The Pity Of War

As Marines engage in a firefight with insurgents in Afghanistan, they call in a mortar strike that kills a young girl. Photographer Adam Ferguson, on assignment for TIME, witnesses the tragedy

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Adam Ferguson / VII Network for TIME

U.S. Marines Lieutenant Kevin Gaughan from Lima Company of the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines, wipes his faces while meeting family members of Gulmakay, a fourteen-year old Afghan girl killed by a U.S. Marines mortar strike in Abdullah Jan Village, in Marja District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on July 28, 2010.

I was on patrol with Lima company of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines in northern Marjah in Afghanistan on the afternoon of July 28 when a crackle of gunfire interrupted the rural silence. Marines screamed, "Incoming!" and dived behind mud walls to establish fighting positions. A man, ducking between a haystack and a village compound, was shooting at them from about 820 ft. (250 m) away. The Marines called in coordinates for a strike from a nearby operations post. Mortars dropped from the sky; the engagement was over. No one knew whether any insurgents had been killed. It was the usual game of cat and mouse.

I have seen U.S. troops smile and swear with pleasure amid the hunt. But if there were smiles this time, they did not last long. An hour and a half later, while taking refuge in a nearby compound, a man in a gray turban approached the compound to tell the Marines that his niece, 14, had been killed by shrapnel. Fearing an ambush, the Marines chose not to investigate. But not long after, the man returned leading a tractor carrying the father, family members and the body of the girl, who was called Gulmakay. The Marines were mortified. Through a translator, patrol leader Lieutenant Kevin Gaughan asked, "What is ... what is the father's name?" "Mohammad Karim," said the translator. "Just tell him I'm ... I cannot say sorry enough. This is the worst possible thing that could happen." Speaking to the interpreter, Mohammad Karim replied, "Now, what should I do with 'sorry'?"