PATROL BASE SHEHEBAN, Afghanistan –- I can say it from experience now: patrolling through the poppy fields of Helmand province is every bit as distracting as I had been warned.
The beautiful poppy blossoms leap out at anyone passing. The flowers — ranging in color from white and pink to a deep, rich rose — stand nearly waist high, and will likely remain in bloom for at least another week. As the blossoms shrivel, farmers will score the remaining bulbs and collect the fluid oozing out. The product is developed into heroin and other opium-based drugs — something that isn’t legal in Afghanistan, and yet the main cash crop for the country.
Photographer James Lee and I arrived on this patrol base this morning, making the move from Forward Operating Base Whitehouse, the headquarters in Helmand’s Kajaki district for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It’s a trip complicated by geography. Route 611, the main road in the region, runs northeast up the east side of the Helmand River, but the Marines are also concerned about insurgent activity on the other side of the water. To push the Taliban farther away, they established Sheheban, Observation Post Levy and a couple other outposts that have since been turned over to Afghan forces.
To get to Sheheban, we took a small steel motorboat manned by an Afghan across the Helmand River. It was slightly alarming at first, given the rudimentary nature of the craft. The boats are used regularly by Marines and Afghans alike, however, and ferry everything from livestock to vehicles.
On the other side, elements of Weapons Company 1/8 man Sheheban and Levy. Firefights have not been frequent recently, but the region is littered with improvised explosive devices, said Staff Sgt. Albert Hayes, the platoon sergeant for Combined Anti-Armor Team 2, which has elements based at both outposts. In one March 23 IED strike, a squad leader, a corpsman and an interpreter were hit, Hayes said. They all survived, but were pulled from the battlefield with shrapnel wounds, lacerations and other injuries.
The names of the two Marine bases on this side of the water underscore the extremes in Helmand province. Sheheban was named by Afghan forces, and means “beautiful” in Arabic, Hayes said. Levy was named after Lance Cpl. Christopher Levy, a member of Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, who shot Dec. 7 nearby and died three days later.
We left the wire with CAAT-2 Marines today, patrolling for several hours through fields and villages. Stay tuned for more images and dispatches in coming days.