U.S. Marine 1st Sgt. Daniel Mays stands outside a tent at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. Mays, with Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, is part of the additional 21,000 American troops deployed as part of a new strategy by the Obama administration to take back parts of the country from Taliban control.
U.S. Marine 1st Sgt. Daniel Mays stands outside a tent at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. Mays, with Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, is part of the additional 21,000 American troops deployed as part of a new strategy by the Obama administration to take back parts of the country from Taliban control. David Gilkey/NPR
A Marine uses a water bottle to cool down inside of the non-air-conditioned tent at Camp Leatherneck.
A Marine uses a water bottle to cool down inside of the non-air-conditioned tent at Camp Leatherneck. David Gilkey/NPR
The Marines known as "America's Battalion" are in Afghanistan as part of the 21,000 additional forces President Obama is deploying in the administration's strategy to counter the Taliban insurgency. NPR is following the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment over the months of their deployment, focusing on the efforts of these Marines in Afghanistan and the burden shared by their families back home.
In hairdryer-in-the-face heat, talcum-like dust swirls around Camp Leatherneck, a U.S. Marine base in the desert of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. In the early afternoon, the dust rolls in like a brown fog and seeps into a massive tent.
Perched on a cot inside, Lt. James Wende from San Antonio, Texas, is reading The Steel Wave, a novel about World War II. Wende is eager to start his own war.
Like many Marines in the tent, Wende did a tour in Iraq last year. By then, it was largely peaceful — boring, the Marines say. That deployment ended and they went back to their base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. There, they got word they would deploy to Afghanistan rather than head back to Iraq.
"The Marines want to go, and they want to get in the fight. So everyone was pretty much hoping for Afghanistan. We'll see. They say be careful what you wish for," Wende says.
Hanging behind the Marine is a Texas Tech banner. In front of him is most of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment's Fox Company, a sea of 120 bodies on green cots stretching out in the low-slung, circus-sized tent that is half the length of a football field. Fieldpacks and boxes are stacked next to the cots.
Some Marines are shirtless, revealing tattoos spread across torsos and arms: skulls, crossed rifles, the Marine Corps insignia. Some clean their weapons. Others lay on their cots, listening to iPods, chatting with friends, writing letters. The aroma of dirty socks fills the air.
The Marines are mostly in their 20s, some still in their teens. Their unit is part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the vanguard of an additional 21,000 American troops in Afghanistan, part of a new strategy by the Obama administration to take back parts of the country from Taliban control. Their territory is roughly the size of New Jersey.
Most of the Marines say they are anxious.
Lance Cpl. Zachary Rash says he is constantly running through various scenarios in his mind — possible encounters with insurgents, what the best reactions would be, what to do if a comrade is wounded.
His worry keeps him up at night sometimes. "But if it's my time to go, it's too late to change your mind now. I'm here," he says.
Another Marine, Cpl. Wesley Dutch Perkins from Louisiana is eager to leave the dull routine of the barren landscape.
"It's hot. It's dusty. It sucks," he says.
What keeps the men sane is word from home. Families send letters and packages.
Perkins receives a care package from his parents: baby wipes, nuts, dried fruit. A separate dose of anxiety comes in brief phone calls with the folks back home.
"[My parents] were really nervous about it. Mom is really close friends with Army wives and they heard a lot of bad things about Afghanistan, so she's really worried. [I tell them,] 'Don't worry, I'll be fine.' It's about all you really can tell them," he says.
Perkins, 22, is on his first deployment. When he lies in his cot at night, he admits he worries — mostly about landmines and IEDs, or roadside bombs.
"Everybody just wants to come back in one piece," he says.
Preparing For Insurgent War
About 70 percent of casualties in Afghanistan are from IEDs. Last week, a roadside bomb killed two Marines, the brigade's first loss. A few days later, a blast struck a convoy, wounding another five Marines.
It's no secret that the IEDs are the biggest threat the Marines face, says 2nd Lt. Samuel Oliver, who describes them as one of the insurgents' most effective methods for leveling the playing field.
"I put IEDs and landmines everywhere, I might not have to have as many people as you," he says, summarizing the enemy's thinking.
Oliver is a platoon leader, responsible for about 50 Marines. His biggest challenge, he says, is making sure that his Marines remain disciplined if an IED hits his team — and not reacting by lashing out at the nearest Afghan civilian.
"You step on a mine. Who are you shooting back at? Who are you going to kill?" he asks.
In a bar fight, you know who hits you — and who to hit back, Oliver says. In Afghanistan, you don't have that knowledge, he adds.
"So the biggest thing is people are going to start getting pissed off. You get blown up enough, you're going to get pissed. That's when you have to start watching how guys are acting, because it's easy, once you see your friends start getting blown up, then that's when you got to start watching, making sure nothing stupid happens," he says.
Before Oliver deployed from Camp Lejeune, he wondered whether he could lead men in combat. It's his first deployment, too.
Now, he devours after-action reports — combat reviews from Marine and British officers about firefights with Taliban forces. "What they did, didn't and should have done," Oliver says.
Before The Final Push
At the other end of the tent, Capt. Junwei Sun sits on his cot, working through a list of the Marines in his company. He is checking names, blood types, next of kin — the last of the paperwork.
The captain is among the veterans, with two tours in Iraq under his belt. Now, he is waiting for this tour of Afghanistan to start.
"You can't really complain. We have three meals and a cot. Nobody's shooting at us — yet," he says.
Sun and the rest of the Marines in America's Battalion know the shooting will begin soon enough, once they push out of the base and head deep into the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.