Marines Welcome Replacements To The Afghan Fight

W: Lt. James Wende, pictured on patrol in Helmand province i i

Lt. James Wende, pictured on patrol in Helmand province, says he feels like a senior looking at the freshman class as he concludes his deployment in Afghanistan and hands over the territory to newly arrived Marines. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
W: Lt. James Wende, pictured on patrol in Helmand province

Lt. James Wende, pictured on patrol in Helmand province, says he feels like a senior looking at the freshman class as he concludes his deployment in Afghanistan and hands over the territory to newly arrived Marines.

David Gilkey/NPR

This month, the more than 800 Marines of 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment are finishing their deployment to Afghanistan. Some units of "America's Battalion," are returning this week to Camp Lejeune, N.C., after months fighting the Taliban. NPR reporters have been following these Marines since they left North Carolina in May.

Sgt. Richard Lacey is on one of his final patrols with Fox Company. The Marines from 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment are working the fields and pathways of southern Helmand province, an area Lacey knows well after spending months here.

"This area we're in, we been hit from two or three times with heavy volumes of fire," Lacey says.

On this day, Lacey is also something of a teacher, instructing Staff Sgt. John Nickerson about the dangers of his new neighborhood. Over here, the likely places for roadside bombs. Over there, the favorite lair of a sniper.

"You just throw 203 rounds in there?" Nickerson asks, referring to targeting the troublesome spot with M203 grenade launchers.

"Yeah, they shot rockets into us," Lacey replies.

Nickerson and his fellow Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment are just moving in. Their uniforms are clean, not like those of 2/8's Fox Company, which are torn and stitched after months of jumping over drainage ditches and kneeling on rocky trails. More than a few combat boots are split open near the toes.

The Marine replacements of 2/2 don't have all their equipment yet. Nickerson sheepishly admits he doesn't even have a radio.

"It's hard to tell what's going on. I don't have no com or anything, man. That's why I keep asking. Sorry I'm bugging you," he tells Lacey.

"No, you're good," Lacey replies.

What does trouble Lacey is the gung ho spirit of some of these new Marines, the itchiness to get into the battle. He is doing his best to try to caution his replacements.

"Their lieutenants especially are real eager to get out there. A lot of it is probably because it's their first time being on a deployment. So, they want to get out there and show their company commanders what they can do," Lacey says.

"I've told their squad leaders they need to calm their lieutenants down or somebody's going to get hurt," he says.

After a patrol, Lacey and his squad are lounging outside their tent, on furniture they've fashioned from the steel framework of the large sandbags that rim their outpost.

Lacey says the seasoned squad leaders know how to handle the eager young officers.

"They all know. They've been on deployments before. So they've talked to their lieutenants and everything. So, especially the first IED that hits them, that'll be a wake-up call for them," he says.

Lacey is not the only one who shares these feelings about the newly arrived Marines.

A Marine with Fox Company relaxes at a base in Helmand province. i i

A Marine with Fox Company relaxes at a base in Helmand province. The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment are preparing to head home after a six-month deployment. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
A Marine with Fox Company relaxes at a base in Helmand province.

A Marine with Fox Company relaxes at a base in Helmand province. The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment are preparing to head home after a six-month deployment.

David Gilkey/NPR

"You look at them and I just kind of hope that's not how I was when I first got here," says Lt. James Wende, who was just as eager for battle when he first got to Afghanistan. "But they definitely have a long way to go and a lot to learn. It's kind of like the senior class looking at the freshmen coming in in the fall."

The freshman class — the Marines from the 2/2 — stand at the back during Fox Company's nightly operational meetings, taking notes. They cluster around a large map at the command center.

"Their success really just depends on how much they're willing to take in what we've learned — our mistakes and our victories, if you will — and just learn from it as much as they can," says Wende of San Antonio, Texas.

"A lot of it is intuitive You have to learn a lot of it on your own," he says.

Part of what the newly arrived Marines have learned so far is how several months in the field have changed their fellow Marines.

A few hundred yards behind their patrol base in southern Helmand province is a smaller outpost, set high on a bare dirt hill. Marines call it "The Rock." Some say it's haunted. It's just a series of dugouts and trenches with camouflage netting. There is no electricity or running water.

A handful of Marines have been stationed at this lookout — keeping watch for about two weeks. They are slowly losing their military bearing. Pvt. Joseph Salesky and the others are shirtless and bearded.

"They looked at us like we were cavemen," quips one of the Marines.

For all the joking, the Marines of Fox Company hope their replacements can pick up where they have left off — disrupting the Taliban and setting up small outposts. The next step is the long, slow process of reaching out to the Afghan population.

As the handover continues, Cpl. Matthew Pierce, a scout sniper with the 2/2, is finishing up one more patrol, soaking up as much as he can during this transition period. He learns that a nearby tree line was a spot insurgents used to direct small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades at the Marines.

Pierce and other Marines clatter over a metal foot bridge built by British troops, who just four months ago looked upon the now veteran 2/8 Marines as the green troops.

Pierce deployed to Iraq last year. Now he knows he's in a more dangerous place and he's happy for any advice.

"Definitely. Any time we get to go out over the area, they give us input on bad areas, good areas. Where they've been hit, where they not been hit. Who's good, who's bad," Pierce says.

Soon, Pierce and his fellow Marines will have to find out the answers to those questions on their own.

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