April 1st, 2010
07:37 AM ET

Behind the scenes: Night in 'The Manger'

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 4 of her reflections on her time in Marjah and a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and camaraderie reporting from the Afghan battlefield. (Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3)

February 21, night in Marjah

Darkness falls in the mud compound where the Alpha Company is spending the night as they push further west. A huge sandstorm and rainstorm kick in, sending 20? 30? 40? Marines and CNN scrambling into a tiny mudroom for shelter. I think this is the kitchen of the compound. In the corner there is a hearth, and a hen is sitting on her eggs. The dirt floor is covered with straw. I call this room "The Manger" after a Marine jokes that it looks like the place where Jesus was born.

It is getting late, and Alpha Company's resupply trucks have not arrived yet. These are the trucks that carry food, water, ammo, sleeping bags, etc. We have all been up since the crack of dawn. We are all exhausted, and the absurdity of the situation we find ourselves in makes everyone silly. In this dark miniscule space, Atia, Gordon, and I begin to bond with the men.

Atia and I start to roll our cameras as we see opportunity here for both news and a BackStory show segment, showing the viewers how these men have to live. The jokes start flying fast and furious.

Atia: "Are you guys having fun?" "Yea!" they reply. "Is that real cheers?" "NO!" More laughter. "These accommodations are definitely not deluxe," I add. "We're squeezed in like sardines here." "This is the Ritz, are you kidding me?" one Marine shouts back.

"Did someone say this takes me back to Mesopotamia, or Mezozioc? That's what I heard," Atia says. I add, "I think I heard someone say this is how people got the plague back in the Middle Ages, hunkering down like rats in a pen here."

One Marine has a shout out to the president of the United States. "Obama, I hope you see this. We are fighting for your freedom right now." Another adds, " This is how freedom works."

Then it is Mr. Hollywood's turn for the camera. He imitates a television reporter in a faux John Wayne voice. "This is Clayton Wayne reporting from Afghanistan. Right now the Marines and I are sitting in a mud hut. We have about 20 Marines stuck in this room right now as we speak. Spooning has commenced, and cuddling is occurring. Spirits are high. Our stomachs are empty, and it's very cold! But we are Marines. We are the few…We are the proud." A huge smile appears on his face as he wraps it up, "Clayton Wayne signing off." In the background I hear laughter as someone jokes "Call your local recruiter today!" (Watch

I turn to Gordon our producer and ask if we have any more snack food left in our backpack. We do. We pass out power bars, candy, and nuts to the Marines. Most of them have given away all their snacks to Afghan children we have seen on patrol that day.

The night wears on, and still no sight of the resupply trucks. We settle in for the night, all of us huddled together, and try to go to sleep. It's time for a bedtime story, the men decide. A couple of them tell ghost stories - not imaginary ones, but ones that involve freaky incidents in their lives where something not quite normal has occurred.

Just as we are about to fall asleep, Capt. Havens, Gunny Wallgren and the resupply trucks arrive. Why so late? Havens tells us that he has been tasked with what seems to me a last-minute mission impossible. In the next three days, the Alpha Company has to take the entire west of Marjah. Why? So U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who was in charge of the Marjah offensive, can bring the local Afghan provisional government into the center of Marjah for a flag raising ceremony. This will mark the start of Afghan governance in Marjah, and the Taliban must be cleared out of every part of the city. The Alpha Company will be stretched thin on this mission, Havens tells us. But, I have no doubt that this quiet professional will make a mission impossible, possible.

As we go to get our sleeping bags and backpacks off the resupply truck, I hear something I have never heard before on this operation - Havens yelling at one of the men. "Do you really think I would leave you guys stranded up here with no food, water, supplies?" I don't stick around to hear the rest. Thoughts of crawling into my sleeping bag loom large in my head.

This was to be our last night with Alpha. We could have made the mad-dash push with them, but we are exhausted, and of course there is my never-ending obsession with a power supply, and getting our material out. It is uncertain when Charlie company's vehicles would link up with them. If only I was shooting a documentary!

We fall asleep crammed in The Manger with a few lucky Marines. All of us will wake up dry. The majority of Alpha must sleep outside in the courtyard. Rain continues to pour down through the night.

In the morning I film them waking up in their cold, wet sleeping bags. Even their tarps do not protect from this rain. I cannot imagine they are well rested. Today is the start of the big push west.

"Goodbye guys, good luck." I say as my camera rolls, capturing final shots of the Alpha Company as they step out the door, Atia, Gordon and I slowly make our way back to the rear with the gear. (Watch our farewell to the Marines)

Back home in Egypt, questions remain. What became of the mad-dash push all the way west through Marjah? I would like to ask Capt. Havens. What are these men doing now, now that the fighting is over in the area, and the "nation-building" phase has kicked in. And finally: What makes the Alpha Company tick?

I would love to go back and see what has happened, what is going to happen, and see how these men are living now that the heat of the sun is starting to kick in. Summers in Helmand province are extremely unpleasant, blast furnace unpleasant. Most of all, I want to go back and hopefully reconnect with the men of Alpha, these remarkable and very different characters I was just beginning to get a glimpse of.

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