine support vehicles, armed with heavy machine guns, began to growl into view to the rear. Suddenly, a rocket-propelled grenade, an RPG, flared out from the wall. It whooshed over the heads of the Marines concealed in the trench and on toward the vehicles. The Marines later recalled the vehicles' guns erupting with roaring bursts. To the front, enemy PKM machine guns chattered back, the muzzle flashes along the wall's base revealing that the bunkers had been dug into the wall, not the trench.

The Marines said the fear disappeared as their training took over. They began to bound -- Karell and the platoon's 1st squad running forward under fire while 2nd squad fired back to cover them, then 1st squad firing back while 2nd squad leapfrogged them. Over and over they did this, bounding alongside the wall to outflank the bunkers.

Incoming rounds snapped past them. It was their first big firefight -- they went through a great deal of ammunition. Through the smoke and noise, Karell remembered seeing Staff Sgt. Guest, 6-foot-3 and as light on his feet as he was big, dashing out from cover to bring more ammunition. The machine gun chatter from the other side of the wall sputtered out as the insurgents began to run.

Karell brought forward the Marine combat engineers, who fired mine-clearing devices so that he and an engineer could climb out of the trench to blow a hole in the wall. The platoon poured through.

It was like passing through a portal into another world. As the sun came up, they stepped out of the dusty desert town and into paradise. They heard birds singing and the burble of flowing water. Pomegranates and apples hung from the trees. All at once, Karell understood why so many people used to live there.

They started destroying the bunkers in the wall. Then Karell led the platoon deeper into the forest's lush undergrowth. They were headed for the Mound. Seen from the air, the Mound rose out of the treetops, a huge, round, chalk-white monolith 40 feet high. It was hewn by nature but mysterious nonetheless -- and a likely command bunker. This is where Osama is, coalition forces had joked as they'd bombed it over the years.

On the ground, the Mound emerged through the thick vegetation like a stone fortress. The Marines started up, climbing beneath the weight of weapons, ammunition and body armor. The summer sun beat down on them. They were looking for that command bunker. They were looking for caves. They were expecting resistance. They reached the cratered top; they looked around. Then they looked at each other and laughed. They'd just climbed a big pile of solid rock.

***

Three weeks before that first assault, at the tail end of the spring poppy harvest, Karell and the 3rd platoon of Foxtrot Company had arrived in Now Zad after a 12-hour convoy. A few Afghan interpreters and a retired San Diego police officer named Frank Carson rode in with them. Carson was along for the ride because the Marines' official mission was to train police. So, naturally, they'd been equipped with a police trainer ... and little of what they would really need for the major combat they were about to undertake.

Rolling into Now Zad, the platoon drew up in an open square next to a tiny, beleaguered encampment of British and Estonian soldiers. They parked Humvees at the corners as guard posts, strung concertina wire in between and hunkered down for the night. Karell lay down with both his M9 9mm Beretta pistol and his rifle at hand. He doesn't remember sleeping much. No one did. Third platoon was in Taliban country.

The Taliban's Islamic extremists had been driven from power more than six years earlier, but the threadbare effort to secure and rebuild Afghanistan had opened the door to a metastasizing insurgency. In the southwest, opium poppy production exploded -- drug money bankrolling the violence. The United Nations estimates Afghanistan now produces more than 90 percent of the world's illicit opium, the raw ingredient in heroin. Half comes from Helmand, one of Afghanistan's biggest and most fertile provinces. Helmand should be this hungry country's breadbasket. Instead it's a battleground. Now Zad is a stark example.

During the early post-Taliban years, the town thrived. People came for miles to its bazaar; the U.N. started building a school. But by the time Karell's platoon arrived, Now Zad's dirt streets rustled only with shadows carrying weapons. The people of Now Zad had been driven out by threats and violence, maybe from returning Taliban, maybe from narcotics traffickers. Back then, there was no one to protect them. There weren't enough coalition or Afghan soldiers to station there, and the local police weren't trained to do anything -- not policing and certainly not soldiering. They fled with the people.

Hall, Task Force 2/7 's commander, had gotten a hint of all this a few months before the task force arrived in Afghanistan last year. He and his staff did what higher-ups apparently hadn't -- they went to Helmand and talked with special operations forces. "Once we started talking to people on the ground," he said, "it became very obvious that we were going to do more fighting than training." In Now Zad, that was an understatement.

