For months we've been reporting on the dangers 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment Marines and Sailors are facing in the Sangin District. You've heard about their losses. Twenty-three members killed and more than 100 wounded during combat operations in the area. You've heard from their Commanding General, MajGen Richard Mills about why the fight in Sangin is so critical.
Now, for the first time, we're seeing and hearing from members of the 3/5 who are charged with one of the most difficult missions in the nine year war in Afghanistan.
"Pretty much every day we went on patrol we had to take the ground inch by inch," said 1st Lt. Thomas Schueman, a Platoon Commander with the 3/5's Kilo Company. During a video taped interview with Combat Correspondent Sgt. Dean Davis, Schueman says a series of hard fought victories are starting to add up. "After a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, we were able to penetrate that defense and establish freedom of movement in the upper Sangin Valley."
Sangin is a historically volatile area and a key source of opium producing poppies used to buy weapons and bomb making materials for insurgents. British forces sustained heavy casualties there before transferring authority to San Diego based Marines over the summer.
Marines from the 3rd battalion, 5th regiment started operations in the Sangin District in October and came under fire almost immediately. Military commanders say the fighting there is the worst they've seen since the battle for Marjah last spring.
“He is fighting with a growing desperation with the realization if he loses Sangin he’s lost the fight in Helmand Province,” said MajGen Richard Mills,Commanding General of NATO Regional Command Southwest (RC-Southwest),referring to insurgents. Mills says Taliban fighters are making Sangin their last stand. “We are running into prepared defenses and troops that are willing to fight to death to hold onto the ground that they have,” Mills said.
They've also clearly marked their line in the sand. Recent images of India Company's 3rd platoon patrol operations show areas where Taliban fighters have raised flags marking their territory. It's the 3/5's job to push beyond those lines in a place where nothing can be taken for granted. In an interview with 1st Marine Division Public Affairs team member GySgt William Price, squad leader Sgt David "Bibi" Castillo explained why picking up on even the most subtle clues, can mean the difference between life and death.
“This IED was a directional ‘frag,’ so instead of blasting upward, it was set up to blast the length of the alleyway,” Castillo said moments after LCpl Nathan Peyton noticed a slight difference in the texture of a dirt on a road and ended up discovering an IED. Bomb technicians dismantled the makeshift bomb before it could be detonated. “Peyton’s alertness probably saved four to five lives -- an entire fire team,” Castillo said.
Despite the constant threat 1stLt. Schueman says members of the 3/5 haven't waivered in their resolve for a moment even during the worst firefights imaginable.
"Every square inch of where we were was getting raked by enemy PKM fire but it didn't even phase these guys," said Schueman. That courage under fire has earned them a lot of respect from top leaders like MajGen Mills who said the commitment of each Marine and Sailor putting their lives on the line each day is one of the most important weapons in the fight for Sangin.
“They’re the greatest generation we’ve ever raised,” Mills said. “They’re volunteers, they know the threat, they don’t have to be here.
99.9 percent of their friends don’t come over here and yet, they have the courage to take the step forward and do the job that has to be done. I stand in awe of them."