In the spring of 2008, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the first elements of a 2,400-strong Marine Air-Ground Task Force, arrived at Kandahar Air Field to begin preparations for an operation intended to push Taliban insurgents from Garmsir District Center in southeast Helmand Province. The operation, code named Azada Wosa—"Be Free" in the local Pashto language—would begin on 28 April and span more than a month amid the poppy fields and mud villages of the lower Helmand River. In the end, it would deal a crushing defeat to the Taliban, and echoes of the Marines' final blows would reverberate against the crumbling walls of Jugroom Fort.
Wracked by decades of war, poverty, and illiteracy, the Garmsir District is the focal point of NATO's struggle to defeat Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency. The district is in the heart of the country's Pashtun tribal region in an area known as the Green Zone (not to be confused with a different Green Zone in Baghdad). A fertile agricultural belt resting astride the lower Helmand River, this Green Zone is famous for opium poppy production; at least 70 percent of the world's heroin originates here. Garmsir's District Center, a dreary sprawl of mud-brick compounds set amid the poppy fields, is framed by a maze-like system of canals and irrigation ditches. Constructed in the 1950s by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the canal system as it appears today on topographical maps prompted Marines to dub the area the Snake's Head. Situated on the east bank of the Helmand River on the southern flank of the Snake's Head, Jugroom Fort assumed a commanding position over the entire district.
Humbled gravely by time, the fort—a relic of the Anglo-Afghan wars—nevertheless has retained its strategic value. It has overlooked the southernmost river crossing point in Garmsir and guarded the southern approaches to the district center. More significant, in the hands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters since 2006, the fortress "served as a stronghold for [insurgents] moving weapons and reinforcements northward from Baluchistan province in Pakistan, and opium shipments in the opposite direction and out of the country," according to David Bathgate's August 2008 account, "Showdown at Jugroom Fort," published online in The Digital Journalist. If the Marines were ever to break the Taliban's hold on the district and assert the control of the Afghan government, it was vital that this vantage point be reclaimed from the insurgents. Previous efforts had failed.
In 2007, a determined Taliban garrison repulsed an attempt by British Royal Marines to seize the fortress. The foiled attack left four Royal Marines wounded and one dead. As the British press howled over the debacle, the defeat at Jugroom Fort and the death of Lance Corporal Matthew Ford became the subject of an intensive Royal Navy review. Published in December 2007, the Board of Inquiry findings identified a variety of shortcomings in the planning and execution of Operation Glacier 2, the British assault on Jugroom Fort, including "shortfalls in available combat power" at United Kingdom Task Force (UKTF), insufficient predeployment training and equipment, inadequate fire support, and "strained command relationships between UKTF and RC(S) [Regional Command (South)]," based at Kandahar. While the board brought an indictment against the planners of Glacier 2, ultimately its unvarnished report alerted NATO that a better-trained, better-supported, and more cohesive force would be needed if Garmsir was to be wrested from the Taliban.
Enter the 24th MEU
An advance party of the 24th MEU, arriving in Kandahar in mid-March, began planning for operations in Garmsir District shortly after their arrival. These planners, namely the MEU commanding officer, Colonel Peter Petronzio, recognized immediately that, while insurgents could cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at many points, eventually, "all traffic converge[d] on the river" some 75 miles to the south, he said, and in turn, on Garmsir. And yet, until active combat operations were initiated, Marines did not fully realize just how important Garmsir was to the insurgency or how hard the Taliban would be willing to fight to retain it.
Following a reconnaissance of the planned landing zones by Marine helicopters, on the night of Monday, 28 April, at 2320, elements of Alpha and Bravo Companies, Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1/6, the first assault wave, lifted off from their forward operating base (FOB) staging areas in troop-carrying helicopters to begin the operation. The second wave followed two hours later. Meanwhile, Charlie Company, 1/6, having moved by vehicle convoy, prepared to cross the line of departure.
