March 29th, 2010
01:50 PM ET

Behind the scenes of the battle for Marjah

Editor's Note: CNN camerawoman Mary Rogers accompanied a U.S. Marine Corps unit on Operation Moshtarak in Marjah from its preparations into the first few weeks. A veteran of warzone reporting, she has filmed in places such as Somalia, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Iraq, Chechnya, Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. Here is part 1 of some of her reflections on her time in Marjah and a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and camaraderie reporting from the Afghan battlefield.

In all my years with CNN, Operation Moshtarak was one of the roughest, toughest assignments I have ever had. It was also one of the most memorable, an experience I wouldn't trade for the world.

D-Day: February 13, 2:30 a.m. local time, somewhere in a farm field on the outskirts of Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak begins.

Cold. Dark. Muddy. Miserable. "What in the HELL have I gotten myself into?" These were my first thoughts just minutes after exiting a helicopter with the Alpha 1/6, USMC. Tripping and stumbling in deeply furrowed farmland. Falling not once, but three times! "You are such a dork, Mary," I say to myself. "Wonderful first impression you are making here!" Later that day I was to learn that I was not the only "dork" in the dark. My colleague CNN correspondent Atia Abawi fell twice, and so did many of the Marines, even though they have night vision goggles.

Above: Grabbing some rest at the 'Marjah Marriott.' Photo at top: This photo sums up Fiddler's Green to me.

11 days earlier, Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan
The Marines bring all the press corps assigned to cover Operation Moshtarak in early.  Hurry up and wait. Looking around the press tent (a hack hotel), I recognize a few faces from other war zones I have covered for CNN in the past two decades. Same faces, different places. Most of these journalists are heavy hitters, long having earned their PhD's at the university of conflict coverage. A few are freshmen and women, including my colleague Atia, CNN's Kabul correspondent. She will be OK, I thought. All of us were warzone virgins once, and we are with some of the best-equipped, best-trained and most professional fighters in the world: the U.S. Marines.

My main concern is which unit we will be attached to. I am praying it will be an armored unit.  They have electrical power on those vehicles – a godsend to the press in the field. We would be able to get our video out.

Next stop: Fiddler's Green, a base for Charlie Company, the Marine's armored unit
Power! Vehicles! It is here that we find out just exactly what our assignment on this embed will be. With a glint in his eye and a smile, the Marines' public affairs officer tells us, "You, CNN, will be with the Alpha Company on the main effort,  an air assault into Marjah."

"Air assault, main effort" – we just won the grand prize in the embed coverage sweepstakes.  "Power? Vehicles?" I ask. "Don't know," he replies. We learn they could come in anywhere from two to six days after D-Day. AAARGH! I scream silently. How am I going to get our material out? If only I was shooting a documentary. (Watch more on our "honest feelings" about riding with the choppers vs. armored vehicles)

Onwards: February 10, Camp Dwyer, a forward operating base in Helmand province

We join up with the Alpha 1/6, the Marines we would be embedded with. We meet with Capt. Carl Havens, who to me resembles the actor Russell Crowe.  He gives us an intensive briefing of what to expect on D-Day, if all goes down as planned. But nothing is ever certain in war. Capt. Havens modestly admits this is his first time on the "main effort"  of an operation. First objective: to take the Loy Chareh bazaar. Second objective: to take the Marjah District Center. The Marines think it's a government building. It later turns out to be a ruined, battle scarred high school, built by USAID in the late 1950s.

Four hours til D-Day, February 12, 10 p.m. local time, Camp Dwyer
We muster hours in advance with Alpha Company near the flight line. Hurry up and wait. It is here where we will board the helicopters for the air assault into Marjah.  Havens speaks to the men: "We are the quiet professionals. We go out there, we get our tasks, we do our job, and we do it well. And we don't brag about it." (Watch more of Havens' speech to Alpha Company.)

More hurry up and wait. I check with Havens for the umpteenth time about what time exactly CNN can go live with the information that the operation has begun. "At 2 a.m. local, when I am on the ground in Marjah," he tells me. I never did ask him if his were the first boots to hit the ground on this operation.

Finally, time to board that chopper. We pass by the first casualty of the operation. A Marine lies on the ground with a twisted ankle. Not an auspicious start.

