It was late December 2009 and our 14-man Marine Special Operations Team (MSOT) was tasked with conducting a Joint/Combined operation to seize a key piece of terrain in Bala Morghab River Valley.  Our partner for this mission was a squad (-) of 82nd Airborne Paratroopers and a small detachment of Afghan National Army Soldiers (6). Our objective was a hilltop located on the eastern side of the BMG valley. It was the first piece in cutting off the Taliban’s freedom of movement from north and south through the valley. Bala Morghab had been a Taliban stronghold since the war began in 2001.

I was the only Scout Sniper from the team that was present for the mission. My specific task was to secure the southwest corner of the hilltop. This mound of dirt was was named “Objective Pathfinder” and we were Team Pathfinder.

Team Pathfinder left the fire base and moved east under cover of darkness on foot, meeting no resistance in physically securing the hill. The Soldiers and Marines used the last hours of darkness to dig shallow trenches and fighting positions prior to sunrise; knowing full-well that once the Taliban realized Coalition Forces had occupied this key piece of terrain a firefight was guaranteed to erupt. It was only a matter of time now.

Team Pathfinder, Day 4
Team Pathfinder, Day 4

Day one – The first enemy contact occurred around 0830 hours. It was a long day filled with multiple waves of enemy engagements. They used small arms, medium machine-guns and several volleys of rocket propelled grenades (RPG) from numerous fighting positions within the villages below the hill. I was using a 7.62 semi-automatic sniper rifle and it was working well against near targets, but most of the enemy movement we could observe was at a distance of over 1000 meters. At this point, I knew I needed my Barrett M107 SASR, nicknamed “Elvis”. As darkness fell over the valley, friendly forces settled in for a long and cold night of observing the battle space through night vision devices. The valley was sporadically lit by friendly mortar illumination rounds throughout the night. It was a sub-freezing break for the fighting.

We slept in 30 minute shifts throughout the night and stood up all forces just before sunrise. We knew the fighting was going to continue. Like clockwork, the Taliban engaged us with sporadic fire. Their intent was to test and probe the defenses of the hill. We knew from intelligence reporting that the Taliban were planning a last ditch effort to drive us from the hill today.

I was scanning the villages for movement when the post “noon-pray” engagement kicked-off. The Taliban launched a complex attack on us. The initial fire come from rolling hills to our east and consisted of medium machine-gun, mortar and RPG fire. The rockets streaked over our heads while machine-gun rounds impacted the berm and sandbags we were using to fortify our positions. This was followed by enemy fire erupting from the village to our south. This was a well-coordinated L-shape attack. At this point, I began engaging enemy targets to the south while taking accurate machine-gun fire from the eastern Taliban element in the hills. Every gun on pathfinder was in the fight, returning waves of fire to enemy positions on both flanks.

While returning fire on an RPG gunner in the village, my M107 SASR was struck in the magazine well by a PKM machine-gun round.  The force of the impacting round knocked me off the gun. The round that impacted my rifle was a tracer, and it was still burning. The tracer caught the magazine on fire, which caused a round inside the weapon to explode.

MSOT 8222 Scout Sniper "Cool Breeze"
MSOT 8222 Scout Sniper "Cool Breeze"

The magazine itself contained the force of the exploding round.  My team leader, Andy, worked to put out the now burning gun.  The fire was out; Andy turned to me and asked if I was okay. I replied by saying “yeah, that scared the shit out of me”.  I was fine, just a few bullet fragments in the neck, nothing major.

I took a moment to look the gun over and knew instantly I wasn’t going to be able to use it for the remainder of the fight.  I picked up my M4 that was next to me and began firing at a Taliban fighter that was on a hill approximately 300 meters to my southeast.  After about 10 shots, I felt like the 5.56 wasn’t cutting it. I crawled on my stomach for about 20 feet to where my 7.62 was and grabbed it.  I used it for the remainder of the firefight. We fought for about an hour until our Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC), “Ski” dropped 4 X 2000 lbs. JDAMs.  The bomb impacts took any remaining fight from the surviving Taliban.  When the fighting stopped, I picked up the M107 SASR and Andy snapped a picture.

M107 SASR with Bullet Damage
M107 SASR with Bullet Damage

I tried to manipulate the bolt, but was unable to get the weapon to cycle.  Using a pair of pliers, I removed the lodged bullet from the side of the rifle.  The magazine had to be pried out of the gun due to the damage it received.  Once the magazine was free, I was able to pull the bolt back. There was a spent case still in the chamber.  I punched the bore and the casing dropped out.  I then took the rifle apart and cleaned it for about an hour; put it back together. To everyone’s amazement, it still worked and the scope was still zeroed!  Though unable to insert a magazine into the weapon, I fired that rifle single shot, while breach loading it over and over again more than 100 times for the next two days.  I used that rifle to cut off Taliban re-supply/reinforcement lines and kept enemy fighters pinned down for hours. In short, that weapon and I wreaked havoc over the Taliban’s stronghold for four days straight and many months to follow.

When we finally returned to FOB Todd on New Years Eve day, I used a Dremel hand grinder to clean up the damaged areas.  Once the grinding was complete, I inserted a magazine and the rifle worked as well as the day it was issued.  I continued to use that same rifle for the next four months, with my last engagement being on April 29th, 2010.  At one point our Company armorer sent out another lower receiver to replace the damaged one. I refused to change them out.

This rifle saved my ass, so I wasn’t about to take Elvis out of the fight.

– From Team Pathfinder to BMG Taliban “We are still here and the hill is still ours

(Top photo: The Battle for Pathfinder Hill in Bala Morghab, Afghanistan – December 27-29, 2009)

Dedicated to the loving memory and sacrifice of GySgt. Robert L. Gilbert & SSgt. Patrick R. Dolphin

GySgt. Robert L. Gilbert, Fallen MARSOC Operator

Read Next: GySgt. Robert L. Gilbert, Fallen MARSOC Operator

Michael Golembesky is a former JTAC with 2D Marine Special Operations Battalion (MSOB) and author.

Level Zero Heroes | The Story of U.S. Marine SOF in Bala Morghab, Afghanistan

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Email: levelzeroheroes {at} gmail {dot} com


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