During those first few weeks before the trench assault, Karell's platoon started patrolling and building a forward operating base, a FOB. No Afghan contractor had been willing to risk coming out there to construct it for them. So the Marines piled up sand-filled barriers around the U.N.'s half-built, dirt-floored, roofless school and called it a FOB.

Within a couple of weeks, most of the rest of Fox Company arrived in Now Zad, along with a new mission: Make it possible for the people and their police to move back to town. How they were to accomplish that wasn't spelled out. They were just told to get in, do what they could for six months and get out, because, Hall said, "we came over here thinking we weren't going to be replaced" with more Marines. Ultimately, the goal was for the Afghan National Army to take over.

So, Carson, the police trainer, was packed off to a town that actually had police to train, and the Marines began clearing the insurgents out of Now Zad. However, while their mission had changed, their equipment and support structure had not. They had access to a police trainer they didn't need, but had to get by without things such as dedicated close air support.

They weren't alone. Helicopters are in short supply across Afghanistan. NATO's International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, was usually generous with its jets whenever the Marines needed bombs dropped. And the Army was pretty good about sending helicopters to pick up the wounded -- though the shortage meant evacuations could take two hours in Afghanistan, compared with under an hour in Iraq.

But during operations, the Marines had no attack helicopters continually overhead to do reconnaissance or swoop in on short notice with rockets, missiles and cannon fire. Marine infantrymen call the pilots of Cobra attack helicopters "angels on our shoulders." For most of their deployment, the Marines in Now Zad had no angels.

***

Lance Cpl. John Schrey was 27. He built walls and blew holes in them and swept for mines and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, with a long-handled piece of equipment that looked like a beachcomber's metal detector. One night in July, Karell and 3rd platoon's 3rd squad put on their night-vision goggles and followed Schrey and another engineer outside the wire, scrambling single file over rubble north of town.

A week after the surreal adrenaline rush of the trench assault, 3rd platoon had supported Fox Company's 1st platoon as they fought in what turned out to be a minefield of IEDs. Twenty-six Marines were wounded, most of them in 1st platoon. Some lost legs, an arm. Two days after that, Staff Sgt. Christopher Strickland was crouched over an IED a patrol had found, disarming it, when it blew up. He was killed instantly. He was 25, an ordnance disposal expert. That was especially sobering, Fox Company commander Capt. Ross Schellhaas said, because, "if it can happen to an expert, it can happen to anyone."

Now, a month later, Schrey had put on his minesweeper's headset. As always, his steps slowed and his head bowed to concentrate on the dirt ahead and what lay beneath. He was tattooed with a pair of praying hands and John 3:16, the Bible verse his grandfather had taught him. Each time he heard a metallic hit, he led the way around it. Karell and the 3rd squad followed him like silent ducklings.

Just north of the IED minefield, they hid in a sparse, bony orchard within sight of their target: an empty compound with an adobe building. The insurgents used it as a rallying point, a place to stage equipment before going out to man fighting positions or lay more IEDs.

North of the rally point, a swath of trees hid a one-kilometer strip of closely packed, walled compounds where farming families had once tended orchards and gardens. Only heavily armed men lived there now. They used it the way they'd used the town, as a safe haven. Sometimes, when the Marines heard their voices, they didn't hear Pashtu or Dari, the local languages. They heard Urdu, the language of Pakistan, where many foreign fighters in Afghanistan come from. "Pakistani Alley," the Marines called it, and they knew that before they left Afghanistan, they were going to have to clear it out, too. But first they had to clear the territory between Pakistani Alley and Now Zad. It was only a kilometer and a half, but clearing it would take months of step-by-step fighting. Today's step was to destroy the rally point.

At dawn, Karell heard the Muslim call to prayer, rising and falling from Pakistani Alley through the trees to the north. Then, from the southwest came the surging groans of armored vehicles, bringing up the rest of 3rd platoon. Shouting erupted from the trees. Two insurgents, one of them carrying an RPG, dashed across an open wadi -- a dry riverbed -- unaware of 3rd squad in the orchard.

Karell listened to the insurgents moving around inside the rally point, eerily close. In the distance, the whoosh and roar of RPGs and machine-gun fire began. It was aimed at the Marines' armored bulldozer as it plowed through the minefield, clearing a lane toward the rally point. A massive seven-ton truck followed it, the Kevlar-helmeted heads of 2nd squad just visible over the armored sides of the open back.

