In Taliban stronghold, U.S. medics win friends for Marines

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2009 

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HASSANABAD, Afghanistan — In the middle of a foot patrol Saturday through what may be the most dangerous part of the most dangerous province in Afghanistan for U.S. troops, Staff Sgt. John Nickerson peered through the scope of his assault rifle at a group of Afghan men who were rolling a wheelbarrow toward him.

Suddenly, he had to switch gears to the gentler form of counterinsurgency.

"Hold," Nickerson said into his hand-held radio, lowering his gun. "We've got some men with a kid in a wheelbarrow trying to get our attention. Where's Doc at?"

In the barrow was a 6-year-old boy covered by a thin cloth from the waist down. One of the Afghan men drew it back, revealing horrific burns from the boy's navel to his feet. His right leg and genitals were seared deep red, and huge sheets of skin were sloughing away. The boy and the wheelbarrow were smeared with blood.

"Good Lord, what happened to him?" said Nickerson, 32, of Pontiac, Mich.

Through a Marine interpreter, the boy's father replied that a kettle of water boiling for tea had fallen on him the night before. The scalding water soaked into his clothes, which held the heat against him, making the burns worse.

This is the story of a medical rescue but also of a flexible strategy as the Marines try to kill Taliban and get closer to the local population. It's risky going on daily foot patrols through uncertain terrain, greeting wary villagers and trying by the troops' very presence to convince the locals that U.S. forces are here to protect them, but the Marines think that it's opened the possibility of a new relationship with Afghans.

The boy looked up at the Americans. He was shaking gently, but he seemed not to feel pain. Helmand province is the world's largest producer of opium poppy, and his parents had put some of it, at least, to good use.

"Look, when this kind of thing happens, you need to bring the people who are hurt to our base immediately, so our doctor can look at them," Nickerson told the Afghans.

The Navy corpsman hospital apprentice, Nate Rice of Virginia Beach, Va., took one look and said the boy had to go to the medic station nearby at FOB Hassanabad immediately. If they waited another day, he'd develop a terrible infection, and probably would die.

Nickerson pointed at the most direct path to the base, one the Marines wouldn't take.

"Are there any bombs on this road?" he asked. The translator put that into Pashto, then added on his own that it was important to know, because the Marines honestly were trying to help.

"No," several of the men said. "No bombs."

Nickerson told the boy's father, who had a thick, wavy beard and worried eyes, to take the boy to the base as quickly as possible, and said he was likely to be flown to a military hospital. The father would have to go, too.

The group of about a dozen men and boys trotted off toward the base on their own, rolling the wheelbarrow. They can't be identified in order to ensure their safety in an area that the Taliban dominate

"Good Lord," Nickerson said of the burns. He has an 8-year-old son back home.

The Marines on the patrol were members of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., and they recently replaced a Marine battalion that had suffered the highest casualty rate of any in Helmand in the previous round of seven-month deployments.

The 16 Marines out Saturday continued warily picking their way across acres of giant, rock-hard clods of earth, then a flooded field of shin-deep mud. They jumped narrow irrigation canals and waded waist-deep through wider ones, and pushed through patches of faintly pine-scented marijuana.

They always took the hard way, stepping into mud and brush where people usually wouldn't walk. The paths and roads were seeded with bombs.

The countryside offers an endless variety of cover for the insurgents: compounds, tree lines, ditches and thick fields of crops. It's some of the most challenging fighting terrain that the Marines have seen since World War II and Vietnam.

There was a strange, pastoral silence on the patrol. Groups of locals stood on the edge of some fields, watching quietly. It was impossible to say which side they were on.

Sometimes, Nickerson said, Marines walk through an area as local people watch. The next time they come through, improvised bombs have been planted where they'd walked.

"The bad guys, a lot of them are farmers by day, basically, and Taliban by night," Nickerson said. "Probably 50 percent of the people here have some sort of connection with the Taliban, harbor them or whatever; then the other 50 percent are probably just trying to stay out of their way."

In some areas, the Afghans sprint off when Golf Company Marines arrive, either because they're Taliban or so they can warn the insurgents. In others, just a half-mile away, people smile and wave when the Marines greet them.

Moving through the fields and villages on foot is the best way to start to develop rapport with locals, said Golf Company's executive officer, Lt. Scott Rauscher, of Weston, Fla. Locals are getting used to seeing the same Marines, and some have come forward with intelligence about the Taliban.

Still, even with a grueling patrol rotation that makes the most use of the troops, getting them out among the population instead of hanging around at a base, there aren't enough to clamp down hard on the insurgents, Nickerson said.

"Ideally we'd have more Marines so we could really flood these positions," he said, stepping into another field of mud.

Minutes later, an improvised bomb detonated with a deep thud. The men on the patrol each dropped to one knee and listened, but there was no rattle of gunfire. After less than a minute, they rose and moved on to the next field.

When they first arrived, a few weeks ago, they walked relatively short patrols of a few hours to get the feel of the place. Then they began going out for longer stretches to the places where they now knew the insurgents were active, often for two or three days, resting where they could find cover, waking up with frost on their sleeping bags, doing it the hard way to keep the insurgents from moving around freely.

"The idea is to go out where the bad guys are and just live there," Nickerson said.

As the patrol slogged through yet another muddy field, two Afghan men rolled the wheelbarrow carrying the wounded boy up to the forward operating base, and Navy medic Hospital Corpsman 1 Mario Betancourt, 31, of Miami, made a quick assessment and called for a medevac chopper. Then he joined another medic, Hospital Corpsman 3 Kenderick Street, 22, of Douglas, Ga., in cleaning and dressing the burns and giving the boy intravenous fluid.

"Thank you, thank you," the boy's father said, again and again.

Nickerson's patrol, Betancourt said, saved the boy's life. A day already had passed since he'd been scalded, and if the Marines hadn't passed near the boy's house, his relatives either wouldn't have brought him to the base or would have waited two days until the religious holiday of Eid al Adha ended, and it would have been too late.

Medical help is proving to be one of Golf Company's surest ways to connect with the locals.

Rauscher said Afghans routinely brought out their sick when patrols passed. The medics on the patrol treat minor problems on the spot.

A week earlier, a boy who'd burned his arm badly was brought to the base for initial treatment. Betancourt said the father had brought the boy almost daily for a week to get his dressing changed. Since he started getting better, more locals have come in for help themselves.

"Once they get here and see how we treat them, that really changes things," Betancourt said. "The Taliban have been telling them that we're just here to kill them, not help them."

After four hours and three slow, careful miles, the patrol circled back to the base.

As the men walked through the gate, a scared 6-year-old boy and his wide-eyed dad were on their first helicopter ride, off to what surely would be a bewildering experience.

The Marines headed back to their tents to take off their body armor and break the hardened mud off their boots.

As of Tuesday, the boy was reported in stable condition.

(Price reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)

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