In October 2010, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines started clearing the Taliban insurgency from the Sangin District in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Once 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines handed over the area of observation to 3/5, things escalated quickly, making this campaign one of the bloodiest in American history.
Marines who headed out to clear the enemy-infested area were met by a dangerous environment and an extremely complicated IED threat — as a result, casualty rates climbed.
Eventually, the actions of the Marines of 3/5 were unofficially dubbed, "Bangin' in Sangin." The narrative that unfolded there was very close to that of a story set in the Wild West. Here's why:
1. Paved roads were scarce
In most parts of the world, people drive on paved roads with designated lanes. Well, for British and American forces, the only option was to drive and patrol on roads made from loose gravel. The main roads in the district were described as nothing more than "wide trails."
Since the majority of the Sangin population uses animals to haul their cargo, in the troops' perspective, it was like jumping into a time machine and transporting back to the Old West.
Marines of 3/5th Marine patrol through unpredictable, enemy terrain in Sangin, Afghanistan.
2. The local cemeteries
How many Westerns have we seen where the cowboys, on horseback, encounter an eerie cemetery as they travel through uncharted land? Too often to count, right?
Well, Sangin was no different. Many of the graves were decorated with rocks and flags tied to wooden staves — just like the movies.
3. The nasty terrain
In many Westerns, the cowboys add days to their journeys because of some unmarked obstacle blocking their path, forcing them around.
In Sangin, the rough terrain provided for some unique challenges. Harsh conditions plus the fact that mud structures can be destroyed and rebuilt quickly made keeping maps current nearly impossible.
HM3 Mitchell Ingolia, assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment conducts a security patrol through the dangerous area known as Sangin, Afghanistan.
(Photo by U.S. Marine Cpl. David Hernandez)
4. The locals lived in tribes
In the old days, Native Americans lived in settlements and did every they could to make ends meet while answering to the chief of the tribe. In Afghanistan, Marines commonly patrolled through similar villages — and the locals answered to their Islamic religious leader, known as the "Mullah."
Though modern in many ways, social organization on the local level remains tribal.
5. The Marines lived like cowboys
When Marines left the wire for several days, they packed ammo, food, and their sleeping system. Since they didn't know where they were going to be sleeping each night, Marines found rest in places most people couldn't even imagine.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jose Maldonado (left) and Cpl. Rocco Urso (right), both with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, provide over watch security during an operation in Sangin Valley, Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2010. The Marines conducted a two-day operation to clear insurgents from the Wishtan area.
(USMC photo by Cpl. David Hernandez)