'America's Battalion' Leads Thrust In Afghanistan

Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss talks with his troops during a training patrol i i

Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss talks with his troops during a training patrol ahead of their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. Based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the unit consists of about 800 Marines. Nicknamed "America's Battalion," the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment will be operating in southern Afghanistan to counter Taliban insurgents. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss talks with his troops during a training patrol

Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss talks with his troops during a training patrol ahead of their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. Based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the unit consists of about 800 Marines. Nicknamed "America's Battalion," the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment will be operating in southern Afghanistan to counter Taliban insurgents.

David Gilkey/NPR
2nd Lt. Samuel Oliver checks on a Marine during a training patrol in a replica village i i

2nd Lt. Samuel Oliver, a platoon leader, checks on a Marine during a training patrol in a replica village, originally designed to look like the Balkans. This will be Oliver's first deployment overseas. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
2nd Lt. Samuel Oliver checks on a Marine during a training patrol in a replica village

2nd Lt. Samuel Oliver, a platoon leader, checks on a Marine during a training patrol in a replica village, originally designed to look like the Balkans. This will be Oliver's first deployment overseas.

David Gilkey/NPR
Actors play the role of translators, villagers and the Taliban during a training patrol. i i

Actors play the role of translators, villagers and the Taliban during a training patrol at Camp Lejeune. The Marines are preparing for austere conditions in Afghanistan and communications with families back home will be difficult. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Actors play the role of translators, villagers and the Taliban during a training patrol.

Actors play the role of translators, villagers and the Taliban during a training patrol at Camp Lejeune. The Marines are preparing for austere conditions in Afghanistan and communications with families back home will be difficult.

David Gilkey/NPR
Marines conduct mock interviews during a training patrol. i i

Marines conduct mock interviews during a training patrol. Their battalion will be part of 21,000 additional forces President Obama is deploying to Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Marines conduct mock interviews during a training patrol.

Marines conduct mock interviews during a training patrol. Their battalion will be part of 21,000 additional forces President Obama is deploying to Afghanistan.

David Gilkey/NPR
Nelson Hsu/NPR

The easy part is preparing for war. The hard part is figuring out how to say goodbye.

For the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the hard part comes this week.

The unit, known as "America's Battalion," was supposed to be headed to Iraq this spring. Now they are heading to Afghanistan instead, as part of the 21,000 additional forces President Obama is deploying to counter the Taliban insurgency.

The strategy is intended to bring more security to Afghanistan and train local protection forces to eventually take over the job. It comes at a critical time as Afghanistan prepares for a national election in August while under the constant threat of insurgent attacks.

Into The Heart Of Taliban Territory

The mission of these Marines from the 8th Battalion, part of the larger 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, will take them to places American forces have rarely been in southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban militant operations.

The Marines will have to build their own bases. Conditions will be "austere" — that's the word they use — and communications back home will be difficult.

Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden, a 21-year veteran and the top enlisted man in the battalion of more than 800 Marines, has been through this before — he's been deployed 13 times. He counsels young Marines on how to prepare for their 210 days in Afghanistan.

"We'll have on an average probably 40 new fathers, new dads. First-time kids. It'll be challenging, I'm not going to lie," he says. "My daughter was born during the first Gulf War when I was forward deployed. And now I'm missing her graduation, so there's things you miss and there's sacrifices that are being made."

It is the first deployment for 2nd Lt. Samuel Oliver, a platoon leader. He just got engaged in December and plans to get married when he returns from Afghanistan. He worries about the Marines he will be commanding and how to stay in touch with his fiancee.

"I figure worst case scenario you write a letter, not that I've done that much," Oliver says with a laugh. "Usually e-mail, tops is a chore. No cell phone, no text messages, no voice mail — so it'll be interesting. I'll have to learn how to spell all over again. No computer spell check."

As a young officer who has never seen combat, Oliver will be leading some Marines who have been battle-tested and others who have not.

"The biggest point of anxiety is you got 40 young guys over here, all probably under the age of 25. That's a lot of responsibility," he says.

On a recent spring day, the Marines participated in one of their last training exercises before shipping out.

A car is stopped at a checkpoint in a mock Afghan village. Actors play the roles of translators and villagers — and Taliban.

The commander leading this exercise doesn't look like your typical Marine.

Capt. Junwei Sun was born in Shanghai, though he's the first to tell you he's from Queens, N.Y. His Marines tower over him, but he's obviously the one in charge. Sun has deployed twice before to Iraq. To prepare for this deployment, he has been trying to learn Pashto, the language he'll need in Afghanistan.

"I know three words right now — I'm still learning. I'm just trying to memorize it. I bought a CD and listen to it every day when I drive to work. It's a little bit difficult, different from Arabic," Sun says.

He says about half of his company are rookies.

Nervous, But Not Scared

"This is their first unit, first deployment. They're a little bit nervous, but they're not scared. They have no fear. They're anxious to go ... and that's the thing about the Marines. They want to go, even though it's hard to leave home and family," Sun says.

The veteran, Breeden, 40, keeps track of all the times he's been to war by the hobbies his now-17-year-old daughter takes up while he's gone. Over the years there have been many: horseback riding, art, music and — maybe because he's been deployed to the Persian Gulf region eight times — belly-dancing.

"Kind of interesting from my perspective, because I'm like — why? I've been dealing with this forever, why are you taking an interest? But she's interested in what Dad does, what Dad experiences and stuff like that," Breeden says.

But often, the Marines at war don't share the grittiest and grimmest experiences with their loved ones at home.

"Marines join because they want to get in combat. They want to get rid of the people that need to be taken off this earth," says Lt. James Arthur Wende, who will be on his second deployment as a platoon leader.

Wende, from New Mexico, says that with his experience in Iraq behind him, leading a platoon this time will probably be easier. And, he quips, if this deployments ends up being quiet, there's "nothing more dangerous than a bored Marine."

Preparing For The Worst

It is unlikely these Marines will be bored where they will be serving in Afghanistan, however. All these Marines know: On this deployment, some of them are probably going to die.

"I never lost a Marine, but I can only imagine. It's one of the things that I think about all the time. I don't know what I'd do to follow up on that in terms of talking to parents, talking to Marines, things like that," Wende says. "I mean, it happens but the mission has to continue. The biggest thing that concerns me is losing somebody, definitely."

That fear is on the minds of the wives and children and parents, too. And the Marines know that. They say it's harder for the ones left at home than it is for them.

"The best thing to do, like with my wife, I won't tell my wife anything," says Breeden. He's figured out over the years how to tell her what is going on without explicitly saying much.

"A lot of the more mature Marines and sailors, they'll sit there and just say, 'Hey things are going good here,'" Breeden says. "And the wives can see through it just by the tone of the communication."

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