FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- When the lead elements of a large 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Afghan Militia Force (AMF) task force recently entered a village in central Afghanistan, nothing seemed out of place and it looked as if another quiet day would soon draw to a close.
However, in a flash, all that changed when the specter of Taliban insurgency reared its ugly head.
As four machine gun and anti-tank missile-toting Humvees of Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines' Combined Anti-Armor Team pushed through the village and spread out to assume blocking positions on its far side, the lead vehicle noticed three Afghan men attempting to nonchalantly walk out of the village and into the surrounding mountains.
"I saw them walking away from the village and up a hill," said 1st Lt. Chris Niedziocha, who hails from Montgomery County, Penn. and serves as the CAAT platoon leader. "We immediately went after them and when we got closer they started running."
Meanwhile, the other three CAAT vehicles began converging on Niedziocha's position, fighting through the difficult terrain and confusing village layout to reach their platoon leader.
As Niedziocha's vehicle (dubbed Light Horse 1-1) pulled up to a stop behind the men, one of the three stopped, turned, drew a Russian-made AK-47 assault rifle from under his clothes and opened fire on the Marines. The vehicle's gunner, Cpl. Curtis Spivey, of Valdosta, Georgia, was the first to respond to the threat.
"Spivey let go a few bursts with the 240 [M240G machine gun mounted atop the Humvee] and all three of the bad guys jumped into a trench and began firing on us," Niedziocha said.
In a span of only a few minutes, Niedziocha and his crew had accomplished the first two edicts of their battalion commander's instructions to 'find, fix, and finish' the enemy, and set out to accomplish the third as well.
Niedziocha and his driver, Lance Cpl. Ray Colvin, accompanied by radio operator Lance Cpl. Thomas Hyland, leapt out of their vehicle and immediately opened fire with their M16A4 assault rifles. Meanwhile, Spivey jumped from the vehicle and grabbed the rifle from CAAT's forward air controller, Capt. James 'Big Jim' McBride who was busy radioing for air support.
"Beaver [Capt. James Hunt] was controlling some helos for Charlie Company so when we broadcast that we were in contact, they switched over to support us," said McBride, an EA-6B Prowler crewman from Butte, Montana.
While McBride and Hyland stayed on the vehicle to provide security, the other three Marines pressed forward with rifles in hand and with their pockets bulging with grenades.
The helicopters weren't the only ones to hear the announcement of troops in contact. Driving Light Horse 1-6, Sgt. Dan Trackwell, a machine gunner from Klamath Falls, Oregon, was already speeding toward Niedziocha's position and the call spurred him on. Sitting beside Trackwell was his assistant driver, Cpl. Nicholas Marrone of Saranac, New York, and riding on top was his MK-19 heavy machine gunner, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Freeze of Naples, Florida.
"As soon as I heard them say 'contact' all bets were off," said Trackwell, who 'stood' on the gas pedal and plowed over the rough, uneven terrain as the sound of firing began to fill the air.
On the hill, Niedziocha, Colvin, and Spivey moved forward firing their weapons as the enemy fighters would pop up, fire a few rounds, and then move right or left inside the trench to repeat the process. When Spivey ran out of ammunition in McBride's rifle, he tossed it aside, pulled his 9mm pistol, and began tossing hand grenades into the trench, as did Niedziocha. Colvin, carrying a M203 40mm grenade launcher attached his M16A4, began accurately lobbing rounds into the trench as well.
"When one of the grenades went off," Niedziocha explained, "all I saw was turban and equipment flying, so I knew we had gotten at least one of them."
By the time the grenades starting flying, Light Horse 1-6 had pulled up and Trackwell and another Marine began moving forward and firing at the enemy while Marrone and Freeze stayed on the vehicle. Manning the 40mm 'up gun,' Freeze opened fire on Trackwell's command and lobbed 25 40mm grenades onto the hillside directly over the trench where the Taliban had taken refuge.
At almost this same instant, spotting the yellow smoke billowing from the signal grenade tossed by McBride, one of the UH-1N Huey helicopters overhead banked sharply and the door gunner, Cpl. Samair Alyassini of San Jose, Calif., let loose a sustained burst of around 100 7.62mm rounds into the trench.
Between the barrage of grenades, and rifle and machine gun from both the air and ground, the enemy fire ceased as all three Taliban fighters died where they chose to make their last stand.
"That was the closest fighting we've seen," said Colvin after the brief, yet intense firefight. "Usually we use our weapons to create a stand-off, but we weren't more than five or ten meters from these guys."
"It was the hottest fight yet," reflected Niedziocha, who had led his platoon through at least eight sharp engagements last month.
A thorough search of the slain enemy fighters revealed, in addition to their personal weapons, a wide array of explosives and bomb-making materials that are commonly used in the construction of improvised explosive devices.
Discussing the wide range of armament and fighters brought to bear in the fight, Freeze summed up their collective feelings.
"It doesn't matter who got them, just that they aren't around to hurt us or anyone else ever again."
In addition to BLT 1/6 and HMM-266 (Rein), the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element and MEU Service Support Group 22. The MEU is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.