At 0800 the next morning, Charlie Company began to push east on foot, across the north side of the Snake's Head. They were soon in enemy contact. Taliban fighters fired from positions hidden by clumps of high grass and, by using dry irrigation ditches or the canals for cover, attempted to maneuver against the Marines. While they used the ground well, the insurgents' small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire was largely inaccurate. Marines methodically pushed forward, reducing enemy strong points and uncovering weapon caches as they advanced. Alpha and Bravo Companies, in position to the south and east, also began to engage Taliban fighters, many of them fleeing Charlie Company's attack.
Taliban commanders had prepared myriad defenses and buried mines across terrain well suited to defense against any attack. "The enemy consistently fought from fortified positions to include the hardened structures they evicted the civilians from," reported Major Todd Mahar, BLT 1/6 operations officer. "They dug textbook trench lines and bunker systems and at times had mutually supporting positions." However, the character and pace of BLT 1/6's attacks, especially the air landings of Alpha and Bravo Companies, took the Taliban by surprise. "They had no idea we were going to land that far south," said Major Carl McLeod, an intelligence officer with the 24th MEU. "They weren't prepared for us. We literally dropped in behind them. It took them a few days to realize we were there in that size of force behind them."
Over the next 35 days, BLT 1/6 would be in contact with the enemy some 170 times. However; after the first four days the pace of operations in most parts of Garmsir slowed, as section after section came under Marine control. Nevertheless, one position remained stubbornly in Taliban hands: Jugroom Fort.
The Assault on Jugroom Fort
On the evening of 27 May, Lieutenant Mark Peters, the 24-year old commander of Charlie Company's 3d Platoon, moved his men to Zulu Muster, an assembly area located between FOB Delhi and Balaklava Bridge, just to the east. There, he led his men in making preparations for an assault on Jugroom Fort. For this, the final phase of Operation Azada Wosa, 3d Platoon would lead.
Three days later, at 0400 on the morning of 30 May, Charlie Company began to push down Cowboys West toward Jugroom Fort. Cowboys West, a road that connected FOB Delhi to the objective, ran southwest for more than six and a half kilometers along the west side of the Snake's Head, turning sharply southeast near its junction with Route Atlanta. From this crossroads, Jugroom Fort lay only a kilometer southwest. Loaded into 7-ton capacity MTVRs (Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacements) and gun trucks, with the company's engineer and explosive ordnance disposal attachments, it was a large convoy. The day before this push, Marine helicopters had cleared Cowboys West for two kilometers, taking out at least one DShK 12.7-mm heavy machine gun that had been lined up to cover the road. With the possibility of still more threats ahead, Marine Cobra helicopters were again flying top cover above the column.
On reaching the vicinity of the Cowboys West-Route Atlanta road junction, Charlie Company dismounted and pushed forward to take Company Objective 1, a large village called Gholam Mohammad Kur, just less than a kilometer north of Jugroom Fort along Route Atlanta. First, to clear any mines in their path, engineers shot a 350-foot-long M58 MICLIC (Mine-Clearing Line Charge) down the end of Cowboys West and detonated it. Then, Charlie Company's 1st Platoon was ordered to clear Company Objective 1. There, 1st Platoon encountered heavy resistance as the fight quickly turned into a fierce house-to-house struggle. Insurgents held on doggedly, attempting to flank Marines as they advanced, but the Leathernecks, superior marksmen—some picking off enemy fighters from rooftop positions—exacted a heavy toll on the insurgents. In clearing the village, two Marines were wounded, but not seriously. Many Taliban fighters were killed.
While 1st Platoon was engaged in Gholam Mohammad Kur, Lieutenant Peters' 3d Platoon was staged on the western edge of the village. Staff Sergeant Jonathan Piel, Peters' platoon sergeant, ordered the men to load up on extra light anti-tank weapon (LAW) rockets and machine-gun ammunition, and to get ready. Meanwhile, Peters went over the plan in his head one last time.
