Cpl. Daniel Clift, of the Marines' 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, throws a handful of rocks to simulate tossing a smoke grenade while practicing a medical evacuation response in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province.
Cpl. Daniel Clift, of the Marines' 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, throws a handful of rocks to simulate tossing a smoke grenade while practicing a medical evacuation response in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. David Gilkey/NPR
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, walks to Camp Leatherneck after being dropped off by a helicopter during a day of visiting Marines around southern Afghanistan.
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, walks to Camp Leatherneck after being dropped off by a helicopter during a day of visiting Marines around southern Afghanistan. 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.
At a desert camp in southern Afghanistan, a squad of Marines dashes toward the trench line, rifles high.
Sgt. Joe Garrison leads the way. They flop on their bellies, take careful aim and let loose a barrage of fire against a Taliban force in a trench cut into a landfill at Camp Leatherneck, in Helmand province.
These Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment's Fox Company are in full battle gear, carrying 70 pounds of armor and ammunition in 100-degree heat.
But the gunfire is pretend and the enemy is imaginary — for now. The Marines are running through a training exercise.
The youngest privates, their junior officers and old sergeants — even the commanding general — are doing what they have to do to get ready and stay focused for the coming fight against the Taliban.
The Marines arrived in Afghanistan recently for a seven-month tour of duty, as part of an influx of U.S. forces to carry out the Obama administration's new strategy to confront the insurgency and train the Afghan security forces.
"Once we get in a real situation, it's going to be a lot different. We're not going to be running targets; everyone's going to be hitting the deck when rounds are cracking around," says one Marine.
Iraq Easy Compared To Afghanistan
Watching it all is the platoon leader, 1st Lt. Steven Lind, a New Yorker from Long Island. The Marines have been training every day for about three weeks. He says they are ready for their mission.
The Marines at Camp Leatherneck fall into two groups: those who have seen combat before, and those who have not.
Lind has been there before. He is 25 and considered an "old man" among the young Marines in his platoon.
He saw action last year in Iraq — in the city of Ramadi — though by the time he got there, Ramadi was mostly pacified.
But Iraq was easy compared with what these Marines are about to face in Helmand province.
"They know it's not going to be Ramadi," Lind says with a laugh. "They're going to be tired. They're going to see things that people shouldn't have to see. They'll have to do things that people shouldn't have to do."
Veterans Help Marines Face Prospect Of Real Enemy Fire
Lind says many Marines will be turning to Garrison, the sergeant and squad leader who guided them through the afternoon's make-believe combat. Garrison is a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, and he knows most of his Marines have never faced enemy fire.
Garrison's first contact with the Taliban left a searing imprint, like a job loss or the death of a parent.
The Taliban attacked a Marine unit in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley on Dec. 24, 2004. Garrison's squad went to help. The insurgents ambushed the Marines in a little town called, ironically enough, Taliban.
Garrison, a short, stocky Marine from Pittsburgh, says they ended up killing some, but capturing more. Nine Taliban were rolled up.
"It's, I'll honestly say, probably the biggest adrenalin rush I ever had in my life. ... It's something that you can't really explain. It's something that you have to experience yourself," he says.
Garrison's job, though, is to explain it — to help all the young Marines in his unit who haven't experienced it yet, but are likely to soon.
He isn't sure if he shot anybody in that first firefight, but there were others.
But when asked about it, Garrison replies: "I really don't like talking about that too much, sir, if that's alright."
Honing Skills, Preparing The Mind
At a shooting range about a mile from Camp Leatherneck, the Marines line up on their stomachs and aim their rifles at paper targets, concentric circles stapled to plywood set up in the distance.
Around them, the desert stretches unbroken to the hazy mountains on the horizon.
Dozens of Marines take turns shooting.
For the battalion's senior Marines, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss and Sgt. Maj. Robert Breeden, it turns into a friendly competition.
Several months ago on the range at their home base, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the sergeant major beat the colonel by one point.
Cabaniss shoots well this day, his final four rounds closely grouped in the black at the center of the target, the size of a quarter.
The Marines will tell you that shooting that paper target — a make-believe enemy — isn't the same as shooting a person, frozen in your cross hairs.
That's something Cabaniss wants to talk to his Marines about; he wants them to think about that moment before it happens.
"I don't want the first time that the thought has ever crossed their mind is the first time the weapon comes up," he says.
Cabaniss wants to train the Marines to handle not just the enemy, but their own fears and doubts.
'Pursue The Enemy Ruthlessly'
So does the battalion's top commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson. His message to the troops is simple: It's us or them.
Just before dinner, most of the battalion, hundreds of men, gather outside their tents to listen. Some sit on the ground, others gather around in a semicircle. Nicholson grips a microphone and sends them off to war.
"I know America's Battalion is going to kick ass in there. You're going to do well. You find that enemy, you hang on to him. You don't let him get away. You pursue ruthlessly this enemy, because by letting him get away, he has another day to fight. He has another chance to come back at you," Nicholson says.
As the general finishes his speech, the Marines slowly head back to their tents. The training is over. Soon they'll head out to fight, for real.