COP SULLIVAN, Afghanistan – There are few songs as mournful and haunting as Taps played for a fallen warrior, and on an isolated combat outpost (COP) in southern Afghanistan it has been sounded for David Baker, a 22-year-old Marine lance corporal who was just six weeks short of going home when he was killed in an explosion.
"He was on a hill next to this village," said Sgt. David Hine, of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. ''Everyone was in single file behind him. He'd just unfolded his (metal) detector and taken a step..."
Baker, a mine sweeper, was killed outright by an estimated 50 pounds of homemade explosives buried beneath sand and detonated by a pressure plate.
"It was typical of the IEDs we find here," said Sgt. Grey Jewett, an explosive ordnance disposal expert attached to Weapons Company's 81 Platoon. "They're mostly pressure-plate activated, with 50-pound charges. [The Taliban are] trying to disrupt our supply routes and piss us off — and we are."
IEDs are the Taliban's weapon of choice in the Nawa District of southern Helmand Province, about 50 miles from Pakistan. The total area of the district, which according to one Marine was "the home of the bogeyman" when they arrived during the summer, is a bit over 400 square miles. Weapons Company's area of operation, nicknamed AO Dixie, is about 91 square miles of desert with a large swath of farming villages located along irrigation canals near the Helmand River.
Marines in the district have established more than 20 outposts around those communities to guard against dislodged Taliban returning from the neighboring district of Marjah, about 3 miles away and without any American presence.
During earlier clearing operations it was estimated that as many as 500 Taliban gunmen were in Nawa. The number is now smaller, but hard to put a figure on.
"It's all a guess at this point," said a senior officer with Task Force Leatherneck, which is in charge of Marine units in Helmand. "Numbers range between 50 and 150 and from 10 to 50 — and all in the same location.
"The numbers are hard to get a handle on because you don't know who is really a hard-core Taliban and who is doing this for money, the 'day-laborer' bad guy."
First Lt. Clint Hall is in charge of Combat Outpost Sullivan, which anchors Marine efforts in AO Dixie. He believes there are about 30 Taliban in his zone, but "that fluctuates, and more and more people who at one time had ties (to the Taliban) have turned over a new leaf and use their shovel now for farming instead of planting IEDs."
But IEDs are being planted nonetheless. And while the number has dropped 75 percent from the summer, discovering five a week is not uncommon, Hill said.
According to Sgt Jewett and Staff Sgt. Matthew Grant, leader of the EOD team whose job it is to defuse and destroy IEDs, three types of mines are used in Nawa: the pressure-plate anti-vehicle IED, the directional fragmentation charge (a home-made Claymore anti-personnel mine), and “pulled” mines. Both the fragmentation IED and anti-vehicle pull mine use a plastic water or soda bottle filled with material as the detonation initiator for a larger charge. They’re set off using of piece of string or cord pulled through the bottle to connect metal parts to complete an electrical detonation circuit by an insurgent hiding several hundred yards away.
Unlike Iraq, where IEDs first gained prominence, the explosives used in Nawa are not conventional ordnance, such as mortars and artillery shells. Instead, they're made from ammonium nitrate used in fertilizer.
"Everything is homemade," Grant said. "But the ammonium nitrate isn't from Afghanistan. It all seems to be brought in from Pakistan.
"They're really good at disguising it. They take their time planting it and put it in (the ground) well."
Jewett and Grant repeatedly exhort Marines on what to watch for when patrolling the desert or around villages: kite string or any type of cord, freshly turned earth, collections of rocks, clumps of brush, plastic jugs and coffee cans.
Two days after a memorial service for Baker at COP Sullivan, Marines returned to the village of Korkoran. Their target was an empty mud-and-brick house on its edge from where potshots are sometimes taken at patrols. It was next to "Baker's Hill," where the Marine from Ohio was killed.
"Holy s---. My foot was in mid-air when the detector went off," said Joseph Woodard, a Marine. "I almost wasn't able to pull back."
Woodard, a sweeper, had found the first of two IEDs. The pressure plate, attached to two separate explosive charges, was at the doorway. A second was found minutes later near a second entrance to the building.
Marines express frustration over an enemy that seldom meets them head-on in battle. But there is some satisfaction: at least three Taliban are believed to have accidentally blown themselves up while planting their explosives in the last month.
"Gone but not forgotten," a Marine wrote on his helmet about Lance Corporal Baker. With redeployment nearing, the Marines of Weapons Company are hoping Taps won't be sounded here again.