Holding Garmsir

After the Marines in Mustang Platoon routed the Taliban to capture a key stronghold in southern Afghanistan, they were faced with an even more difficult mission: defend against the heat, the boredom, the stress, the homesickness, and the weight of history in a place that had never been conquered—and held—by outsiders.
Holding Garmsir
Mustang platoon on patrol near a road to Pakistan in Jue 2008.
Photograph by John Spong

Only a handful of the Marines in Mustang Platoon actually saw Gallucci get hit. They were three hours into a battle that had started at four-thirty that morning, on May 29, 2008, just as dawn had broken over the collection of compounds and bazaars that make up the Garmsir District of southern Afghanistan. The shower of Taliban RPGs and small-arms fire had been near constant, coming from the north, south, and west. During a brief respite Lance Corporal Cody Brown had started on foot toward Gallucci’s Humvee for a bottle of water. Corporal Michael Gallucci, a 25-year-old Ohioan who answered to “Gooch,” was manning the grenade launcher on top of the truck. He made eye contact with Brown and then looked down. He probably never saw the white flash of the RPG. It was an impossibly lucky shot from some three hundred meters away, directly on his turret.

The news raced through Mustang over the Humvees’ radios. Gooch was one of the platoon’s turn-to guys, admired beyond his rank. Now he was down, and the instant reaction was rage. Mustang opened fire, emptying their weapons in the direction of the RPG’s source, then reloading and draining them again. Grenade launchers. SAW machine guns. .50-cals. 81 mm mortars. The platoon’s commander, Lieutenant John Branson, held radios to both ears, directing air support on one and a casualty evacuation, or caz-evac, on the other. His second in command, Staff Sergeant Stephen Neumeyer, called out in a daze for Mustang’s two corpsmen, the platoon’s medics, then started screaming “my Gooch!” as he emptied his M4.

The feeling was all too familiar for much of the platoon. Two thirds of Mustang had fought during the bloodiest months in Ramadi, Iraq. Still in their early twenties, they were already veterans, and they all had a reference point for this moment, some memory they tried to tamp down, an image of a Humvee engulfed in flames or a sniper finding his mark, some specific, defining instant when they learned they weren’t invincible. For Mustang’s “boots,” the green Marines doing their first buck here in Afghanistan, losing Gooch would provide that realization.

And until then, the only blood the boots had seen shed had belonged to the Taliban. Compared with what they’d heard about Ramadi, fighting in Garmsir had been fun. This was, as Branson called it, “a no-shit battlefield with front lines.” There was none of the brutal ambiguity that comes with fighting insurgents in an urban setting, where every trash pile might hide an IED, suicide bombers could wander out of crowds, and children would stray into the middle of street fights. When the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit ( MEU), to which Mustang belongs, had pushed into Garmsir in mid-April, most of the four thousand or so families were long gone, warned off by the Taliban and the thunder of U.S. helicopters. Only a few locals had remained to harvest the spring poppy crop. Now with all the opium scraped and squeezed from the bulbs, the tall flowers stood sun-browned and brittle in the fields, where tree lines and irrigation canals provided cover for textbook conventional warfare.

Mustang had been among the last of the MEU’s platoons to join the battle. They belong to the motorized Weapons Company, manning the Humvees that carry the big guns, and they’d entered Garmsir after the MEU’s three dismounted companies—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie—had secured positions in dun-colored compounds during three weeks of nonstop fighting. As soon as Mustang arrived, they had been hit by a complex, three-point ambush at a sharp bend in the road outside Alpha’s position. The attack was well planned, but the Taliban were outmatched. Their bullets pinged off Mustang’s trucks, and their RPGs sailed high and wide. While Branson radioed for air support, the platoon’s interpreter, a Kabul University medical student who had fled his home and the Taliban for, of all places, Dallas and was known to Mustang simply as “Hamza,” directed their truck’s gunner from the backseat. “They are shooting from behind the trees at ten o’clock, about three hundred meters away,” Hamza instructed. The return fire neutralized the attack, and when air support arrived and started dropping bombs, the Taliban withdrew to the desert. There were no injuries for Mustang, only adrenaline.

They had stayed much of May in town, their days spent running checkpoints and dodging sniper fire and their nights in a compound they shared with Bravo. No one had expected the Taliban to maintain this kind of resistance, and driving them out was a deliberate process. The last enemy foothold was a command center called the Jugroom Fort on the south end of town, about a mile and a half east of the Helmand River. British Royal Marines had tried to take it sixteen months earlier in a botched mission that resulted in a friendly-fire death and headlines in the UK. Some Brits on the nearby forward operating base, FOB Dwyer, had warned the Marines that taking the fort would require at least a week. The May 29 firefight was the final push for Garmsir, and the objective was Jugroom.

Mustang had rolled out at ten o’clock the night before, intending to get behind the Taliban and cut off their retreat when Charlie attacked from the front in the morning. But complications developed almost immediately. Charlie found a huge IED in the road to the fort and would not be able to attack in the morning. Mustang started to move to their blocking position anyway, but their Humvees got stuck in the soft desert sand, and it took six hours to free them. The element of surprise was lost. When Mustang finally rolled into position at four-thirty, the Taliban were waiting.

They threw everything they had at the platoon. Branson took a couple trucks into a compound to set up communications. The rest of the platoon took positions outside, and some of the guys dismounted to fire their guns from nearby wadis, shallow irrigation ditches running through

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