Lt. James Wende (right) with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, keeps a watchful eye on his Marines while on patrol in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
Lt. James Wende (right) with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, keeps a watchful eye on his Marines while on patrol in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. David Gilkey/NPR
The more than 800 Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment are nearing the end of their seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. NPR reporters have been following the Marines of "America's Battalion" since they left North Carolina's Camp Lejeune in May.
At first, they were eager to get into the fight against the Taliban, chafing at the boredom of camp life in the desert.
Now, after numerous firefights, roadside bombs and the loss of more than a dozen comrades, the Marines of "America's Battalion" see warfare in a different light.
On a July morning, Pfc. Donald Vincent grabbed a pen and picked up his new journal. He opened to the first page and wrote down these words in small, neat script:
I have a patrol in a couple of hours. I still haven't had an opportunity to fire my weapon but I'm sure it's coming. I have to say that it's quite amazing out here. We have pretty much gone from oasis to oasis. Green fields of corn, okra, grapes and even marijuana. And in the distance you can see the desert surrounding us. There's lots of life out here. Some beautiful birds, different lizards, cats, dogs and I've even seen a couple of camels. Well I'm going to go for now. I'll write more after the patrol.
Vincent never wrote another word.
He was shot and killed on that patrol. The 26-year-old from Gainesville, Fla., was the first Marine from Fox Company to die in Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Brad Stys was one of Vincent's friends. Sitting among other Marines from Fox Company in their tent, Stys says he has not forgotten his friend.
"I still look over there and still think I see his rack, you know. He should still be here," Stys says.
In another tent across the patrol base, 1st Sgt. Derrick Mays sits on a cot under some camouflage netting. He is the top enlisted man in Fox Company — an 18-year Marine veteran — and he promised the parents back at Camp Lejeune that he would bring their sons home. Now, Mays grapples with what he'll say to them.
First Sgt. Derrick Mays with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, sits inside of his tent area at Patrol Base Hassan Abad in Helmand province.
First Sgt. Derrick Mays with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, sits inside of his tent area at Patrol Base Hassan Abad in Helmand province. David Gilkey/NPR
"That's one of the things that will probably forever haunt me," he says, looking away.
"What can you tell a parent of someone that's deceased?" he asks. "What I can do is give them my well wishes, and always be there for them."
Vincent wasn't the first loss for these Marines.
Just days before, one of the Marines' Afghan interpreters — known as "terps" — was killed by a roadside bomb. His nickname was Jason.
He cooked Afghan meals for the Marines. He always ran toward the head of the patrol, ready to help.
Sgt. Richard Lacey was blown forward by the blast that killed Jason. The interpreter had stepped on a pressure plate, a triggering device for a homemade bomb.
"The terp got blown over the compound wall, into a compound. We had to go in and get him. He was basically Jell-O from the waist down," Lacey says.
The interpreter left his parents, a brother and a young sister in Kabul.
Lacey remembers how that night back at their base the Marines ate their rations in silence.
"Nobody really talked. It was just quiet," he recalls.
Those first deaths changed everything.
"Once that went off, we were like, yup, this is not going to be all fun and games, how we thought it was going to be at Leatherneck. This is real. People's lives are on the line," Lacey says, referring to the large desert base where the Marines were stationed for two months at the beginning of the summer.
At Camp Leatherneck, the Marines were bored, living inside a large white tent that they called "the circus tent." They talked of "Semper Kill," getting some action.
Marines with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment return to Patrol Base Barcha after a foot patrol in the Helmand River valley in October.
Marines with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment return to Patrol Base Barcha after a foot patrol in the Helmand River valley in October. David Gilkey/NPR
Back in June, the Marines were just about to mount a massive operation to try to take back the Helmand River valley from the Taliban. They couldn't wait, Lt. James Wende said at the time.
"Marines, they want to go and they want to get into the fight, so everyone was pretty much hoping for Afghanistan. So, we'll see — they say be careful what you wish for," said Wende, of San Antonio, Texas.
Lt. Sam Oliver wanted to get into the fight, too.
"I don't think you're ever in a hurry to get shot at. But you want to get out and do what you've been trained to do. You want to do your job. It's like the firefighter who waits to get to go to a fire. You don't necessarily want it, but you want to see what all your training is for," Oliver said at Leatherneck.
More than four months later, Wende and Oliver are different men.
Wende is physically changed. He was already tall and slim. Yet he's shed about 30 pounds from the heat and constant foot patrols. And there's almost a wistful smile as he thinks of his old self, just a few months back.
"I think you come into it expecting what you see on TV or in the movies. And then the first time you take a casualty, it really hits home how real this is. You almost feel lost for a few moments until you regain yourself and regain control over what's happening around you," Wende says now.
Then there's Oliver, the Marine who didn't want to get shot at.
Not only did he get shot at, he stepped on a homemade bomb and was blown against a wall and lost consciousness.
"You just kind of realize the whole thing, like wow, probably should've been dead on that one, because the dude buried it 6 inches too deep, because you were one foot in the wrong direction. There's been a lot of guys this deployment that it didn't work out for them," he says.
Now, Oliver is at a small patrol base, a mud compound that looks like a cross between a ruined castle and a giant anthill. He is surrounded by cases of rounds and rockets.
Pvt. Joseph Salesky, 23, of Yonkers, NY, living rough on "The Rock," a Marine lookout post in Helmand province.
Pvt. Joseph Salesky, 23, of Yonkers, NY, living rough on "The Rock," a Marine lookout post in Helmand province. Graham Smith/NPR
He also remembers the boasting back at Camp Leatherneck in the early summer.
"Some of it was more of the glory of it. ... For myself and a majority of the guys in my platoon, it was that naive thing — 'This is going to be awesome,' " he says.
It was awesome — but not in the way they expected.
Pvt. Joseph Salesky, 23, of Yonkers, N.Y., describes it this way:
"I got the experience, but it's not how I wanted it to be. ... [I] didn't want any of us to get hit, and I wanted to actually kill them. But they've been blowing us up. They shot Vincent. In Fox Company, that's the only person that got hurt from a gunshot wound and died from it."
The squad mates of Pfc. Donald Vincent, one of the first of the Marines in America's Battalion to have been killed on this deployment, will give his journal — the one with the single entry — to his parents.
They all plan to write a few lines about him — how Vincent arrived at the base camp a few days before everyone else, got in good with the supply guys and made sure the Marines who needed new boots got them.
"There's not much you can say," says his friend Stys, "just try to talk about our remembrances of him."
And how his death changed everything.