Patriot Profiles: ‘It’s like a human game of chess’

Helmand Province, Afghanistan 2013. Sgt. Bryan Barrow (far left) with Marines. Photo courtesy of Sgt. Bryan Barrow (USMC).

This column presents “Patriot Profiles” to provide readers insight into the lives of our country’s heroes.

By Jeanne McKinney

A cleared, mud-walled compound serving as a battlement suddenly explodes with gunfire. A Marine Infantryman peers through the high-powered scope of his M-16 A4 rifle, but can only see so far across a field of dry poppies. He sees a person with a gun in hand on the roof of a concrete bunker. Senses skyrocket among a Marine platoon of Golf Company 2nd Battalion 5th Marines (2/5) as all position to return fire. Squad leader Sergeant Bryan Barrow has his hands full keeping his team in focus, not to mention protecting a civilian cameraman trying to get footage.

“What’s going on right now, Sgt. Barrow?” asked the cameraman. “What’s going man? What’s going on is get down,” yells Barrow as he pulls the guy down behind a wall. “You can’t be doing that, brother. People get killed if you do that.”

Such is real combat that was captured in National Geographic’s “Battleground Afghanistan,” a 2013 TV series. Barrow, along with six other Marine leaders of Golf Company 2/5, were picked to help detail taking the fight to the enemy during Operation Branding Iron. Their mission was to locate and destroy a certain list of Taliban insurgents and crush crucial opium operations that fund the war against America.

Barrow says the hardest part was just as the series’ narrator said, “It was like chasing ghosts.” They knew the Taliban had a stronghold in Zamindawar, known as the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. “That’s why they [the command] wanted to send us there. Of course, we had the best CO to do that, Captain [Ben] Middendorf. He was all about it. We were mostly trying to take out their main command.”

At age 4, Barrow was adopted in St. Louis, Mo., then in 1998 moved with his family to Bisbee, Ariz. After graduating from high school, “I saw everyone else going to college and I’ve never really followed the crowd,” says Barrow. He wanted a challenge and was curious. Family Marine Corps history helped influence his thoughts to sign up.“I wanted to make my adopted dad a little more proud of me.”

Republic of Korea. Sgt. Bryan Barrow. Exercise SSang Yong 2014. Photo by Cpl. Henry Antenor (USMC).

Barrow didn’t want to join the Marine Corps to sit behind a desk. “I figured if you’re going to join what they say is the elite fighting force of the country, if not the world, why wouldn’t you join the fight?” says Barrow, adding, “Most people join the Infantry because they want to go to war. They want to do the gun fighting and come back home with honor and be able to tell their family all the crazy stuff they did.”

Al Anbar, Iraq, 2007, was Barrow’s first deployment at age 19, “We got into one or two firefights that weren’t that heavy or crazy, but it was enough to make people think different than normal.” Exposure to combat, culture shock, and a different work ethic changed how he thought and operated from then on.

“You have to think you’re already dead” is a mindset Barrow latched on to help take away the fear of dying. His first company commander explained, “If you already picture yourself as a dead man, it makes you that much more dangerous to your enemy.” He also told Barrow’s Bravo Company that while they are home on leave before deployment, “Enjoy your time with your family, but I want you to think of what your enemy is doing right now. They don’t have vacation time — the whole time they’re preparing.”

Preparation and testing were evident to Barrow and fellow Marines in Iraq. “They have ways to do about anything they want…down to as simple as throwing a rock at a soldier or Marine and see how they react. A main concern for us was vehicle-borne IEDS.” They would drive behind patrols and ignore orders to stop, pushing how far they could go before someone pointed a weapon or shot off a warning pyrotechnic.

“We had to go through so many steps before we could fire one round — that’s how careful our command would always want to be utilizing rounds in civilian situations. This guy could simply be testing how close they can get to us…it helps them determine how big they want to make their vehicle-borne IED.”

“They tested us every day,” Barrow said while thinking back to the time he was fighting the enemy. “They knew what the capabilities were of our scopes on our weapons. They knew about how far out we could see. They are always figuring out new ways to adapt to what we are doing. It’s like a human game of chess.”

In “Battleground Afghanistan,” Barrow and his platoon were shown traversing open ground, exposed to the enemy who are able to shoot through small openings in compounds called “murder holes.” Barrow says, “You really can’t worry about it. You’re scared, nervous, anxious, excited, determined – even thankful that after each step you haven’t lost a leg yet or seen anyone in front or behind you lose a leg or even hear about it over the radio happening to another person. You have to be confident in what you’re doing — if you’re not, the enemy will see that because they are always watching you.”

Barrow, nicknamed “bulldog” in the TV series, affirms, “I’m not going to lose any guys.” Control can be hard-won for a squad leader. “Half the time you have to fight your own guys before you can fight the enemy,” says Barrow. “Once the chaotic atmosphere unearths itself – rears its face - you’re in what we call ‘the rush of things’ in enemy contact. Marines that aren’t so experienced can be a little all over the place — freak out. That’s why we do so much training before we go.”

How much is skill and how much instinct? Barrow says, “It definitely fluctuates.” During their first Branding Iron engagement, his interpreter shared, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Platoon leader Lt. Neal Jones, who travelled with Barrow said, “How much do you want to bet we’re going to get shot at right now?” “I didn’t take the bet”, says Barrow, “Sure enough, a few steps later we got shot at.”

“The most intense [challenge] is being shot at and not knowing where it’s coming from and not knowing when and if you can shoot back.” Barrow learned Arabic, enough to understand and get his points across. Yet he could never be sure if he was talking to friend or enemy. After two weeks of fighting “Taliban ghosts” Barrow’s platoon claimed mission success without any losses.

There’s no better reward for Barrow than calling the people he serves with “brothers.” “I would do more for them than I would a blood brother, because of what we’ve done together and been through.”

Barrow gets antsy talking about his life on the combat side with civilians who he says “hear him, but don’t understand him” and finds peace when talking with fellow Marines who do. He worries “about starting all over again. I’ve built a lot of rapport and respect. It means something over here.” Barrow’s achievement awards and trophies are passed forward, “The first thing I do when I go home is give them to one of my family members.”

Barrow is currently deployed with the 31st MEU, which recently participated in Exercise SSang Yong 2014 in the Republic of Korea, building tactical alliances alongside South Korean Marines. The fighters returning from the last war chapter in Afghanistan leave freedom’s footprint on hardened soil and hand their world-class legacy to junior Marines. Memorable contributions and experiences remain with Barrow who will always keep his door open to help his brothers, “I’ve done more than leave my name in Golf Company – definitely.”