Marines learn lessons from tragedy in Afghanistan
PATROL BASE FULOD, Afghanistan—The first time U.S. Marines went on patrol from this base in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban were ready. The militants shot and killed a 21-year-old lance corporal just 150 feet from the perimeter.
Irvin Ceniceros, from Clarksville, Arkansas, was one of nine Americans who died in the four days after Marines assumed command of Afghanistan's most dangerous district -- a sign that no amount of training can fully prepare a unit for the battlefield.
The Marines patrolling through the green fields and tall mud compounds of Helmand province's Sangin district say they are literally in a race for their lives. They are trying to adjust their tactics to outwit Taliban fighters, who have killed more coalition troops here than in any other Afghan district this year.
"As a new unit coming in, you are at a distinct disadvantage because the Taliban have been fighting here for years, have established fighting positions and have laid the ground with a ton of IEDs," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. "You have to evolve quickly because you have no other choice."
Many of the younger Marines also have had to cope for the first time with seeing their best friends die or suffer grievous wounds. Fifteen Marines have been killed and about 50 wounded since the battalion arrived in October -- many by improvised explosive devices or IEDs.
"You really can't prepare a Marine to lose his good buddy or see another one of his buddies with both his legs blown off," said Capt. Chris Esrey, commander of the battalion's India Company. "The best way to overcome that is to get right back out on a patrol the next day because it doesn't happen every time you go out."
Ceniceros, who was killed on Oct. 14, was a member of India Company's 3rd Platoon stationed at Patrol Base Fulod -- a dusty outpost just up the road from the district center that Marines inherited from British forces. The British withdrew in September after four years of fighting that killed more than 100 British soldiers.
Despite the previous occupants, the Marines who pushed out with Ceniceros that fateful afternoon said they didn't realize how dangerous the mud compounds to the south of the base were until the Taliban unleashed a stream of machine-gun fire, pinning down two Marines.
"We kind of snuck our nose in the south to see what the south was about and we found out real quick that you don't go south unless you have a lot of dudes," said Sgt. Adam Keliipaakaua, who was leading the patrol.
Ceniceros managed to save the two Marines who were pinned down by covering their escape with a hail of bullets. He later took a fatal round to the chest just above his body armor as the Marines were trying to make their way back to base.
"He died like he lived, a freaking hero caring about other people," said Lt. Joe Patterson, 31, of Owasso, Oklahoma. Patterson is the 3rd Platoon's commander.
Keliipaakaua, 26, of Newport News, Virginia, said Ceniceros' tragic death offered critical lessons that can be learned only on the battlefield and might help save others.
"You learn from it, you adapt to it and you give it back to the enemy," he said.
The Marines now have a better idea of where they will be ambushed around their base and have doubled the size of their patrols to increase the amount of firepower they can direct toward the Taliban. On Thursday, the Marines killed 15 militants in an hourlong firefight, according to NATO.
Those who patrol through the main bazaar in the district center now know to look to the skies. They said the Taliban often fly white kites over the local mosque to signal the presence of the Marines.
The Taliban like to attack using so-called "murder holes" -- small holes carved into strong mud walls that allow the insurgents to shoot without exposing themselves.
The militants also scout the routes the Marines will likely use to evacuate their casualties so they can attack them. As four Marines carried Ceniceros up an alleyway toward the base, they had to dodge a stream of bullets, said Keliipaakaua.
To avoid walking into a firefight, the Marines look to see whether kids are around. Their absence could mean an impending attack, but the Taliban also use children as spotters, so the tactic isn't foolproof.
"A little kid will run around the corner and run back, and a minute later you are being shot at," said Keliipaakaua.
But the threat of an ambush pales in comparison to the biggest danger lurking in Sangin and much of Afghanistan: the scores of IEDs buried in roads, trails, compounds and even canals. Many are largely constructed out of wood or plastic, making them very difficult to detect.
Three days after Ceniceros was killed, another member of 3rd Platoon, Cpl. David Noblit, stepped on an IED in a compound located in dense vegetation across the street from Patrol Base Fulod. Noblit survived the explosion but lost both his legs.
The battalion has been hit with about 40 IED attacks and has found more than 100 other bombs before they exploded.
"You want to vary up your routes to go where the enemy doesn't expect you to travel," said Esrey, 33, of Havelock, North Carolina. "I can walk through water ankle-high, but the bad guys probably know that's where I want to go, so I want to go somewhere the water is chest-high."
But the Taliban are always watching and adapting as well. One of the last Marines from the battalion who was killed stepped on an IED buried underwater in a canal.
"The tactics keep changing because they're smart and they watch us," said Esrey. "They don't have TV here. We're their TV."