SANGIN, Afghanistan — It would be hard to forget that face, even if they hadn’t seen it just the day before.
A young Afghan man stood on the side of a narrow dirt lane, watching an open-top truckload of Marines head into a volatile neighborhood in this river valley town coveted by Taliban insurgents and drug lords.
The man smiled at the Marines and waved. Then he yanked a kite string detonation cord attached to a bomb buried in the road.
A platoon from Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment would have been decimated in the attack. The battalion already had suffered more casualties than any other in the 10-year war in Afghanistan, long before its seven-month tour ended this month. But the homemade device was a dud. It smoked but failed to explode until the Marines drove safely out of the way.
The next day, the Marines shot their way back into the ravine, wounding an armed fighter who was dragged into a mosque. When they reached the alley where they had been attacked, Cpl. Jason Gaal and Staff Sgt. Nathan Stocking couldn’t believe their eyes. Both recognized a guy riding by on a motorcycle.
“Lo’ and behold, there’s our trigger man,” Gaal said.
Stocking walked the trembling flex-cuffed detainee back to base, overcompensating for his fury with exaggerated gentleness. “My buddy … my buddy,” he sang, guiding his prisoner lightly by the arm.
The arrest in March of the suspected insurgent was one of many hard-fought victories the 3/5 Marines were savoring during their last weeks in Sangin. Even by Marine Corps standards and the long history of one of its most decorated battalions, their tour that ended this month was brutal.