Second squad had a new leader, a tall, big-shouldered, sunburned corporal named Aaron Tombleson, 23 years old, just married and, for the first time, responsible for a dozen other Marines during an operation. By now, Karell and Guest had started to step back on operations like this, leaving it to young leaders such as Tombleson to kick in the doors while Guest managed logistics and casualty evacuations and Karell concentrated on maneuvering the squads and calling for fire support.

Tombleson was like an oldest brother, sometimes hooting and roughhousing with his squad in their plywood hooch, sometimes sober with the weight of steering them through each day. His point man was Pfc. Ivan Wilson, who wasn't good with words, but when he said, Roger that, I'll get it done, he always did. He was short and solid. He wanted to be called Juggernaut. But he smiled too much for that, so everyone just called him Willie. Mortars began to explode near their seven-ton.

Over in the orchard, Karell heard a boom. He watched something small and round arc up from the west. It was a wheel off the seven-ton, the tire shredded away, growing bigger and bigger, definitely headed in 3rd squad's direction. It slammed into the ground among the orchard's stunted trees. The bulldozer had taken a wrong turn, and while it was getting back on track, the seven-ton hit an IED. The wheel was the only casualty. But it was a mobility kill for the truck. Tombleson transferred 2nd squad to another seven-ton.

It was the first of four IEDs the platoon hit that day.

They hit the next one after voices on the radio told Karell that the bulldozer had knocked a hole in a compound wall, then gotten itself stuck on the rubble pile. A four-man fire team climbed down from the seven-ton to provide security. Willie, the point man, led the way alongside the seven-ton toward the back of the bulldozer, where they knew the ground was clear. But then incoming rounds began to hammer the side of the seven-ton.

The fire team did what had been drilled into them: When you're under fire, you return fire, take cover, then return accurate fire. They ran to the compound wall to take cover, point man first, and Willie knelt to return accurate fire. He knelt on an IED.

Waiting in the orchard, 3rd squad heard the explosion. Karell heard Guest's voice shouting on the radio to arrange casualty evacuation, others shouting orders and offers of support. Karell strained to keep them from shouting over each other. They shouted that 2nd squad had four or five casualties and one KIA, killed in action.

Hospitalman Anthony Ameen, 3rd squad's Navy medical corpsman, requested permission to go help. Third squad had a secure position, and Marines trained as combat lifesavers. Karell was under the impression that 2nd's corpsmen had been overwhelmed.

"You can go," he told Ameen, "as long as you take the engineer with you so he can sweep for you."

So Schrey set out again at the head of a line of Marines. Another corpsman, Hospitalman Jack Driscoll, was right behind him, then a few Marines providing security, one wearing a helmet-mounted camera, then Ameen farther back in the line. Cameras were now everywhere on the battlefield -- from the noses of aircraft to the helmets of infantrymen, who sometimes strapped them on as personal video diaries.

On the video recorded that morning in July, the helmet-cam catches glimpses of Schrey's detector at the head of the line as it reaches each end of its arc -- a pendulum sweeping back and forth just above the ground, ticking off the seconds it's taking to reach the injured Marines. Slowly, steadily, the seconds turn into minutes. The men cross a dirt field, pass through a wall, cross another field. They come around the seven-ton and turn, and there, in the lee of another wall, is a huddled cluster of Marines.

That's where Willie is. He isn't dead. He's lost both legs and an arm, and at first he had no pulse, but a corpsman revived him. Schrey's ticking pendulum leads the line of rescuers along the wall toward Willie. Then, somewhere, there's an explosion. The Kevlar helmets in the line turn quickly left, the helmet-cam swiveling left, too. A plume of dark smoke rises beyond the trees.

The camera's view swivels back to the line, but everyone is distracted now -- the explosion, plus the Marines huddled around Willie are directly ahead, only yards away. The pendulum is still sweeping, but for some reason the line has slowed; it isn't moving forward.

There's motion off to the right. A figure blurs past the helmet-cam between the line and the wall. It's Ameen. He has stepped out of the line because it's drilled into corpsmen that when one of your Marines is hurt, corpsman up!, you run. Willie's right there, just ahead, needing him, corpsman up! Ameen steps out of the stalled line and runs. He's passing Driscoll and Schrey when he steps on the next IED.

