Potent Roadside Bombs Slow Marines' Offensive in Afghanistan

Marines in southern Afghanistan face constant danger from IEDs, which extends to recovery teams that go to the site after an explosion has taken place. Video by Ann Scott Tyson, edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

MIANPOSHTEH, Afghanistan -- In this harsh and unforgiving part of southern Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. Marines are battling the Taliban this summer, the growing prevalence of roadside bombs means that even a small mishap can have deadly consequences.

Made primarily of large quantities of homemade explosives, the bombs have killed at least a third of the 16 Marines who have died in Helmand since they launched their offensive in early July. The ever-present threat has made the U.S. push in the southern Helmand River valley tougher than U.S. commanders initially anticipated; Marines have seized vital crossroads and population centers, only to discover that Taliban insurgents had filled in the dirt roads behind and around them with bombs.

The bombs have forced Marine commanders to put long stretches of road off-limits, requiring troops to walk instead of drive. Marines on foot patrol must keep a keen eye out for dug-up dirt and "ant trails" that could cover a wire.

All of that has made for delays in supplying the troops -- and, as one Marine company discovered in late July when its mission went badly off track, it has also required a diversion of manpower to the mundane but vital task of watching the roads, hoping to ambush anyone who attempts to plant a bomb.

"The explosion ripped the Humvee in half," whispered Lance Cpl. Jan Friis, 22, of Bethesda, whose best friend, Lance Cpl. Jeremy S. Lasher, was killed when a bomb blew to pieces the vehicle he was driving.

The attack that killed Lasher came on July 23, when a team from 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment had set out to recover a mine-resistant vehicle that had become stuck in a canal.

The Marines' Echo Company outpost is located in Mianposhteh, a cluster of villages deep in the Helmand River valley that is accessible only by two main roads. The roads are little more than dirt paths criss-crossed by a latticework of irrigation canals and ditches, too fragile to support the Marines' heavy armored vehicles, like the one that had become stuck.

Lasher, 27, of Oneida, N.Y., and three other Marines were returning from getting chains to tow the vehicle when the blast went off under their Humvee. Soon the word came over the radio: "Four urgent. Launch the birds."

When Lance Cpl. Kyle Castle arrived to help treat the casualties, the status had changed to "two urgent, two unknown." He asked Lance Cpl. Jeremy Dones where Lasher was, and Dones pointed to the other side of the canal, scattered with pieces of a flak vest and uniform. Castle, 24 of Everett, Wash., started to head across, but Dones just shook his head.

The gunner, Lance Cpl. Dominic Davila, had a shattered lower right leg. Castle and others had to hold Davila down to make sure the tourniquet that had been hastily applied was tight enough. Then, when lifting Davila onto the stretcher, Castle discovered another large hole in his left leg, and stuffed it with bandages to stop the bleeding. The treatment saved Davila's life, officers said later.

When Friis arrived to guard the area, Marines were searching for Lasher's body and loading Davila and two other wounded onto a helicopter. Lance Cpl. Trevor Paar had been blown from the Humvee; he suffered a severe head injury but survived. But vehicle commander Cpl. Nicholas G. Xiarhos, 21, of Yarmouth Port, Mass., died soon afterward.

'Be Aggressive'

A few hours later, at a larger Marine base 15 miles north, 2nd Lt. Brendan J. Murphy was preparing for another precarious run transporting supplies to Mianposhteh. The trip was urgent. Echo Company was almost out of packaged meals known as Meals Ready to Eat, and was rationing food. Fuel was low.

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