Squad Leaders in Afghanistan
The day he became an infantry squad leader, Lance Corporal Felix Davila had already been blown up once.
He’d been driving a John Deere Gator on a resupply mission for the tiny, squad- size patrol base the grunts of the first squad from Third Platoon, First Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment called home. The day’s mission: acquire fuel for the dust-covered generator at Patrol Base (PB) Styx. Unfortunately, they had been given wrong information; the fuel did not exist. They were forced to return on the same road, empty-handed. For Marines who always patrolled on foot and never took the same route twice, this was exceptionally dangerous—but unavoidable.
On the way home, the Gator triggered an improvised explosive device (IED) that was buried in an embankment on the side of the road. The blast threw Davila from the vehicle and rendered him unconscious. Hasty emplacement meant the bomb only exploded partially which saved Davila’s life. When he regained consciousness, he ran quickly away from the Gator, then back to the vehicle to grab his M16A4 rifle, then back off of the road. Despite a bruised arm and an awful headache, he counted himself combat-effective—and lucky—and refused medical evacuation. And when the squad realized the Gator could still run, he volunteered to drive it back despite the danger.
Corporal Nick Ott, the squad leader, overruled Davila and took the driver’s seat. Ott, from Manchester, N.J., had joined the unit after Davila’s first deployment to Afghanistan. Fresh from Marine Corps Security Forces Regiment, he lacked specialized experience patrolling in Helmand Province but had quickly proven himself a capable and competent leader and earned Davila’s respect—something the Chicago native did not hand out freely.
As the squad proceeded along the side of the road, they tried their best to find IEDs. They scraped for wires. They sent out the counter-IED dog. They were protected by man-carried electronic countermeasure (ECM) packs that blocked all radio signals except their own.
But despite their best efforts, Cpl Ott still drove over a pressure plate, which completed a circuit from a battery pack to an electric blasting cap and detonated a massive explosive device directly underneath the vehicle. The engine block flew into the air, landing far from the road. The gas tank shot out of the side and struck a Marine, injuring him badly. In the explosion, Ott was thrown in the air and disappeared from view. Davila found him a good distance from the blast site. The squad’s corpsman worked to save his life, but in this case, nothing could be done.
When the medevacs were completed, Davila took the quiet, subdued squad back to base. And from that point forward, although he was less than three years into his enlistment and had only achieved the grade of lance corporal, he fell into a role of immense responsibility: the infantry squad leader.
In the Marine Corps, the billet of squad leader usually is filled by an infantry Marine with the grade of E-5—sergeant.
The squad leader oversees three fire teams consisting of four Marines each: a fire team leader, a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) gunner, an assistant SAW gunner and a point man. Attachments to the squad might be permanent, like mortarmen, assaultmen and machine gunners, or temporary, such as snipers, partnered forces and female engagement teams.
In Helmand Province, Afghanistan, squads could be tasked to bring along unarmed reporters, diplomats, interpreters, Afghan government officials, and even archaeologists, meaning there could be 20 lives in a squad leader’s care on patrols.
In April of 2011, “Charlie” Company, 1st Bn, 3d Marines, deployed to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan with five lance corporal squad leaders, who were paid the E-3 salary of $1,886 dollars a month and still treated like junior enlisted by some NCOs.
At the time, Second Lieutenant Nathan Fukuwa was very surprised and uneasy about the “huge shortage” of noncommissioned officers throughout 1/3. His own platoon contained very few corporals and one sergeant, who later became the platoon sergeant. He determined that the corporals he did have were not suited to lead Marines in combat. He found himself relying on the experience of lance corporals, whom he considered the “backbone” of the battalion.
Because of sky-high cutting scores and a lack of meritorious promotion boards, the bulk of Charlie Co’s workforce consisted of E-3s and below, each with between two and three years of experience in the Marine Corps.
A uniquely qualified group, the “Lava Dogs” of 1/3 had endured back-to-back-to-back-to-back deployments since 2004, and the lance corporals who led squads in Garmsir in 2011 already had at least one deployment to Afghanistan under their belts. This experience would prove invaluable in the months to come.
LCpl Robert “Trey” Lemont always knew he wanted to be a Marine. He was raised primarily by his father in the small, rural town of Mansfield, Ind. He played football only until his freshman year of high school, then lifted weights religiously.
His father taught him one simple, valuable lesson: always do the right thing. He would live by this mantra during his time in the Marine Corps, and the idea of doing the right thing—not the easy thing— became a core tenet of his leadership philosophy.
Lemont was short, but among the most athletic and muscular Marines in the company. Known for his bodybuilder’s physique and no-nonsense attitude, he was soft-spoken for a Marine and rarely yelled at his subordinates.
During his first deployment, he became a fire team leader when a senior Marine experienced a family emergency. With an eye to the next deployment, his leadership gave him an early slot to Infantry Squad Leader’s Course (ISLC). Upon graduating, he led a fire team and then a squad in training.