The boom knocks Schrey down, his feet flying in the air. Ameen's down, too, rolling on the ground, moaning. Driscoll is up. Schrey sees him wandering around in a daze, bleeding from his ears.

"Driscoll!" Schrey shouts, but Driscoll can't hear him. Schrey is desperate for Driscoll to stop walking around before he hits another IED. "Driscoll! Driscoll!"

With that, the video ends.

Driscoll finally stopped and was medevaced along with Ameen, who would lose a foot. Tombleson and all of 2nd squad carried Willie to the seven-ton, and as they struggled to lift him into the tall truck, he came to. He tried to help the Marines helping him. He reached out to pull himself up and realized he had only one arm.

In the back of the seven-ton, Willie slipped into unconsciousness again, unaware of the Estonian soldiers, who charged up in one of their fast, heavily armored personnel carriers. The Estonians are known for their fearless charges. They hauled him to the helicopter landing zone on the far side of Now Zad faster than the Marines' vehicles could have.

Tombleson pulled 2nd squad back together. Karell moved the assault forward, ordered rocket shots, called in mortars and airstrikes. They destroyed the insurgent's rally point that day. That afternoon, during the retrograde to Now Zad, another vehicle hit the fourth IED. No one was hurt, just a mobility kill, but it slowed their return to the FOB, where the news waited that in the medevac helicopter thundering over the desert, Willie had died.

Karell called 3rd platoon together. They were exhausted and dirty, and he could see in their eyes they were shaken. He knew they'd be asking themselves what they were doing here, why was this happening. He tried to give them a solid, factual context for their sacrifice and loss. He heard himself speak in cliches. He didn't used to. As someone who appreciates the English language, he sometimes wondered why everyone in the military, including now himself, always spoke in cliches. But cliches are efficient. Use a cliche to express emotion, and you can quickly get back to the mission, and the business of staying alive.

Karell remembered talking about how they'd been sent around the world to a place they'd never been, to help bring justice and development to a people they'd never met. No matter what happened, he told them, they should always be proud of what they were doing and what Willie had died for. Hospitalman Eddie Daniel, a slight 20-year-old sailor and 1st squad's corpsman, wore a big pack of medical gear on his back when he went out on missions, and a prayer to St. Michael inside his Kevlar. He listened and struggled to hide his frustration, anger and tears.

Eight months before, while training for this deployment, Karell had asked his new platoon a question. They were out on a field exercise on a warm Southern California day, sprawled across broken-down bleachers for a class. "When you were in Iraq," he asked them, "how many of you felt like you were just driving around waiting to get blown up?" Almost all of them raised their hands. After that, he focused their training on changing that mind-set. "You're not just a target," he'd tell them, "you're hunters. You fight back. You go after the enemy."

The day Willie died, that same night, Karell walked eight members of 1st squad, including Daniel, back up near the bombed-out rally point. By now the Marines knew the insurgents often returned to the scene of a fight to do assessments and plant more IEDs. Sure enough, no sooner did 1st squad get up there, than they received a report of movement just out of sight. I want to get these guys, Karell thought. But the grass was dry, and every step made noise. Whoever was out there heard the Marines coming and ran back to the north. "At least it showed them that we're out there, it's not safe for them at all," he told his Marines. "We disrupted whatever they were trying to do tonight."

But after a long, heartbreaking day, there was another reason for that hard night's walk: morale. Looking back, Karell said quietly, "That's what it takes for the guys, psychologically, to stay in the fight."

***

The summer wore on. When the Marines fought during the day, they did it in temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The supply convoys kept getting blown up. They were eating the same three prepackaged meals over and over again. There was no running water, no A/C, and clouds of dust blew through their hooches. Contact with the outside world was limited to a shared satellite phone and intermittent Internet access. But what bothered them most: They knew they weren't going to be replaced. The day when there would be enough Afghan police and soldiers to take over was still a long way off.

The Afghan National Police alone needed 2,300 trainers. The European Union Police Mission had promised to provide them, but as of last summer, fewer than 200 were on the job, as reported by the congressionally established U.S. Institute of Peace. Enabling a government to protect its people is a crucial part of counterinsurgency strategy. That's why Task Force 2/7 had been sent -- to help fill the gap and try to make up for lost time.

But the effort was still undermanned and the Marines underprepared. "If my Marines are going to do this," police trainer Frank Carson told a Marine interviewer, "they need more training back in the States." Plus, in Helmand, the Marines were simultaneously fighting a war.

