NAWA, Afghanistan – Taliban militants were nowhere in sight as the columns of U.S. Marines walked a third straight day across southern Afghanistan. But the desert heat proved an enemy in its own right, with several troops falling victim Saturday to temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Marines carry 50-100 pounds on their backs. But because they are marching through farmland on foot, they can't carry nearly as much water as their thirst demands.
Few even realized the date was July 4, but once word of the holiday spread through the company, several said they knew relatives would be holding lakeside celebrations — a world away from the strenuous task Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was taking on.
"Happy 4th of July, dawg. Happy America," said Lance Corp. Vince Morales, 21, of Baytown, Texas said to one of his Marine buddies while resting under a tree during a break.
Some Marines ate watermelon from a farmer's field as the evening sun set, but there were few other signs of a holiday celebration here.
Some 4,000 Marines are moving through southern Helmand to take back Taliban-held territory and pinch the insurgents' supply lines. Bravo Company has seen a lot of walking but up to now little fighting, though other Marines in the operation have had extended battles.
So far, the worst danger facing Bravo is the heat. Temperatures are well above 100 degrees (37.8 Celsius), and medics treated several heat casualties Saturday.
"When (body) temperature goes up past 104, your brain starts cooking, and that's what we're trying to prevent," said Simon Trujillo, an HM3 Navy Medic from Dallas.
The high heat, heavy packs, limited water and three straight days of walking through tough farmland terrain were taking a toll, he said. Several Marines threw up or were dry-heaving from the heat. Three passed out, and other Marines rushed to share the weight and pour water on overheated bodies.
"It's pretty taxing on your body. There's no way to prepare for this," said Trujillo.
One cruel irony: A helicopter dropped off a load of water to the Marines early Saturday, but because they hadn't yet reached their final destination, they took only what they could carry and left hundreds of bottles behind for Afghan villagers to drink.
The sun in southern Helmand is blazing by 8 a.m., and the troops seek out any sliver of shade available. Trees grow along the many manmade water canals the farmers use to survive here, but there is little relief elsewhere.
Sweat pours off faces as Marines shift heavy weapons from one shoulder to the other. Everyone still carries all the ammunition they arrived with in the dark hours of early Thursday, because this unit has not yet exchanged fire.
The Marines walk in columns down dusty dirt roads, and every couple dozen steps they bend over at the waist to give aching shoulders a break. During frequent breaks, medics go up and down the line, looking to see if their men are drinking water.
"It'd be so great if we took contact. We'd lose so much weight," said Lance Corp. Michael Estrada, 20, of Los Angeles.
Lance Corp. Bryan Knight, a mortar man, carries one of the heaviest pack. The 21-year-old Cincinnati native weighs a slight 145 pounds — and his pack almost equals him.
He carries a 15-pound mortar base plate, four mortar rockets that weigh 10 pounds each, about 15 pounds of water and another 50 pounds of combat gear — ammunition, weapon and his flak jacket.
Unsurprisingly, he is drenched in sweat. "The only dry parts of my clothes are the pockets," he said.
Squatting in a lean-to made out of a camouflage poncho beside Knight was Corp. Aaron Shade, 24, of Greenville, Ohio, who hadn't realized it was Independence Day back home in the U.S.
"My family's out on the boat house riding on jet skis, drinking lots of beer," he said. "That's not depressing to think about."
The company captain, Drew Schoenmaker, said the heat was affecting militants as well, noting there were few daytime attacks theater-wide and none on his unit. He said he doubted people back in the United States could understand how hard his Marines work.
"Someone back home might say, 'Oh, it's 100 degrees here, too.' But you're not trying to carry 60 or 90 pounds and people aren't trying to kill you," he said. "And you can always step out of the sun. You can't always do that here."