The chopper ride
Strange – I don't feel any pangs of fear or apprehension. I have never had a deathwish, and usually in most warzones my guts are in knots. "Take calculated risks" has always been my motto. A few times I have even had an almost super psychic intuition that says: "Mary, stop and film from here and go no further!"  So why no fear as I board the chopper? Perhaps I am too preoccupied with the practicalities, fixated on the all-important issue of power and how we get what we shoot to the network.

Staying warm was sometimes a challenge

D-Day, February 13, Dead of night, farm fields outside Marjah
Time is moving excruciatingly slowly. We move to a staging area for the push into Marjah. Casualties bog the Marines down. One Marine has asthma and is having trouble breathing, we hear over the crackle of radio traffic. He ends up getting hypothermia. Someone else has torn their ACL.

We sit and wait until the Medivac choppers can come in. Can this night get any colder? Yes, it can. Atia, producer Gordon Duncan and I lay down on the wet, freezing ground and huddle  for warmth. At some point she throws her leg over me. "You generate a lot of heat Mary," she tells me. Was she hallucinating? I was freezing! Then the call of nature comes. "Atia," I whisper, "I have got to pee!"  "What about the Marines?" she asks. "They have night vision!" I so do not care. I crouch down in the largest furrow I can find ... whatever it takes. But finding relief in a dark, rutted field wearing a flak jacket is no easy task.

D-Day, February 13, Dawn, outside Marjah

Yes! Yes! Thank you, God! Beautiful, big orange ball of sun! Golden!Cinematic! Hollywood could not have asked for more beautiful light. I glance over at Marines bathed in a beautiful aura of golden light and begin to roll. (Watch more video of the troops at dawn in Marjah)

The explosive ordinance disposal team clears the way of possible IEDs. In the days ahead, these men will play a deadly game of hide and seek. It is unknown how many IEDs the Taliban have hidden in Marjah.

We start moving. The Marines slowly make their way towards their first objective, the Loy Chareh bazaar. There is sporadic Taliban sniper fire. I quickly glance around and see no Marine within my eyesight return fire. Oh well, if they are not too concerned, I won't be either.

More sniper fire ... and then ... technical difficulties. My camera starts to go on the fritz!  The nightmare of any photojournalist  – just as we have the chance to shoot exclusive pictures in perfect light. It's not as though I can put a pause button on what is happening, and say "Wait Marines and Taliban, I need a moment to figure out this problem!"

Half of my images disappear into some video deadzone, never to be recovered. I have no publishable words for how I feel about this.

We make our way into the main compound of the Loy Chareh bazaar. The fight to rid Marjah of the Taliban begins in earnest. Atia, Gordon, and I are to spend 10 days with the Alpha Company. We will see how the Marines engage in battle, how they deal with the local population and the extremely rough living conditions. And perhaps most importantly, how they deal with each other.

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Learn_Cold_Reading

    The authoritative answer, funny...

    June 20, 2010 at 3:16 am | Report abuse |
  2. Fake Psychic

    It is the amusing information

    June 18, 2010 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
  3. Gene

    Very good reporting, particularly dear to those with lovedones over there, I will forward to others. Keep up the good work. We in Orange Co., Calif love our Marines and others serving. thanks,

    May 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Charly Mabry

    Thats not nice Mary.... a "War Zone Virgin".... Atias a hard charger whos been to Iraq and almost kidnapped in '05 in Afghan! But anyways, all of you are now honorary "Marjah Marines" in my book (ill get you the coin when we get them) .

    April 27, 2010 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
  5. ehooperman

    Great piece. Love our Marines (in oh so many ways). But there are no apostrophes in plurals. The statement "Most of these journalists are heavy hitters, long having earned their PhD's at the university of conflict coverage," would have been much more powerful without the punctuation error.

    April 14, 2010 at 1:39 am | Report abuse |
  6. Pat Moonjian

    Thank you. My son with 3/6 Lima Company - appreciate your coverage. Would love more pics or video for chance to get glimpse of him. More coverage on news on that there's a war going on and what our sons and daughters are doing.

    April 13, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Regan

    Thanks for linking to my site. Great site you have here.

    April 7, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Breeze

    If your life was a TV show what would the main story line be? What would be the supporting roles?

    April 6, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Debbie Suazo Manasco

    Absolutely loved your handling of the call of "Mother Nature" in the middle of the night. As we all know, when a girl has to go, WE HAVE TO GO!!! You handled it well and honest which means to me, the rest of your story is honest too.