As a result, Afghan police and soldiers were spread very, very thin. When the Fox Company Marines left Now Zad, there would be no one to hold the territory some of them had died to clear, and the people and their police would probably never move back. Staff Sgt. Kevin Buegel, the no-nonsense 27-year-old who took over as platoon sergeant after Guest was wounded, said bluntly, "For a while, it felt like it was for nothing."

One day, Schellhaas gathered Fox Company together. The commander's family had served in the U.S. military for generations. He was enlisted before he became an officer. He stood like a man carrying a heavy load. He climbed halfway up a ladder, looked out over the crowd of dusty young men. He was as dusty as they were.

He remembered telling them: "You're Marines; you live in an austere environment. We're here to extend Afghan governance. The only way we're going to win this thing is if we can get the Afghan police up here." At the very least, he said, they were making a difference for other towns, drawing insurgents away from those battlegrounds to fight in Now Zad instead.

Then, in September, they learned that four Cobras and four CH-53 heavy lift helicopters were being pulled out of Iraq and sent to Helmand. But there was still bigger news: When Fox Company left Now Zad, another company of Marines would be taking their place after all. Earlier this year, when the Obama administration announced plans to send thousands of additional troops and trainers, the whole undermanned effort received a similar morale boost. "That was huge," Karell remembered, "that someone would be coming in to finish the work that we had started."

***

Karell squinted through a small window down into a smoke-filled basement. Between the gunpowder from the grenades his Marines had thrown in and the dust the explosions had kicked up from the dirt floor, Karell recalled that he couldn't see a thing. He couldn't see whether the insurgent with the AK-47 rifle was still a threat.

It was late October, and 3rd platoon, backed up by the better part of Fox Company, had finally plunged into Pakistani Alley to take on the insurgents holed up there. After months of unrelenting combat, they had cleared the insurgents out of Now Zad and even a kilometer or two of the valley around it. For this last big assault, with only weeks to go before Fox Company headed home, Karell hadn't bothered with an order to fix bayonets. By now, no one needed help getting into a combat mind-set.

Squinting into the basement inside a compound in Pakistani Alley, Karell knew he was silhouetted, an easy target. So he aimed his M9 pistol at the spot where they'd heard the shooter with the AK moving around and unloaded the rest of a 15-round clip into the smoke.

Cpl. Joseph Culliver listened to the M9 bang away. He was second in the line of Marines waiting to go in. He was 23, flat-voiced, prone to ironic commentary. Back when Culliver was still in classes at George Mason University, he partied with his fraternity brothers and played a lot of paintball with his housemates, hours of pow, pow, ha-ha.

There was nothing ha-ha about this. Talking about it the next day, Culliver and the other Marines said they thought the basement had already been cleared. Then one of their team walked in, got shot at and jumped back. Several of the Marines had picked up some Pashtu and shouted to the shooter to give himself up.

Culliver was Fox Company's intelligence analyst. He would have liked to talk to the shooter, who actually did come out with his hands up. But when the shooter saw four Marines pointing rifles, he ran back into the basement. The team of Marines all said they had the same thought: Damn, now we have to go after him.

So they kept throwing in grenades and lining up to go in. Culliver had been on the receiving end of grenades before, and he knew how you couldn't hear afterward. But still, each time they went in, they shouted in Pashtu for the shooter to surrender. They kept getting shot at for their trouble. Never one to mess around, Buegel, the platoon sergeant, applied some C-4 explosives, but even that got them nowhere. The shooter just kept shooting. He wasn't going down despite being hit repeatedly.

Meanwhile, the rest of 3rd platoon was pushing on through Pakistani Alley, clearing it compound by compound. They were fighting their way forward against mortar blasts that knocked them off their feet, grenades that came soaring over walls and heavy machine-gun fire from tunnels that riddled the compounds.

Karell made his way over to the basement. "It only takes one guy shooting at you to hold you up," he said later, and they couldn't afford to get held up. They had a lot of compounds to clear and too few Marines to clear them.

Daniel took aim through the basement window. In the months since Willie had died, Daniel had earned a Purple Heart himself and gotten very good with his M4. He fired into the basement. That made the shooter pop his head out the door, but the Marines were still there, and he ducked back inside.

Finally, the smoke-filled basement went still. Culliver heard Karell empty his M9 through the window as a final precaution, and then the Marines went in. Culliver was second through the doorway. Through the smoke, he saw the mortally wounded shooter. He saw him reach for his AK-47.

