On this and every Memorial Day, we honor all our fallen. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. I especially honor today a man I never met, LCpl Nicholas J. Hand, USMC, who died as a warrior. May he rest in peace.
The following account is from my son, a former FMF Corpsman and OEF warfighter. The events herein took place at Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan during the Battle of Helmand in late 2009.
The Marines of 2nd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment (2/2) were approaching the end of the first month of a seven month deployment to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The deployment was a measure of the “troop surge,” with the intent to purge Helmand and Kandahar of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and influence. The men of 2/2 were serving as the tip of the spear as the most southern Marine Infantry unit in Helmand, Fox company being the furthest South, with only Taliban controlled territory all the way to the Pakistani border about 100 miles south. It is November, 2009.
Fox company had been ramping up combat Operations after completing a handover of the area of operations (AO) from 2/8, who had completed an initial push into Garmsir district in July, and had been fighting to hold the ground they had taken from the enemy. Enemy forces were very active in the area, and engagements were happening on a daily basis. Fox company’s 1st and 3rd platoon were sharing a patrol base (PB Lakari) in the first weeks of the deployment. This patrol base sat on the Eastern edge of the green zone with open desert to the East all the way to Kandahar. The green zone referred to the fields and villages that ran along the Helmand river, supporting agriculture in the area, mostly poppy fields. PB Lakari was the most Southern Marine position, and everything to the West and South was enemy territory. Early in the deployment, the men of 1st and 3rd platoon pushed across Route Cowboys, 300 meters to the West of PB Lakari, in order to capture a compound on the Western side. Route Cowboys was a known engagement point for the Taliban, ambushing the Marines any time they attempted to cross. The route was a canal with a dirt road on either side, with only a minimal amount of crossings every kilometer or so. Capturing this compound on the West side of Cowboys allowed for 1st platoon to set up their own patrol base, and set up a mutually supporting position with the men of 3rd platoon at PB Lakari. This not only allowed for patrolling efforts to begin to the West towards the Helmand River, but solidified denying enemy movements along the route and securing the Western side of PB Lakari. The Taliban awoke the next morning to find the Americans had not only taken the bridge, but set up shop in a key position, with American colors flying high overhead.
Firefights in the following 10 days would result in many Taliban dead as they attempted to push the Marines out of their new position with no success. One such engagement gave the leaders of Fox company an opportunity to gain some intelligence for the counter insurgency fight. After retrieving one of the dead enemy fighters, they waited for someone to come claim the body. A group of men showed up to PB cowboys, armed only with a flatbed truck asking for the body. The Marine commanders had hailed a drone to track the movement of the truck to where it delivered the body. The location was a large compound, deep south into Taliban held territory, and deeper than any Marines had gone before. The Marines had the advantage of this compound being located on the eastern edge of the green zone, which meant it could be accessed through the desert.
In the early morning hours of 20 Nov, the Marines of 3rd platoon set off in a wide swing into the desert, avoiding the enemy held areas of the green zone under the cover of darkness, and arrived at the suspected enemy compound before dawn. The Marines set positions around the compound, maximizing the efforts of stealth. As the sun began to rise, the Marines assaulted the position. No one was home and the compound was fairly empty, an apparent bust. But the raid did send a message to the Taliban: the Marines of 2/2 cared not what land the Taliban thought they held, and they would strike anywhere and at anytime. The Taliban took note, as spotters watched the Marines of 3rd platoon exfil back into the desert and North to their patrol base.
A day passed as the Taliban amassed forces, transporting a large number of fighters from Marjah in attempt to gain superior numbers over the Marines. On the morning of 22 Nov, both 1st and 3rd platoons were running standard patrol base operations, with one squad on patrol, one on security, and another on rest and QRF (quick reaction force). At 0900, 3rd platoon’s 1st squad, 3A, had departed for a security patrol into the Northern portion of Lakari village, directly south of the PB. 1A was simultaneously pushing south from Cowboys. Less than an hour later, QRF was called, as 3A had found an IED in the middle of a field to the East of Lakari. 3C deployed from PB Lakari with a two man EOD team attached. The two squads linked up about 50 yards from the IED and 3A was allowed to push with their planned patrol route while 3C set security for the EOD team. The open field meant the team was forced to remove the IED with no cover, potentially in the open for a potential attack.
