MARJA, Afghanistan, Feb. 19, 2010 -- The explosion came at the end of a pretty tough day of fighting.
Marines of the 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion were at a standstill waiting for explosives experts to clear the way ahead. For about two hours we waited, stopped on a dirt road at a small junction where two dozen ramshackle stores lined the way, a sort of Afghan version of a strip mall.
Along both sides of the road were canals. Beyond them stretched green fields of sprouting poppies. Large mud compounds surrounded by fruit and shade trees dotted the landscape. The day was sunny and warm. If not for the bullets and rockets whizzing about, one could be lulled into thinking this is a peaceful place.
When the bomb went off, I was on the phone behind a 30 ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. My reaction as I remember was "What the f**k was that?!"
At first I heard the reassuring words "controlled det" or controlled detonation meaning the explosives guys -- their formal title is explosive ordinance disposal, or EOD -- had found something fishy and blew it up. Those guys typically seem to love nothing more than blowing stuff up and scaring the hell out of everyone as they do it, or so I thought.
The explosion created a cloud of dust and smoke that enveloped and obscured everything in front of us: the road, the shops, the canals, the EOD trucks were lost in a brown and gray haze. Typically I'm dumb enough to run toward the shooting or exploding. This time I froze for several moments taking in the enormity of it. I glanced at Staff Sergeant Chris Howe and double checked "controlled det?" His wide eyes said it all: "Nope, that was the real thing."
I stared. First one man came hopping out of the smoke and dust helped by another. He was injured but seemingly not too bad off. Then another man was brought out. It took four Marines to carry him. Several units were present, so it was nearly impossible to sort out who was who in the confusion.
Then the casualties came too fast to keep track of; two, three, perhaps four more injured. The Marines snapped to it and got to work. A triage area was established. Victims were gingerly moved to a nearby field where they knew the helicopters would soon be landing. Green smoke whipped and curled around the landing zone. Seemingly out of nowhere, three UH60 Blackhawks touched down in perfect order to collect the casualties. Seconds later they leapt into the air with enormous power, flying fast and low to avoid the Taliban bullets trying to bring them down.
Marines Rapid Response
The speed at which it all happened was disorienting. And just what exploded and why so many were around is still a mystery. Two detainees were apparently being questioned in a store that used to be a Taliban command center. Someone noticed explosive material and had just ordered the location to be evacuated so EOD could sweep the place.
That's when the bomb went off. What's still not clear is whether it was an IED, a booby trap, or perhaps a suicide bomber.
None of the Marines of the 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion were involved, but still the pure adrenaline-fueled energy from earlier in the day was spent. Marines smoked cigarettes, had quiet conversations and waited for orders. Soon enough it was time to move on.