Cpl. John-Paul Abatte, right, and Sgt. Diego Hernandez, center, both scout snipers with 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, engage suspected Taliban fighters with M110 sniper rifles while Lance Cpl. Tucker Jones, left, observes through binoculars in Trek Nawa, Afghanistan, on Oct. 25. (Dan Lamothe / Staff)
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TREK NAWA, Afghanistan — The scout snipers of Blackheart 2 peered through footwide murder holes they had punched in the wall of a mud compound, waiting patiently for the opportunity to kill Taliban fighters. Finally, a window emerged: Several children they'd been observing wandered away.
Cpl. Jon-Paul Abatte and Sgt. Diego Hernandez, known to his teammates as Flea, scanned the area through separate holes placed about 15 feet apart. Each scout sniper was crouched in front of an M110 7.62mm semi-automatic sniper rifle perched on a tripod. A third Marine, Lance Cpl. Tucker Jones, observed through binoculars from another murder hole, while Lance Cpl. Paul Maxinoski lay in the prone position about 50 feet away, eyes trained through the scope of a monster M107 .50-caliber sniper rifle on a small bipod.
"I've got the one on the right, and Flea's going to have the one on the left, but we can't engage until they get back in view," Abatte said. "Wait for them to fully expose themselves. We have three guns. There's no reason we can't reduce these targets at the same time."
Moments later, they did just that. Maxinoski opened fire first, squeezing off a single shot that boomed through the countryside and wounded a suspected insurgent more than 800 meters away. Abatte and Hernandez engaged seconds later, firing a barrage of more than 20 sound-suppressed rounds. The two men they had targeted from a distance of 470 meters were hit at least twice each.
"I hit that motherf-----!" yelled Hernandez. "Oh, f--- yeah!"
The Oct. 25 mission illustrates the continued importance of sniper units in Afghanistan, even with the number of conventional U.S. infantry troops here sharply reduced from only a few months ago. Military Times was invited to observe Blackheart 2, providing a rare glimpse into a scout sniper operation. It ended with several Taliban fighters wounded or dead and Marines in attack helicopters launching an airstrike on a desert compound.
The operation also showed how sniper missions are evolving, 11 years after the war began. Afghan National Security Forces have taken the lead on many conventional military operations this year, but Marine scout snipers and their Army counterparts execute missions in conjunction with them regularly.
There's still plenty of work to be done by America's "hunters of gunmen."
Marines began leaving the wire before 3 a.m. from nearby Patrol Base Detroit, a small outpost manned in October by elements of the Afghan army and Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. The battalion's scout sniper platoon — which uses the call sign Blackheart — had two teams on the base, and sent them out about an hour apart to limit the possibility of detection.
Missions like this have been common this year in Trek Nawa, located east of Marjah and west of Nawa. The region is largely a no-man's land in which the Afghan government has little influence, and Taliban fighters and nomadic land squatters roam. The Afghan National Army's 215th Brigade has a tolay — a company-sized element — based here that Marines generally respect, but it'd take substantially more manpower to tame the region.
Instead, it appears Afghan leaders are content to have Afghan forces push insurgents from Marjah and Nawa into Trek — as long as their freedom of movement to more pacified areas is limited. At least nine Marines from Weapons Company were wounded between July and November in Trek Nawa, and many others are amazed that figure isn't higher.
"It's pretty much the last Taliban stronghold in the central Helmand River area for a variety of reasons," said Capt. Glen Taylor, Weapons Company's commander. "The Taliban gave a lot of these people land when they were in power, so they're Taliban supporters."
The Marines devised the scout sniper mission with leaders from the Afghan army at PB Detroit. The plan called for Blackheart 1, led by Sgt. Steven Winn, and Blackheart 2, overseen by Sgt. Joshua Ott, to maneuver through the night to take up separate sniper positions overlooking fields near a compound that Taliban fighters frequently use. From there, the insurgents had launched dozens of attacks this summer, maneuvering to numerous set firing positions to ambush U.S. and Afghan patrols with 7.62mm PKM machine guns and other small arms.
With the Blackheart teams in place, two squads of Afghan soldiers would push out on seemingly routine patrols in the morning, hoping to spark a firefight with insurgents in the region. If the Taliban took the bait, the scout sniper teams would be clear to engage, and the Afghan army would drop 82mm mortars they've learned to deploy this fall with mentoring from Weapons Company's 81mm mortar platoon, commanded by 1st Lt. Stephen Huff.
"We know they're going to be watering at the mouth," Huff said of the Taliban potentially attacking the Afghan soldiers while running through the operation with the scout snipers. "I can see them wanting to commit aggressively to that."
Preparing to fight
Winn's team pushed out first, leaving the wire after the moon had set, and there was almost no light. The element moved through fields and canals and over dirt trails with the help of night-vision gear, reaching a compound about three kilometers east well before dawn.
Ott's unit, Blackheart 2, left on foot shortly afterward. Scout sniper teams in Afghanistan typically leave the wire with eight men, but on this mission, Ott's team rolled out much larger. Two Afghan marksmen carrying bolt-action Remington 700 rifles joined, along with the Afghan unit's executive officer, Lt. Asrar Hussain, and Capt. Christopher Morris, the executive officer of Weapons Company 1/1. Morris, a trained joint tactical air controller, would communicate with fighter jet and helicopter pilots as they provided observation and air support from overhead.