Minutes later, the Taliban sprung their ambush, bringing to bear approximately 60-80 fighters in an area slightly larger than a kilometer. All three Marine squads 1A, 3A, and 3C were simultaneously engaged from multiple directions, with Taliban fighters even between the squads themselves. 1A and 3A maneuvered to engage. 1A was patrolling through a poppy field during the initial contact, and was forced to maneuver to cover, facing multiple enemy machine gun positions. 3C continued to provide support to the EOD team, who were attempting to disarm the device while taking withering fire. 3A was attempting to push through Lakari village to support 1A, now effectively in an L shaped ambush, and quickly being enveloped. Elements of 3C began clearing compounds East of Cowboys, as the EOD team was forced to deactivate the device’s trigger mechanism, but leave the explosive charge to deal with at another time, as their position in the field was no longer tenable. This allowed all of 3C to push into the compounds and begin clearing towards the other Marines.
At this time, 1A was engaging enemy machine gun positions to the West while moving to a small canal at the edge of a field for better cover. LCpl Nicholas Hand, a Marine Assaultman, was readying a SMAW rocket to launch at the enemy positions, his squad becoming evermore pinned down. LCpl Hand had already fired one rocket into a tree line full of enemy fighters. As he stepped out from cover to deploy his weapon again, he was struck by a medium machine gun round, killing him instantly.
The same burst of fire wounded a second Marine, being struck in the leg. Being now completely pinned down, 1A was requesting fire support. Medevac birds were in route to 1st platoon’s position, though every suitable landing zone was under heavy fire. The Army helo crew landed anyway; taking hits from enemy machine gun fire. They were only able to get the one wounded Marine out before being forced to take off with maximum power to push out of the kill zone. Two miles to the East, a Marine CH53 crew was listening to the frantic radio chatter and communications with the Army birds as they had to get off the ground and come back to get LCpl Hand when the situation on the ground changed. The Marine Aircrew decided risking their bird in a casevac role they were not equipped for was the only honorable thing to do.
About 20 minutes after the first Army Medevac birds arrived, the Marine CH53 landed, and while the fuselage was being riddled with enemy fire, the Crew chief exited and saluted as LCpl Hand was loaded.
The tone had changed for the commanders on the ground. All organic firepower available to the two platoons was now in use, and still facing a numerically strong enemy. After being denied air support for the better part of an hour, clearance was finally given for a Viper/Venom gun ship team to begin engaging targets. The commanders on the ground chose a compound and a tree line, both full of enemy fighters, for hellfire missile strikes. The Viper deployed from the East and launched two successful missile strikes, severely quieting the enemy forces. The Venom followed up with its door mounted M134 minigun in a devastating gun run over the battlefield.
The Marines on the ground, under air cover, were able to regroup and take the compounds in Lakari being used by the enemy fighters. The day resulted in the Marines holding all positions and an estimated 60 enemy KIA, gutting the Taliban reinforcements from Marjah. Fox company would go on to surpass all unit deployment objectives, including the capture of the Lakari market, a Taliban stronghold that had repelled the British Army with heavy casualties years earlier, and further expand Coalition control of Helmand Province. Fox Company would report ‘Troops In Contact’ 117 times; 99% of the company would receive a Combat Action Ribbon during the deployment. The efforts of 2/2 in Garmsir, and sister Marine Units throughout Helmand and Kandahar resulted in Task Force Leatherneck being awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest unit award in our armed forces.
I was honored to serve in 3rd platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines as a United States Navy Corpsman (FMF) during the 2009-2010 deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The Marines of that unit will always be my brothers, and fighting alongside them will forever be one of the greatest things I have ever done, and wearing the same uniform as our fallen is something I live my life to honor.
Former HM3 (FMF) Michael Blake Docherty, USN
LCpl Nicholas J. Hand, USMC is buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas.
“Marine LCpl Hand was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He died when he encountered small arms fire while supporting combat operations. Nicholas graduated in December 2007 from Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Missouri. He was motivated by his desire to enter the Marine Corps so he could fight for freedom. Although he was only 17 years old at the time, he convinced his parents that he really wanted to serve so they signed for him to go. After boot camp, Nicholas was sent to Iraq where he served one tour before his deployment to Afghanistan. After four years with the Marines, he planned on attending college and pursuing a career in politics. Nicholas was dedicated to his family – he was the third oldest of 10 brothers and sisters – his Marine Corps brothers, his girlfriend and his friends. He enjoyed college football and loved to play Texas Hold’em whenever he could find spare time. Nicholas paid the ultimate price for his strong belief in this country and freedom – he was a dedicated warrior.”