    Thank you for telling the truth, raw as it is...it is the truth. You have given life to a side of history that we normally would not see or know about. For that, you are a credit to both your profession and being a woman out there in a Marine's world.

    Thank You.

    April 5, 2010 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jim & Kim

    Thank you very much for the stories. We have a son in Alpha Co. Love to know what he has been up to on his all expenses paid vacation.

    April 3, 2010 at 1:01 am | Report abuse |
  11. Kelly in Illinois

    Great story. We love the Marines. Any pictures of the Marines in 3/6 Lima Company, Marjah? Moms would love to see them.

    April 1, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike in KC

    Good stuff CNN!! Why aren't the other news outlets doing this type of important work? Shame on them.

    March 31, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. linda

    anyone have any coverage on 3/6 india co. my husband is with them... they just got hit this weekend... for everyone out there stay strong our men will be home soon...

    March 31, 2010 at 9:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Carolyn

    Compelling. Capt. Havens is good friend. Thanks so much.

    March 31, 2010 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. Iraq Paramedic

    Well I should have been a journalist cause this lady sounds like she is having a very real experiance with these Marines. Koodos to her & her collegues who temp fate to bring the rest of us closer to the real side of armed conflict. As an old former Army Infantryman who is now a civilian paramedic in Iraq I can tell you the Marines are a bunch of good guys, no one I would rather fight or fight along side. May GOD Bless & keep us all !!!!!!!!!!

    March 31, 2010 at 5:28 am | Report abuse |
  16. Elizabeth

    thank you Mary, and Atia for your ongoing coverage. My wish was for this coverage to continue so that we at home might have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of our loved ones.
    It's been a harsh several weeks without good journalism and especially photo coverage.
    Our best to you. And Mary, you would have made an excellent Marine.
    MCMom

    March 31, 2010 at 3:24 am | Report abuse |
  17. david

    I'm happy you had such a memorable experience!! Sounds just like summer camp (exept that people were actually getting killed) I'm sure people of Marja found it memorable too. Although they would probably have traded anything in the world not to be caught in the middle of the battle.

    March 30, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Philip Gurrieri

    Thank you Mary for the coverage, imagine that we did not have the WWW – we almost didn't get to have it – if it weren't for that MIT graduate student that unleashed the whol-e ghost of huemanity. The PENTAGON had no intention of society having access and is why they had it for a decade while building military bases across the globe.

    I notice that you have military protection; I remember FOX in Iraq and how they video taped the beheading of 4 security soldier/guards with no military protection around them needed and no one ever questioned WHY?

    Being aGREENable is blossoming like springtime and has such a refreshing scent of huemanity....... Thank you for keeping us informed.

    March 30, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
  19. dsd

    Ditto, that, my son also Alpha Company. We thank you for all you and Atia have passed along to us. You're one brave crew, I must say. Heartfelt thanks.

    March 30, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Bobbi Smith

    Enjoyed reading about Alpha boys, have a wonderful grandson with them. Articles we can find about them are greatly appreciated.Thank you

    March 30, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  21. charlie

    keep up the great work,I have daughter at bagram sgt.liza mehian . God bless you in leting Americans informed.

    March 30, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Debbie & Jeff

    Our son is part of A Co. and we truely appreciate being able to read and see what he and his fellow Marines are accomplishing on their mission. Thank you for your story! We look forward to Part II. Semper Fi!

    March 30, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Debbie & Jeff

    Our son is in A Co. also. Thanks for the information!! We look forward to Part II. It does our heart good to hear and see what these fine young men are doing! Semper Fi!!

    March 30, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Andi Dorsey

    Thank you for sharing, As a parent of a Marine in Marjah 3/6 Lima, we look forward to hearing any news.

    March 30, 2010 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  25. laura

    I have a son in 1/6 Alpha Company. Thanks for the insight into what goes on.

    March 30, 2010 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
  26. Kate

    Thanks for sharing this with us, enjoyed reading it. Looking forward to Part II..

    March 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Teresa Emison

    Great perspective Mary! Thank you so much for this!

    March 29, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Andrew Lubin

    Who says the mainstrea media refuses to get the story out??? Well Done, Mary!!

    March 29, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |