Battalion 3/5 suffered the highest number of casualties in the war in Afghanistan. This is the story of one platoon in that distinguished battalion.
Aware of U.S. plans to withdraw from the country, knowing their efforts were only a footprint in the sand, the fifty Marines of 3rd Platoon fought in Sangin, the most dangerous district in all of Afghanistan. So heavy were the casualties that the Secretary of Defense offered to pull the Marines out. Instead, they pushed forward. Each Marine in 3rd Platoon patrolled two and a half miles a day for six months—a total of one million steps—in search of a ghostlike enemy that struck without warning. Why did the Marines attack and attack, day after day?
Every day brought a new skirmish. Each footfall might trigger an IED. Half the Marines in 3rd Platoon didn’t make it intact to the end of the tour. One Million Steps is the story of the fifty brave men who faced these grim odds and refused to back down. Based on Bing West’s embeds with 3rd Platoon, as well as on their handwritten log, this is a gripping grunt’s-eye view of life on the front lines of America’s longest war. Writing with a combat veteran’s compassion for the fallen, West also offers a damning critique of the higher-ups who expected our warriors to act as nation-builders—and whose failed strategy put American lives at unnecessary risk.
Each time a leader was struck down, another rose up to take his place. How does one man instill courage in another? What welded these men together as firmly as steel plates?
This remarkable book is the story of warriors caught between a maddening, unrealistic strategy and their unswerving commitment to the fight. Fearsome, inspiring, and poignant in its telling, One Million Steps is sure to become a classic, a unique and enduring testament to the American warrior spirit.
Praise for One Million Steps
“West shows the reality of modern warfare in a way that is utterly gripping.”—Max Boot, author of Invisible Armies
“A gripping, boot-level account of Marines in Afghanistan during the bloody struggle with Taliban fighters.”—Los Angeles Times
“One Million Steps transcends combat narrative: It is an epic of contemporary small-unit combat.”—Eliot A. Cohen, author of Supreme Command
“A blistering assault on America’s senior military leadership.”—The Wall Street Journal
“A heart-pounding portrayal . . . a compelling account of what these men endured.”—The Washington Post
“Stunning, sobering, and brilliantly written.”—Newt Gingrich
“One of the most intrepid military journalists, Bing West, delivers a heart-wrenching account of one platoon’s fight.”—Bill Bennett, host of Morning in America
“Bing West has reconfirmed his standing as one of the most intrepid and insightful observers of America’s wars. . . . One Million Steps reveals the essence of small-unit combat, the very soul of war.”—The Weekly Standard
“A searing read, but it is one that all Americans should undertake. We send our sons into battle, and few know what our warriors experience.”—The Washington Times
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Bing West, a Marine combat veteran, served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He has been on hundreds of patrols in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A nationally acclaimed war correspondent, he is the author of The Village; No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah; The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq; and The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan. Most recently, he was the co-author of Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer’s memoir, Into the Fire. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Infantry Order of St. Crispin, West is the recipient of the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the Colby Award for Military Writers, the Andrew J. Goodpaster Prize for military scholarship, the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation award (twice), Tunisia’s Médaille de la Liberté, the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association Award, the Father Clyde Leonard Award, the Free Press Award, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars News Media Award. He lives with his wife, Betsy, in Newport, Rhode Island.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
Day 1. The First 6,000 Steps
When 3/5 rolled into Sangin, its reputation had preceded it. In 2004, they had fought in Fallujah, a fierce battle sparked after four American contractors were lynched on a bridge. After the city was destroyed, a Marine scrawled on the bridge, “This is for the Americans murdered here. Semper Fidelis 3/5. P.S. Fuck you.” In Sangin, the farmers were asking Max, 3/5’s interpreter, “Why have these Marines come? They’re not welcome.”
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jason Morris, was capable, earnest, and formal. His father had served as a Marine in Vietnam, and Morris had won an award for outstanding leadership. Before deploying, he wrote to the families that the goal was “to increase security and bring economic development and stability to the Afghan people.” That sounded more civic-minded than dangerous.
The 800 Marines in 3/5 had trained together for a year. Morris and the senior officers and NCOs were on their second and third combat tours. For the 700 excited junior Marines, Sangin was their first combat tour. Prior to flying out from California, Morris had called for one final gear inspection, amid grumblings about last-minute harassment.
“Colonel Morris looked right at me,” Cpl. Kevin Smith, a sniper, said. “He asked if I was ready. He was sizing me up, not my gear. That’s when it hit me. Holy shit, we’re going to war!”
On October 13, 2010, an armored vehicle dropped Smith off at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Jackson, the battalion’s headquarters next to the Sangin market. When Smith hopped on top of the turret to look around, a bullet pinged off its side. As he tumbled down, a British soldier called out, “Best to sit rather than stand out here.”
Even before reaching FOB Jackson, 3/5 had lost Lance Cpl. John Sparks, twenty-three. He was shot and killed on a rooftop. He had grown up in a Chicago public housing complex and had hoped to join the Chicago police after his tour.
Now, an hour after arriving at Jackson, Smith had been shot at. In response, three Marines from the sniper section slipped into the nearby cornfields to conduct a quick security patrol. Moving quietly, they glanced down a row of corn and saw a man crouching with an AK, looking in the opposite direction. Two snipers dropped him with a “frame shot,” each putting a bullet in the man’s torso. Seconds later, a second man popped out of the corn and tried to drag the body away. They shot him too.
While Smith was out on that patrol with Cpl. Jordan Laird and Cpl. Jacob Ruiz, a massive mine shattered a 35,000-pound vehicle called an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), killing four Marines. All were on their first combat deployment.
By the end of the first day, Battalion 3/5 had taken five fatalities.
Marine units are organized on a simple three-part system. Forged over hundreds of battles, the system is focused downward and decentralized. The regiment, commanded by Kennedy, had three battalions. The 3/5 battalion, commanded by Morris, had three rifle companies. Each company had three rifle platoons. Each forty-four-man platoon had three squads. Each thirteen-man squad was divided into three four-man fire teams. In the field, a platoon usually had several attachments like engineers and snipers.
Sangin was shaped like a rectangle fifteen kilometers long and four kilometers wide. (See Map 1.) A copious flow of water fed thousands of irrigation ditches stretching from the Helmand River to Route 611. The vast expanse of well-watered fields stretching from the river to the road was called the Green Zone.
Morris sent his third company—Kilo—two kilometers north up 611 to an outpost called Inkerman, named for a fallen British soldier. Kilo’s job was to control the Green Zone, where the Taliban were familiar with every field, ditch, compound, and back trail. They knew where they had planted IEDs and where they left open lanes.
Capt. Nick Johnson, the commander of Kilo Company, was a big, no-nonsense man with a keen interest in warfighting. The instructors back in the States had stressed reaching out to village elders and funding projects at the hamlet level. But with five killed on Day 1, he immediately shifted his focus to small-unit jungle tactics. His task was to clear from Inkerman on 611 to the Helmand River, a three-kilometer by three-kilometer rectangle.
Johnson initially kept two platoons at Inkerman and one at Outpost/Patrol Base Fires, an isolated fort one kilometer inside the Green Zone. Intent upon sending out several patrols daily, Johnson provided the platoons with maps that broke up the Green Zone into sectors designated by different sets of letters. This made it easier to direct reinforcements or indirect fire.
Day 2. 12,000 Steps
The next morning, a squad of thirteen Marines set off from Inkerman to scout to the northwest. When the squad was pinned down by two enemy machine guns, a second squad moved forward to help and was engaged from the flanks. Once linked together, the two squads threw out enough fire to prevent the Taliban from closing on them. Steady fire coming from different angles forced the squads to duck into an irrigation ditch. Unable to pull back, they radioed for help. In response, Sgt. Sean Johnson left Patrol Base Fires to flank the enemy with his squad.
“Hey, Sean,” Sgt. Matt Abbate, the leader of a ten-man sniper section, called out, “we’ll tag along to provide covering fire.”
Drenched in sweat, Abbate had just returned from patrol. But the offer was typical of him. Of the seventy-odd sergeants in the battalion, Abbate, twenty-six, was the best liked. One Marine joked that Abbate was “the battalion mascot.” An honor graduate from the reconnaissance swimmer’s course, he had turned down an offer to transfer to the Navy SEALs. He was the battalion’s top shot, held the endurance record, and grinned often. On battalion hikes in the High Sierras, he would fall back to carry the packs of those struggling to keep up.
His family in northern California were dedicated bikers and he told hilarious tales about his motorcycle escapades. His son, Carson, was two, and Matt was already planning their bike trips. He was everyone’s outgoing big brother, smart, tough, carefree. On battalion movie nights, he would shout at the screen, making up wacky expressions and imitating movie actors. But once it came time for a mission, intensity replaced the smile.
“Outside the wire,” Matt said, “you walk by faith, because no one knows where the next IED is. But we can’t hesitate. We’re here to shoot.”
Covered by Abbate and four of his snipers, the squad departed from Fires. They could hear shooting a thousand meters to their east. The Taliban were using two Russian-made PKM machine guns with a slow, distinct cyclic rate that sounded like someone hammering on a steel pipe. Johnson cut to the north, hoping to come up on the rear of the enemy. Abbate and his snipers occasionally scrambled onto the roofs of farmhouses, trying to find targets in their scopes.
“I see guys in tree lines,” Abbate called to Johnson. “The fuckers move around without weapons showing. I can’t smoke them.”
The rules of engagement required PID, or Positive Identification, which meant seeing that the man had a weapon or was talking on a radio in the middle of a firefight. In fact, Abbate was having a hard time seeing anyone. The summer corn hadn’t yet been harvested and the fields were thick with heavy green stalks taller than a man. Once they plunged into a field, the Marines couldn’t see ten feet. Each corn patch was about the size of a football field. The corn sucked the oxygen out of the air and the muddy ground oozed humidity. But to use the trails was to invite ambush.
The Marines walked in single file, the point man sweeping a metal detector called a Vallon back and forth. You can buy a Vallon on eBay, put earphones on your kids, and let them scamper along the beach, listening for the ping! of coins in the sand. In Sangin, the point man hoped the dials would quiver if a flashlight battery was detected.
The squad bounded by four-man fire teams across the openings between the fields, each four-man fire team covering the other. They waded across one canal in chest-deep muddy water, and then another. The enemy, knowing the Marines were trying to flank them, were chattering over their handheld radios and shifting positions. After crossing a dozen fields in the one-hundred-degree temperature, the Marines were exhausted, having sweated out more liquid than they were drinking from their CamelBaks.
In the cornfields, two separate groups of Marines and scattered enemy groups were maneuvering out of sight of one another. Bullets were zipping by from different angles. It was hard to tell who was firing at whom. But there hadn’t been any friendly casualties and the enemy fire had slackened by the time Johnson’s squad reached the other Marines. Running low on ammo, they decided to head west back to Patrol Base Fires by wading across a waist-deep canal.
Johnson’s squad took up the rear. When Johnson’s men reached the road paralleling the canal, the enemy unleashed a fusillade of machine gun fire. The Marines flopped down and LCpl. Alec Catherwood landed on a pressure plate. The blast hurled him into the canal, smashing apart his rifle and driving the red-hot barrel deep into Johnson’s left thigh.
Improvised Explosive Devices—IEDs—were fiendishly simple. Despite entreaties from Washington to use other readily available chemicals, Pakistan persisted in manufacturing ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer then smuggled into Afghanistan. The insurgents mixed the nitrate, which acted as the oxidizer, with fuel and packed the gummy substance into plastic jugs. A blasting cap the size of a firecracker was attached to a few feet of wire, with the open end glued to a piece of wood. A wire on another piece of wood was wrapped at one end around a flashlight battery. The two pieces of wood were taped together with the wires facing each other, kept apart by a slice of sponge. The jug, wires, battery, and parallel pieces of wood were buried in the dirt. When the weight of a foot pressed the boards and wires together, a spark leaped from the battery to the blasting cap, setting off ten pounds of nitrate that ripped apart legs, testicles, intestines, and chests.
Abbate unfolded the black tourniquet strap and wrapped it around Johnson’s soaked trouser. He threaded the strap back through the plastic buckle, pulled the strap tight, grabbed the knob, and twisted to tighten the strap. The pain jolted through Johnson, who struggled to get up.
“Let me up,” he muttered. “Gotta get this shit organized.”
A grunt can cinch up a tourniquet in his sleep. It’s an automatic reflex. When the blood is gushing and severed legs are twitching and the smoke is blinding and the screaming is too loud to hear—that’s when the tourniquet must be applied. Abbate twisted the tourniquet tighter, pushing Johnson’s face down so that he couldn’t see the blood gushing from his shattered leg.
“Don’t look, bro,” he said.
Cpl. Jacob Ruiz, carrying the radio for the sniper section, hustled over. Ruiz, twenty-five, from California, was calm and efficient.
“Call for medevac,” Abbate said. “Urgent.”
After sending the message, Ruiz heard a pfzzing noise and glanced up to see the black shape of a rocket whizzing past. He looked down a corn row and locked eyes with two men, each holding a grenade launcher. One, wearing a brown man-dress and a kapul (flat hat), ducked back, while the other, in a dirty blue man-dress, stood his ground. Ruiz dropped the handset and swung up his M4 rifle. The man was too quick, darting into the corn.
The explosive concussion had knocked two other Marines into the canal. In shock amid the carnage, many did not return fire. That’s the killer in a firefight. If you don’t keep shooting, no matter how wildly, your enemy moves freely to a spot where he can finish you off. As General Patton put it, “to halt under fire and not fire back is suicide.” With scant return fire, the Taliban were dodging safely from spot to spot in the shallow ditches among the tree lines. Amid the smoke and dust, the enemy pressed forward.
Abbate ran up and down the canal road, ignoring the bullets and the IEDs lurking underfoot, urging the Marines to return fire. He grabbed one man after another, pulling each into a firing position and assigning a sector of fire.
“When you see dust,” he yelled, “spray it down.”
Occasionally he paused to aim in with his Mark 11 sniper rifle, snapping off a few quick shots. Once he had set up a base of fire, he paused and looked around. Two Marines were floundering in the canal, trying to keep Catherwood’s head above water. Alec Catherwood, nineteen, from Illinois, had wanted to be a Marine since he was three. He was engaged to be married in July. This was his first deployment and his first firefight.
Abbate leaped in and the three pulled Catherwood onto the bank. Catherwood wasn’t breathing and his lips had turned blue. His left arm had been sheared off by the blast and his body had gone into shock. As his blood poured out, his body heat drained away. The sudden drop in temperature prevented his blood from clotting, enabling more blood to spill into the dirt. The lethal combination of lactic acid buildup and lower blood pressure eventually throws the heart out of rhythm. Abbate helped cinch tight a tourniquet and yelled for Marines to try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, knowing that death hovered a minute away.
Back at Kilo Company’s ops center, frustration reigned. A dozen Marines huddled around the radios; there was nothing they could do. Another squad had already left Fires to help, and the 81mm mortars at Inkerman were firing. Amid the background clunk of outgoing mortar shells, those in the ops center could only listen to the screams over the radio.
At the scene of the fight, Abbate was checking on the wounded. Ruiz was still aiding Johnson, the chunk of rifle barrel still soldered deep into his mangled left thigh.
“You’re going to make it,” Abbate said. “We’ll get you out of here.”
Johnson remembered being thrown into the air. He thought his friend had caught him.
Some of the enemy had forded the canal farther to the north and were attacking the Marines’ right flank, trying to cut off their route back to Fires. Abbate ran over to Cpl. Royce Hughie, who was covering the eastern approach with his squad automatic weapon. A SAW spews 800 rounds a minute; that volume of bullets melds into a glowing red laser beam slicing in half anything in its path. As Hughie shifted around, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) shot out of the corn, struck the ground in front of him, and spun to a stop without exploding. Hughie shoved the SAW’s bipod into the mud and hosed down the fields to the north.
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