Change of Direction
Initially, the plan had been to attack Jugroom Fort from the north. However, Peters said later, "The wheat was chest high, so the decision was made to use Atlanta." With a deep canal running along its right side, open fields to its left, and elevated and exposed for a half mile until it reached the western wall of the fortress, Route Atlanta was at least direct. And the road did offer the possibility of using several MTVR 7 tons, led by a mine roller, which could provide some cover to the platoon, as well as rolling support by fire as they pushed down the right side of the road.
In the men's ears were the sounds of the two Series Celtics—U.S. combined-arms packages of fixed-wing bombardment, artillery, and rotary-wing attacks—being directed on Jugroom Fort. During the Celtics, 3d Platoon men made their final preparations. For the attack, Lieutenant Peters organized his platoon in a tactical column, with Sergeant Lawrence Groman's squad in the lead, accompanied by Staff Sergeant Piel, Corpsman Aaron Hepps, and Lance Corporal Nathan Sanders, the radioman. "Watching it from a klick away," Groman said, "I definitely thought that nobody would be left alive in Jugroom, much less willing to fight us in close quarters in the fort."
Sergeant Walter Osteen's squad would be next in line, with Sergeant Randall Smith and his men bringing up the rear. Just like the prelude to 1st Platoon's attack, another MICLIC would be shot—this time down Route Atlanta—to clear the way for Peters' men. Peters told Groman that as soon as he heard the boom, to step off. The rest of the platoon would be right behind. With the last of their preparations complete, at 1330 Captain John Moder, Charlie Company's commander, gave Peters the final word and the MICLIC was fired.
With the earth under their feet rocking from the detonation of 1,750 pounds of C4 explosives, Groman's men stood up. Ahead of them was the straight dirt road. All indirect fires would be out now—it would be too close for artillery—but helicopters would be there to provide overhead cover if they needed it. It wasn't going to be a fancy maneuver; it was a charge. "I don't know how we did it," said Peters. "The push was 800 meters but it felt like it was only five."
A Way Inside
When Sergeant Groman's men reached the northwest corner of the fort's outer wall, they discovered a path through the grass that led sharply downhill less than ten meters to a dry irrigation ditch. Here a jagged gap in the wall's north face perhaps three or four meters wide allowed the channel, if it had been carrying water at that time, to pass through the wall and into a vineyard beyond. Just inside the gap and to the right stood a thick mulberry tree. As this gap might provide 3d Platoon with an opening to breach, the point man, Lance Corporal Joshua Jarvis, pushed forward, jumped across the ditch, and then hustled to the far side of the gap to investigate.
As he sprinted past the opening, Jarvis thought he could see the tops of two Taliban fighters' heads as they sat back in the tall grass only 10 or 15 meters inside the gap. He called out a warning to the other Marines: "I see two heads!" Carefully, Jarvis then peeked back around the edge of the wall to get a better look. His suspicions were confirmed when a Taliban shouldering an RPK light machine gun fired a long burst that missed Jarvis but peppered the armor and bullet proof glass of the MTVRs on the road.
Jarvis, with Lance Corporal David Perrine, who had closed up on the right side of the gap, immediately took the fight to the enemy. Together, with their weapons set on burst, they returned fire, emptying their magazines on the machine-gun position. The Taliban machine-gunner and his comrade, who wielded an AK-47, stuck to their position and continued firing.
As soon as the fight started, Staff Sergeant Piel sprang into action. A veteran of 1/6's deployment to Ramadi, Iraq, Piel saw that the supporting fires from the MTVRs were loud, but ineffective. He knew that most of the young machine-gunners sitting in the turrets of the 7-ton MTVRs were in their first fight and wanted to fire their weapons, but he also knew much of that fire was not being directed where it was most needed. So, moving from one 7-ton to the next, Piel climbed up on top to point out targets to the M240G machine gunners.
To Sergeant Groman, time was moving both fast and slow, simultaneously. It was amazing to him that, at such close range, Jarvis and Perrine had not been hit. Fortunately for the Marines, the Taliban's reputation for not being able to "shoot worth shit" was holding true. Groman was up on the road, against the wall with Lance Corporal Burrows beside him. Groman looked up at the 7-tons. Staff Sergeant Piel was directing the machine gunners to shoot right over their heads. He then turned back to Burrows. Groman didn't know why, but for some reason at that moment Burrows looked right at him and started laughing. Groman thought it was hilarious.