The Marine in front of Culliver fired two rounds. Both hit the shooter in the head, according to Culliver. After the smoke cleared, Culliver wasn't surprised to find syringes. He had guessed the shooter, like others, had been amped up on something -- despite all his wounds, the man never cried out.

Many of the leaders of Afghanistan's insurgency may be Taliban, fanatically religious men. Others are old-school warlords. But the frontline fighters are often malnourished addicts or drug traffickers or hard-case farmers who've never been subject to any form of government and don't intend to start now. Some are Afghan. Some aren't. Referring to all the insurgents as "Taliban" is a form of shorthand, agree Afghan and coalition personnel.

Then one of the other two squads spotted more insurgents moving toward them. Karell hurried through an alleyway and clambered up onto a roof. A rocket failed to push back the insurgents, so he got on the radio to call in a mortar. The fight ground on.

From the air, the Cobra pilots could see Karell's three small squads of Marines spread out and pushing west through the compounds -- essentially an urban area, the worst kind of place to be spread out. In that environment, it took 3rd platoon seven hours, including pauses for airstrikes, to fight their way past what Karell guesses were only half a dozen insurgents. That was nothing compared to what the pilots could see lay ahead. From the western end of Pakistani Alley, insurgents were swarming east toward the scattered Marines. Only bombs from above drove the fighters back.

Before 3rd platoon ran low on water, ammunition and daylight, they did succeed in capturing their first detainee in combat -- held their fire after getting shot at, used their Pashtu to talk him through surrendering. Unlike in the basement, it worked. They also found a building full of materials for making IEDs and destroyed it.

But they only cleared halfway through the compounds, and Culliver said there were more IED factories up ahead that they just didn't have the manpower to get to. Schrey said they weren't able to destroy all the bunkers and fighting positions they found, either, because they ran out of explosives. There were more back in the vehicles waiting at the entrance to Pakistani Alley, but the alley was too narrow to drive in the explosives, and that manpower problem made it impossible to carry it all in.

"To clear an area that size, that's a company-sized operation," Karell explained. "We had a platoon." That's just a few dozen Marines, one-third of a company.

Without enough troops, they also couldn't corner the insurgents and force them into a fight where more could be captured or killed. "Unless you can block the enemy's avenue of egress, you can't get them to engage," said Schellhaas. "They run away."

There weren't enough Marines to hold the compounds they did clear, either. When 3rd platoon left Pakistani Alley, the insurgents filtered back in.

***

The day after the Pakistani Alley operation, Karell loaded a squad into a few Humvees and a seven-ton. Culliver climbed in, too. Today they drove south. Heralded by a plume of dust, they bounced three kilometers across the valley's broken ground to the hamlet of Khwaja Jamal.

The Marines used to get shot at when they drove near. Lately they'd been able to start walking foot patrols and talk with the villagers. The squad dismounted and followed a footpath walled in by mud-brick compounds. Village men drifted out to peer at them.

Rural Afghans have been living in hardscrabble villages like this for generations. The Marines weren't living much differently, and that suited Culliver fine. He'd walked away from a scholarship at George Mason to enlist in the Marine Corps because he felt like his whole life had been handed to him. He and his college housemates had a pool table in their rented house. He'd been a Senate page; it bored him. He'd joined a fraternity and taken a heavy classload and wound up distracted and burned out at the same time. "It wasn't a big enough challenge," was how he explained it. "I hadn't shown what I could do."

In the Marines, after his intel training, he chose to go with the infantry because, he said, "the infantry way of life is hard. And you're treated pretty crappy." The spartan FOB in Now Zad had lived down to all his expectations.

The Afghans Culliver had met out here seemed to have similar expectations. As an intel analyst, it was his job to handle tactical questioning whenever a patrol encountered civilians or suspected combatants. He said flatly: "There's no strive toward modernization. They just want to live in their homes in peace, grow their poppy, live, die, rinse, repeat." His assessment was seconded by others in the military and civilian efforts here: More than anything, the average Afghan just wants the fighting to stop.

The peering villagers grew into a crowd, more than Karell had seen in a while. Apparently the Pakistani Alley operation hadn't soured them on the Marines.

