This is the first in an ongoing series of dispatches from the Afghanistan reporters' "pool," a Pentagon-authorized system that allows a single journalist to file for all accredited news organizations.
CAMP RHINO, Afghanistan — Any sense the Marines' mission here ranks as merely an exercise in desert isolation passed this week with the shuttling of dead and wounded from this central Asian land base.
The bodies of two American special forces troops have been brought to the base's makeshift morgue. The remains of a third may pass through here yet.
About 40 wounded — 20 anti-Taliban Afghans and roughly as many Americans — also made their way to medical lifelines here by way of risky daytime helicopter flights, flights that pilots and military planners usually work hard to avoid from this southern Afghanistan foothold.
The test of the real-war mission this week left troops previously consumed by fighting off dust and boredom with renewed confidence of experience and the reward that they were able to save some lives even as some of their comrades perished.
"Everybody's blood was pumping and we were ready to rock and roll," said Staff Sgt. Bryon Edgecombe, a crew chief on a CH-53 helicopter that whisked seven injured Afghans to the safety of the base medical tents. "Now that it's behind us, it's something we know we can do."
The planned burial of a fallen Afghan ally near Camp Rhino tentatively set for Friday marked the close of the first rescue and recovery mission from this desert Marine base located within quick-strike distance of the Taliban's shrinking turf around Kandahar.
The fallen Afghan was among the three Americans and five Afghan fighters killed north of Kandahar Wednesday when a 2,000-pound satellite-guided explosive dumped from an Air Force B-52 bomber struck the wrong target and injured more than three dozen soldiers north of Kandahar.
Marines spoke with bowed heads about the friendly fire deaths, but with look-ahead pride of how quickly they airlifted the survivors from the carnage of the bombing mission gone awry.
Shortly after noon local time, news of the casualties came to this forward operating base about an hour’s helicopter flight away. Within two hours, squads of oversized CH-53 transport helicopters guarded by Cobra gunship helicopters were buzzing low over the undulating terrain to avoid being seen by Taliban troops still believed to hold shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.
Before nightfall, the wounded underwent medical treatment in the security cocoon of Camp Rhino.
Navy physician Steve Termerlin had been organizing a drill when he got word of the mission of American and anti-Taliban forces injured in a bombing, although it took hours to learn that the damage came from an American plane.
"I ran to tell our surgical teams that it was real today and not a drill," the 48-year-old doctor said. "I was told the numbers (of wounded) but not the severity."
During the flight, he busied himself preparing intravenous drips, listening to the chatter of the flight crew and talking to medics on board. He was thinking clinically, Termerlin said, not emotionally.
"I was just getting ready to save time when we landed," he said. "I wasn't sure what we'd find."
Neither was Edgecombe as he manned a .50-caliber machine gun in a helicopter ferrying the doctor. Edgecombe peered at the fast-moving terrain below, anxious about what lay behind each next rise. Even spotting armed men posed problems of sorting the enemy from "friendlies."
"We knew there were a lot of friendlies in the area," the sergeant said. "(But) it's very hard to distinguish what the enemy looks like and what the friendlies look like because they wear pretty much the same clothes."
Landing was tricky because the large helicopter kicks up clouds of dust that sprout like giant mushrooms spreading out hundreds of yards wide and nearly as high.
"I have to listen to my (crew) yelling out the elevation: '200 feet … 100 feet … 10 feet … 5,4,3,2,1,'" said pilot and Marine captain Jay Holtermann, 30, of Green Bay, Wisc. Once they landed, only seven wounded Afghans remained. The rest had already been airlifted to Camp Rhino in a mission aided by American aircraft dispatched from Pakistan.
The doctor found wounded Afghan fighters ranging in age from their early teens to their early 60s, he said. Mostly they suffered from broken bones and shrapnel wounds.
"They were very stoic and calm," said Termerlin, an emergency medicine physician who left private practice for the military in 1990. This week was his first exposure to combat wounded, but not his first to serious trauma. "They had a very, very high pain tolerance. No sign of fear."
Neither doctor nor patient could speak the other's language. The Afghans traded largely in smiles.
"You could tell," the doctor said, "that they were grateful."
That night, the Afghans were flown to more permanent medical facilities on the U.S.S. Bataan and the U.S.S. Peleliu cruising in the north Arabian Sea.
They left behind the body of one of their countrymen, who likely was en route to the base on one of the first helicopter rescue flights. He is tentatively set to be buried at or near Camp Rhino Friday. The quick burial near the point of death, rather than near home and family, would keep with local custom.
Coming in close to Kandahar and speeding back to the base, Capt. David Steele, 29, of Fairfax, Va. flew a Cobra gunship as bodyguard to the medical evacuations of Afghans with whom he shares neither a language or a culture.
"It's a fight we're all in together," Steele said. "I'd go pick up their wounded daily. … No question."
Marine operations streaming out of Camp Rhino in south Afghanistan intensified throughout the week. By air, on foot and in so-called hunter-killer squadrons of lightly armored anti-tank vehicles, Marines have taken patrols ever closer to Kandahar.
The aim, said Marines spokesmen, was cut off supply and communication lines to the Taliban troops cornered in the city that has been the spiritual home of the collapsed regime.
That short-term mission began with reconnaissance patrols Monday that expanded Tuesday and through the week to include checking for mine fields, searching for more enemy assets to target. So far those patrols haven’t led to gunfights.
"It's supporting the opposition groups' efforts to march on Kandahar," said David T. Romney, a Marine spokesman at Camp Rhino.