Quickly collecting himself, Groman gave the word to Burrows and the two threw fragmentation grenades over the wall into the Taliban's position. The grenades detonated, and one of the Taliban fighters went down. Yet, the machine-gunner, even with a foot having been nearly severed from his leg, continued fighting on.
Climbing down from atop a 7-ton, Staff Sergeant Piel moved up to get into the fight. Coming alongside Perrine, Piel fired off one magazine through the gap and started on a second. Finally, with the three Marines each having fired some 60 rounds, the Taliban machine-gunner fell.
Cautiously moving forward, the Marines secured the area. They also recovered the shattered bodies of the enemy fighters, who, from their appearance, the men believed to be Pakistani. The Marines marveled at the tenacity the insurgents had displayed, but they were sure it was a drug-induced resolve, as that was another reputation the Taliban had earned.
From his platoon's new position, Lieutenant Peters looked for a potential angle of approach on the fort's main compound. One look, however, told him all he needed to know. In the vineyard, rows of vines ran west to east, across his line of march. They might just as well have been rows of barbed wire. Only a few narrow paths ran directly toward the walls at the far end of the field and, if these were covered, it could be easy for enemy fighters to pin down his platoon. No, he'd have to look for another breach point.
With the MTVR 7-tons providing cover, Lieutenant Peters ordered Sergeant Osteen's squad to take over the lead and continue to push farther down Route Atlanta. Expecting to be hit at any moment, the men sprinted past gaps in the wall where sections had been knocked down by air or artillery. It was unsettling, but they had to move. And then, as two of the men passed yet another gap, they took automatic weapons fire from a building about 40 meters east of the road.
Under a steady stream of suppressing fire, Lance Corporal Burrows came forward with an 83-mm man-portable SMAW (Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon). It was platoon standard procedure to deploy two SMAWs simultaneously to ensure total devastation of a target. The platoon's second unit, however, was not functioning. Burrows fired one round, but after the dust settled the two Taliban insurgents holed up inside the structure continued to fire on the Marines. Burrows loaded a second round and fired again. The second shot collapsed the building's roof and ended all resistance.
Out of Gas
With that, the platoon was cleared to make entry, but there was a new problem. The helicopters, which had been flying top cover for the platoon, were now out of fuel. Peters ordered his men down off the road between the building just flattened by Burrows and a scarred wall that ran east from the road into the fort complex.
Peters knew he wasn't in the best situation. The helicopters would not be back for some time, and his position did not offer the best protection. However, he had no better options. He directed the squads to make a good all-'round defense, and then they sat tight and waited for the helos to come back.
They returned about 1430 in the afternoon. Lieutenant Peters made contact with them to coordinate his next push, and asked them to scout the area ahead of him for any contacts. Peters then ordered Sergeant Smith's squad to push east and clear Jugroom's north side. At the same time, Osteen and Groman would push south, Osteen through an adjacent wall, and Groman back down Route Atlanta and then through any gap he could find that would allow his squad a good entry.
In turn, Smith's men commenced pushing east, but quickly began to receive fire from insurgents holed up in buildings to their front. Smith deployed his men, while supporting fires from the 7-tons again were brought to bear. Under continued pressure, enemy resistance here broke. It was 1530, the hottest part of the day. Marines would learn later that the enemy had no heart for a fight in such heat. That they believed the Marines were crazy. With the first man to break soon came a flood of Taliban, as many as 40 or more, all attempting to escape across the fields to the east of the fort. Charlie Company's 1st Platoon, which had set up in dwellings just over 300 meters northeast of the fort on the south side of Gholam Mohammad Kur village, opened fire. Smith's squad was held back so 1st Platoon's machine gunners could do their work. The enemy, attempting to escape through the same chest-high wheat that Marines had once thought to attack through, were mowed down by 1st Platoon's M240Bs. Few, if any, survived.