Culliver and an Afghan interpreter stepped in under the thatched roof of a small shop. The shopkeeper stocked marijuana, hashish and powdered narcotics. He tried to sell Culliver some weed. Villagers pressed in around them. A man told Culliver that at night, after the Marines left, the Taliban usually came. The shopkeeper kept trying to sell him some weed.

One of the villagers insisted that the Afghan government worked for the United States. Culliver reported dryly, "I tried to correct that impression," by explaining his take on it: that America was just helping the Afghan government take care of the Afghan people.

The shopkeeper kept pushing the weed.

A few men continued to loudly question American motives until the Marines' young Afghan interpreter lost his cool and yelled at the villagers: "You guys are crazy! These guys are trying to help you!"

The rest of the Marines hung back, one eye on the crowd around Karell and Culliver, one on the pathways that wound out of sight.

As the sun set, the Marines walked out of Khwaja Jamal and climbed into their vehicles. Rocking in the back of the seven-ton, Karell raised his voice over the groaning engine. "Half the questions were about farming and water!" he shouted. "And for the first time they started asking when they can move back into Now Zad!"

"Yeah!" Culliver shouted back. "And half the questions were, 'How many Marines live on your base? How far can your guns shoot?' " All the Marines laughed, but quickly fell silent. They gazed out at the sunset. It was soft and pink above a starkly beautiful moonscape hemmed in on both sides by mountains jagged as crocodile teeth.

***

By November, Fox Company was making way for their replacements. Karell and Buegel walked slowly through Now Zad's empty streets, clouds of moon dust poofing up around their boots. In the past six months, one-third of their platoon had been wounded, including Buegel, blown out the door of a Humvee by an IED.

"It's going to be weird leaving this place," Buegel murmured, "after everything ..."

"It'll be weird," Karell agreed, "for about five seconds."

A couple of weeks later, they were back in California, driving to work on Camp Pendleton every day, shopping in grocery stores, flushing toilets. For Karell, the weird part was that being back didn't feel weird at all, not even for five seconds. He settled in with less than a month left on his active-duty obligation. Just before Christmas, he was back in Arlington.

On Wilson Boulevard, in the crowded backroom bar of Ireland's Four Courts pub, Karell was talking to Martin Weinstein, his old boss at the law firm. Karell had to shout to be heard over the welcome home party going on around them, introducing Weinstein to his parents.

"His office is waiting for him!" Weinstein shouted to the Karells. "He's got a job when he's ready to come back! He's a hero around our office!" Karell looked embarrassed.

On the TV over the bar, the Ravens were kicking ass down in Texas Stadium. Karell was shouting to Weinstein, "I got in a gunfight my last day in Now Zad!" It happened a month after the Pakistani Alley operation, just south of Khwaja Jamal. One day they were handing out blankets. The next day they were ambushed. Karell looked heavenward, laughing with disbelief. "And I'm like, This is my last day! This is not happening!"

In a quieter moment that night, Karell admitted to Weinstein, "Every day, I question the decisions I made, how we could have done better." His instructors had told him that, in combat, the 70 or 80 percent solution now is better than the 100 percent solution a week from now. Still, the second-guessing would always start immediately, even as he went on pressing the fight, and it continued now -- everything from the operation that killed Willie to the struggle to get the insurgent out of the basement. About both situations, Karell said, "Knowing what I knew at the time I think I made the right call." His face was somber. "I'm not saying I regret any of the decisions I made. It's just, because of the consequences, you obviously think about it."

Despite the second-guessing, his takeaway from Afghanistan reflects a quintessential American optimism. "It's easy to write that place off," he said. "There are Taliban everywhere. But just seeing what one infantry company is able to do, it's not a lost cause." Then he added: "Just think what doubling the troops could do. That's not going to win the war; guys like USAID are going to win the war. But ..." He let the thought hang. The civilian side of the U.S. effort is even more undermanned than the military side.

The Marines of 2/7 will deploy again next fall. In the meantime, there's always some turnover when a unit comes home -- Marines are promoted, rotated, their enlistments run out. Karell's active-duty obligation ended five days before this homecoming party. Without him, that left Buegel as Fox Company's only leader with Afghanistan experience, experience they'll need for the next deployment.

Which is why Karell has signed on for another tour.

Kristin Henderson was embedded with the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine regiment in Afghanistan for the reporting of this story. She is the author of "While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront" and a frequent contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at kh@kristinhenderson.com. Join her Monday at 12 noon ET for a live discussion about this story.

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