A Ghost Town and a Haunted Evening

Cameraman Pierre and I woke up a bit on the grumpy side today. Perhaps it was because we had both been sleeping on each other’s side — on the side of a sheer-faced mountain — along with the Marines of D.O. Platoon, with whom we were embedded.

But there was a method to what seemed to me to be the madness of the Platoon’s commander, Lt. DeSantis. The precarious resting spot put us right on top of the village of Chimchal, the first real objective of the unit’s participation in Operation Mountain Lion. The place was described as a haven for “facilitators” or “middlemen” involved with the multiple IED attacks on Americans based in the region.

FNC
Greg Palkot
After smashing our way through the brush growing on the remainder of the steep cliff (Trails? Who needs trails? Trails are for chickens), we made it to the town. The “town” is actually a bunch of wooden houses scattered around a half-mile-wide area of scenic landscape of mountains and forests. If Usama bin Laden has hung out in this neighborhood, as multiple reports have claimed in the past few years, he picked a scenic spot.

The spot is a pretty lonely one, by the looks of things. Funny, but this usually busy farm compound was a ghost town when we entered. Though there seemed to be freshly-cut wood and branches, there’s not a farm animal and few people in sight. There are not even many items inside the houses.

Also, disappointingly for the Marines, there is little in the way of stashed ammo or other tools of the terror trade they could deprive the bad guys of using. Though the platoon does come across what they believe is a meeting place for insurgents, complete with what they think are holding cells for whoever needs to be held. And again, except for an old woman and a young child discovered at one home, there is no one. Zippo. Zilch.

The platoon surmises that many in the village got word we were coming and high-tailed it out of there — or they were waiting in ambush mode. In a few hours, we would learn that later could have been the case.

But first, we had to do another one of those hikes that I was beginning not to like a whole lot. This one included a walk along a six-inch wide ledge of gravel about a hundred yards long and about a hundred yards above a narrow jagged ravine. With my heavy pack weighing me down on one side, I made it very slowly across that landscape.

Again, I was lucky to make it through another outing with the D.O. without anything untoward happening. These guys have to do this stuff day in and day out in addition to fighting their way through any battle they might encounter. Sadly, one member of the platoon on this day actually did slip down one of the canyons and had to be Medivac-ed out of the area with serious back injuries. There were other similar non-combat but painful injuries as well. The war on terror can be dangerous indeed…in all sorts of ways.

When we finally made it to the next precipice/overlook of our next objective at the town of Kandalay, the concerns of the last few days suddenly became a reality. On the heavily-wooded hillside about a quarter of a mile away, mortars suddenly burst between the trees. It was estimated a dozen or so insurgents were laying in wait for the platoon before letting go with a round of fire.

Within seconds, the entire area where darkness had just been falling was lit up with red streaks of tracer fire that came from two Marine units who were up on the hillside. This was followed by our own Marine platoon rushing out their machine guns and, careful so as not to hit any “friendlies,” letting loose as well.

After three days of slogging up and down mountains, these guys were finally doing what they came here to do — dueling with the enemy. And duel they did; assisted by high-tech laser-spotting devices and the threat of air strikes, which didn’t need to be called in because soon after the firefight started it was over. Post-battle analysis put the casualty figure at four dead and seven injured. Not bad work for one night.

Cameraman Pierre and I covered much of the action and were ready to send it out by videophone when — bane of all photographers professional or amateur — our batteries went dead. This illustrated the risks of being deeply embedded in a mission and not just on the fringes. The car battery, which should have given us a few days of juice and should have been on air supply drop the day before, never made it. We thought we could squeak by until the next drop but the cold weather did us in. The folks at home would just have to wait until we got off the mountain, which would be a little more time yet.

A planned extraction-by-chopper for us was scratched. Probably because it wasn’t the safest thing to fly into a valley just after bullets and shells had sailed through the same space.

So Pierre and I rolled out our sleeping bags and got set for luxury. It would be the first night out of three where we would actually be sleeping horizontally on relatively rock-free ground with just the odd insurgent possibly lurking nearby. Now that’s five-star treatment for our Marine hosts and us.

NEXT: THE RAINS COME….AND A FIERY SEND-OFF

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent. Follow him on Twitter@GregPalkot.