Blackheart 2 snaked through fields, communicating primarily with hand signals. They moved slowly through the uneven terrain but still occasionally lost their footing through the hazy green view provided by their night-vision gear. The air was dry and cold, with temperatures dipping into the 40s as they made their way through the dark. Dogs barked as the patrol maneuvered in between compounds, but Blackheart 2 pressed on silently.
By 4 a.m., the unit reached a compound satisfactory for their mission. The Marines swept it for potential improvised explosive devices, then entered and discovered it was home to a woman with several children. Hussain, the Afghan officer, explained what was happening as the Marines began to set up for the operation.
The scout snipers punched murder holes in the 18-inch mud walls, the metallic clink of their tools softly echoing in the dusty, pitch-dark courtyard. The Marines labored with several kinds of hardware, including a Halligan. Commonly known as a "hooligan," the 2-foot stainless steel firefighter's tool has similarities to a pickax and a pry bar, and is used for forcible entry.
Morris monitored his radio in the center of the compound as Blackheart 2 worked. He reflected on the eerie realization that they were probably being watched on the way from PB Detroit.
"We saw a series of lights flashing during our ingress," he said, crouched in the dark. "I'm guessing a spotter network is working right now."
As the sun rose over Helmand province, several Marines observed the fields quietly through the murder holes. Ott, the team leader, tinkered with the M107 and scanned the region through its optic. Crouched in a fighting position about 25 feet from the compound wall, he aimed the 30-pound rifle east through a doorway that the Marines had partially hidden with a heavy brown cloth, providing them additional concealment from outside.
On the far side of the compound, Lance Cpl. Grant Ciffone pulled rear security. He draped a long black cloth over his head and thick glasses as a disguise, hoping that, from a distance, he'd look like an Afghan woman wearing a burqa.
For the next few hours, Blackheart 1 and 2 observed activity in the fields from their respective compounds. A ScanEagle drone and two Air Force F-16s circled high overhead, providing observation while Morris, crouched near the M107 sniper rifle, communicated with the pilots by radio. With the help of Hussain, the Afghan lieutenant, the Marines also monitored radio traffic from the Taliban, who flipped between several channels on their hand-held radios.
The Afghan soldiers left the wire at PB Detroit shortly after 6 a.m., splitting into two seven-man elements as their patrol moved farther from the base. Doing so made them a prime target for the Taliban, since their firepower would be split in half.
Still, the Taliban didn't engage. Instead, the Marines observed them sending out individual scouts after 7 a.m. to compounds they had used previously to ambush coalition forces. A man with uncertain motives also stumbled on the position of Winn's team, and they pulled him into the compound to prevent their location being discovered.
The radio crackled with traffic within the hour indicating that instead of attacking the Afghan unit that had patrolled through the open fields, the insurgents planned to wait and attack Blackheart 1 when they maneuvered back to PB Detroit. The Taliban also knew a second sniper team — Blackheart 2 — was in another compound, although it appeared they weren't sure where.
"I think they're worried we're in their previous firing points right now," Morris said of the Taliban in the area.
In this game of cat-and-mouse, the Taliban hadn't taken the bait.
Airstrike hits Taliban
Moments later, Blackheart 2 made the decision to engage. They determined who was an insurgent based on Taliban radio traffic and who was carrying a hand-held radio with an antenna. The initial plan had been to launch a larger attack, but with that out of play, the Marines reasoned they should take out the enemy fighters they could.
After they engaged, the scout snipers watched as the wounded insurgents scrambled for cover. Both of their targets fell to the ground after being hit, but got up and scrambled behind a dirt berm. They continued to watch for them to move again but held fire when children reappeared. It's likely at least one of the insurgents bled to death, Ott said.
Jets continued to circle high overhead as the Marines observed the area after the attack. They faded away briefly as the Afghan soldiers and Marines decided to continue with the training portion of the mission, dropping two Afghan 82mm mortars in an open field nearby as a show of force. They dropped harmlessly out of reach of the suspected Taliban compound and the surrounding civilian homes.
Shortly before 10 a.m., Blackheart 1's Marines decided to push back to PB Detroit. They left their compound but were quickly driven back inside by small-arms fire from an insurgent in the courtyard of a nearby compound. They blew a hole in the back of the compound to escape out the other side but began taking fire again and scrambled into a shallow canal. Pinned down, they requested air support and — to the delight of both scout sniper teams — received it.
With Marines from Blackheart 2 watching from their compound, an AH-IW Super Cobra and a UH-1Y Huey with Marine Light Attack Squadron 469, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., came roaring in over the horizon. The Cobra unleashed three rockets and a burst of gunfire from its 25mm cannon, followed by a ruthless 15-second long burst from the 7.62mm "mini-gun" on the Huey. Unscathed, Blackheart 1 then extracted itself from the canal.
The helicopters were unable to stay overhead to cover Blackheart 1's movement back to PB Detroit, but with the insurgents left on the battlefield in disarray, the Marines decided to go anyway. It seemed unlikely the Taliban could regroup quickly enough to launch another attack. Blackheart 2 arrived quietly at PB Detroit about 30 minutes later.
The airstrike likely killed at least one insurgent, said Staff Sgt. Bradley Cain, a JTAC who had been working with the helicopter pilots from PB Detroit. He put in an early request for the airstrike after seeing an enemy fighter squatting in the compound with a weapon, but it wasn't approved until the Marines were pinned down in the canal, 25 minutes later.
"They don't make it an easy process, especially when it's in a compound," Cain said of the rules of engagement. "If it was in a field, it would be easier."