While Smith was pushing east, Sergeant Osteen's squad members, leading with grenades and reconning by fire, pushed over a gap in the wall immediately to the south and into Jugroom Fort's main compound. Immediately facing them to their south, less than 20 meters ahead, stood a large, mud brick building with tall, arched doorways and windows. Osteen's Marines fired two rounds from their M203 grenade launchers into it, and then advanced.
To Osteen, the compound, full of smoke and rubble, was a big maze. The ground inside the fort was scorched black from white phosperous rounds and very hot, so much so men did not want to stand in one place too long. He was scared, but did not want it to show. He had to lead. Osteen directed his men to start clearing houses—grenades first, and then in, firing as they went.
'Small Doors, Small Rooms'
Inside the fort, the architecture itself presented challenges to the Marines. "Everything was built for short Afghanis with no gear on," Osteen recalled. "Small doors, small rooms. And if you opened six small doors, there were six small rooms behind them. None of the rooms would be connected to the others, and you'd have to clear each room individually."
With the report of rifles and grenades echoing in his ears, the radio crackled, "What building are you at?" Captain Moder, Charlie Company's commander, asked Osteen.
"I don't know," he replied, exasperated. Osteen had reviewed photos of the place before the attack, but now that he was inside, it was hard to tell. All the buildings looked alike.
"Give me a grid," Moder ordered.
Osteen could not. Fortunately, he did have a global positioning system, so he relayed those coordinates.
In the intervening time, Sergeant Groman's squad had formed on Route Atlanta and prepared to advance. Again, the 7-tons, led by a mine roller, would accompany the move forward. Their immediate objective was a complex of buildings that contained the fort's old headquarters. Groman's men set about clearing the substantial structure using the same RIGS tactics—recon, isolate, gain a foothold, and seize—the other squads had employed to secure their objectives. "We used frags [fragmention grenades] on every room," remembered Groman, "and moved with so much violence of action that I think anyone left in the fort retreated . . . not wanting to fight us."
Before long, Osteen's squad had leapfrogged past Groman's men and penetrated deep into the center of the complex. Facing roughly south, and with Groman on his right, Osteen directed his men to take up positions along a high wall. To his left, the complex was still uncleared, but Sergeant Smith's squad, having cleared all the way east, had turned and was now pushing south, approaching Osteen's flank. Once all three squads had come up, Lieutenant Peters ordered his platoon to push forward as one and clear what remained of the fortress.
By 1700, the Marines of 3d Platoon had reached the southern bastion. They were spent and just collapsed. Osteen recalled that he had never seen Marines so tired. Even while Smith's squad was still moving east, with the platoon low on water, Staff Sergeant Piel had gone all the way back to Company Objective 1, twice, to retrieve water for the men who had fought all day in temperatures approaching 130 degrees. "He was awesome," Lieutenant Peters said of Piel's performance during the battle. "A real ass kicker." Peters, who had received orders to cover the entire southern flank of the fort, then directed his men to dig in for the night. After years under Taliban control, Jugroom Fort was finally in NATO hands.
A Rare Occasion
During the engagement, the Marines of Lieutenant Peters' 3d Platoon, Charlie Company 1/6 had fought through 350 meters of trenches, six bunkers, two observation posts, numerous American-style fighting holes, and against at least one AGS-17 Plamya 30-mm automatic grenade launcher and one DShK 1938/46 12.7-mm heavy machine-gun. The Taliban troops (numbering by some estimates as high as 100) had fought well, positioning themselves in locations that allowed them ways to maneuver and ways to escape. "They couldn't hit shit with their weapons," commented battalion gunner Bob Tagliabue, "but they fought professionally—smart tactically—all the time."
With no civilians congesting the battle space, and only Taliban insurgents ahead of them, Marines had been free to employ all their available combat power, tactics, and training against the objective. In the war on terrorism, it was a rare occasion. Thus, Jugroom Fort should be remembered as one of the few battles fought in Afghanistan where Marines could be Marines.