In April 2011, he and other squad leaders traveled in advance to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, to shadow 2d Bn, 1st Marines, the unit they would be relieving. He learned that his squad would have the responsibility of securing the massive, bustling Safaar Bazaar.
For better or for worse, he would be based at Charlie Co’s headquarters: Command Outpost Rankel (COP).
His location came both with benefits and inconveniences. On the one hand, he was bunked next to the company staff, including the first sergeant, and as such, all of his actions were subject to scrutiny and possible micromanagement.
On the other hand, he and his squad would have access to comforts he had not enjoyed on his previous deployment: a gym with real barbells, a freezer full of cold water and energy drinks, hot meals, and access to the internet.
Even with these amenities, Lemont strove to avoid complacency. COP Rankel was nice, but he knew that outside of its dirt-filled HESCO walls lay the same canal-ridden countryside where the previous battalion had found 400 IEDs.
While some squads operated out of larger company or platoon-sized bases, others patrolled from squad-sized positions that were often little more than a wall of dirt-filled HESCO barriers surrounding a tent. LCpl Doug Miller of upstate New York ran one such remote outpost: PB Amboy, located south of COP Rankel.
There, the 21-year-old planned patrols, coordinated resupplies and mentored Afghan National Army forces. In the sweltering heat, he wrote orders for two-a-day patrols. On these long, hot walks through blooming red-white poppy fields, LCpl Miller met with Pashtun elders two or three times his age. To them, he was the face of the American government, its sole representative to men who had fought Soviets as mujahedeen in the 1980s and now looked at the American forces skeptically.
It was perhaps a mixture of talent, leadership ability and lineage that set Miller apart as a lance corporal squad leader. He could trace his family tree back to the pilgrims of the Mayflower, and a member of his family had fought in every major American war since the Revolutionary War.
He ran track and boxed in high school specifically to prepare himself for the Marine Corps, and more so, for the ultimate proving ground for young men of all eras: war.
These three Marines came from different backgrounds but shared similar intrinsic qualities essential to an infantry leader. They were some of the most physically fit Marines in the company, the kind that would take a lagging grunt’s rucksack and carry it while he recovered. They were outspoken, often calling out their peers for poor performance. And they were motivated by the very real threat of being under a poor leader in combat—or getting someone killed for their mistakes.
Though they operated from outposts miles apart, they faced similar dangers from IEDs. They walked single-file with the point man sweeping the path ahead with a metal detector in a practiced rhythm. The next man was usually a fire team leader with a “Holley Stick” or “sickle,” a 6-foot-long bamboo pole tipped with a dulled farmer’s sickle blade. The tool, which was used to scrape the ground for wires and other components, was named after the late explosive ordnance disposal team leader Gunnery Sergeant Floyd Holley, who invented it during his deployment to Garmsir with 3/1. The squad would bring along Thor or Guardian man-carried electronic countermeasure packs to block radio-controlled IEDs, and, as a final confirmation measure, an IED-defeat dog.
These lance corporals, leading squads of other lance corporals, were entrusted with the immense responsibility of fighting complacency; they ensured men never slept on post and that the squad took the most difficult route on patrol. Yet even going off the beaten path was no guarantee of safety. On one moonless night, LCpl Miller’s point man’s metal detector pinged in the middle of a poppy field far from any goat path or road. When an EOD Marine pulled up the bomb, he realized that the point man had been mere inches from detonating it.
The center of gravity in counterinsurgency warfare is the populace. For the Marines of Garmsir, it meant being warfighters and diplomats alike. It also meant that lance corporals were forced to make tactical decisions with strategic consequences.
When Felix Davila’s squad found a pressure-plate IED on a road near the base, they did so on a walk-in tip from an Afghan villager, who had felt comfortable enough with the Marines to come straight to the patrol base. Then, after EOD prepped the bomb for a controlled detonation, the squad spotted a car driving straight toward the IED—and stopped it just in time to avoid being blown to pieces.
Not every major accomplishment involved bombs, however. LCpl Lemont fell into the role of “little mayor” of the Safaar Bazaar, a title he earned by building relationships with shopkeepers in the busiest market in Garmsir. Thousands of merchants and buyers flocked to the bazaar on Tuesdays. Lemont and his squad would meander among the peddlers of pirated DVDs and the rice vendors and converse through a translator. They might talk about the Taliban, but more often the weather or the Afghan’s family.
His day-to-day duties far eclipsed the warfighter title of infantryman and bridged into civil affairs. He organized the distribution of soccer balls to Afghan children and when he realized they had nowhere to play, he proposed to his leadership the idea of building a soccer field near the bazaar. Children and adults flocked to the field after it was completed. The lance corporal’s idea was a resounding success.
Davila, Lemont and Miller were each promoted to corporal meritoriously during the latter half of the deployment, although none of them reenlisted. Because of their upbringings, personalities and the leadership-from-day-one culture of the Marine Corps, they were able to take control of remote bases and make life-or-death decisions in austere conditions.
These lance corporals proved that merit and capability were more valuable than grade—and, most importantly, they brought their Marines home alive.