Marines See Benefits of 'Hunt and Help' in Helmand

"Nightline" visits soldiers battling for local favor in violent Afghan province.

May 31, 2010, 1:25 PM

MIAN POSHETH, Afghanistan May 31, 2010 — -- Southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is the opium capital of the world and the financial base of the Taliban. It is one of the most dangerous parts of country.

"Nightline" visited the province to see Marines Fox Company at work in the town of Mian Posheth. After months of volatility, there are signs that Helmand may be calming -- and the Marines credit their own restraint in engaging in combat, combined with local outreach tactics.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

One day we accompanied Marines a few miles south of their base, where the company said they'd found an unexploded roadside bomb. The bomb disposal squad was on site.

The tip was reported by a local Afghan. Such tips are one advantage of the soldiers' living among the people.

We walked a mile through poppy fields, avoiding the road, which was likely littered with bombs.

The bomb squad prepared for the task at hand.

"I have to put my faith life and my trust in his hands and vice versa," said Staff Sgt. Eric Chir of his partner, Sgt. Johnny Jones.

"We either talk a lot or we don't talk at all, but we always know what each other is about to do," said Jones.

This isn't "The Hurt Locker." There are no big bomb suits, and robots can't be used in this terrain.

With painstaking care, the Marines prepared to detonate the bomb.

There was an achingly long silence, and then... the bomb went off.

The blast rang in our ears. We walked to the crater, but suddenly a local resident warned that there were three more bombs in the area.

Hearts pounding, we carefully followed our own footsteps back across a canal.

It was a reminder of how tenuous the progress is here. Helmand has been cleared several times but never held.

And as tense as the experience was, it was a big improvement over the violent situation here just nine months ago.

Helmand Province, Then and Now

Photojournalist Dennis Danfung's upcoming documentary, "Hell and Back," captures Mian Poshteh last year. Fighting was fierce and relentless.

"On a daily basis we fought," said Capt. Scott Cuomo. "The market that you go through was barren, nobody there, no one drove on this road."

On Dec. 1, 2009 Lance Corp. Jonathan A. Taylor was killed by a roadside bomb next to the new base.

The men named it "Patrol Base Gators" after Taylor's favorite football team, the Florida Gators.

"You know we talk about him every day," said Sgt. Eric Finch. "Marines, we are a tight-knit bunch of guys and we don't take things like that lightly."

The soldiers took pains not to lash out at locals, some of whom likely knew the bomb was there. The marines' leadership calls this "courageous restraint" -- a growing mantra in a battle where "the people are the prize."

"I mean, don't get me wrong, when we find the bad guys and they need to die, they're going to die, but when it comes to the innocent people that are just trying to live their lives, we're here to help them do that," said Finch.

Perhaps because of that, these days things are starting to look different, at least in this corner of Helmand Province.

Cuomo, the commander of Fox Company, doesn't seem all that nervous now when he walks the roads.

He greets locals with a handshake and the hearty greeting, "as-salaamu allayakum," peace be with you.

Wearing no body armor, Cuomo strolls through Mian Poshteh.

"The whole west side of this thing was loaded with drugs and weapons, different paraphernalia along those lines," Cuomo explained.

What Went Right in Helmand

The roads of Mian Poshteh are busy and the market is bustling. So why the turnaround?

"Three words: 'Hunt and help.' Period," Cuomo said. "You can go after the enemy every single day, you better come swinging with something else. You better come swinging with some help."

Cuomo began moving groups of Marines to live on small patrol bases in villages, where they could better protect the elders and mullahs who were willing to work with them.

Life on these bases is extremely basic. Marines sleep with no shelter and eat packaged food. There is no running water. Showers are a luxury. And there is no privacy.

And with their June 2011 pullout date drawing ever closer, the men know they have precious little time to turn the tide of the war here.

"Above my pay grade to speculate on whether it's tenable," said Cuomo. "By 2011, I have no idea whether to say yes or no."

The hope is that each day here brings them a step closer to success. When we were with the company, a rare mail delivery brought care packages.

"Twizzlers, iced tea, toothbrushes, and trail mix, deodorant, Nutri Grain bars, Easter bunny," one soldier ticked off. "It's a little bit melted but it will cool down tonight."

It was a much-needed taste of home -- which is the main thing on the soldiers' minds right now.

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