ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The Second Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment calls itself America's Battalion. It was supposed to be headed to Iraq this spring, but things changed. It's about to deploy to Afghanistan instead, as part of the 21,000 additional forces President Obama is sending there. The battalion will head to areas in the south of Afghanistan. It's the heartland of the Taliban insurgency.
NPR will be following the battalion before, during and after its deployment. We'll be hearing from both the Marines in Afghanistan and their families here at home. And we begin today by meeting some of the Marines we'll be following.
NPR's JJ Sutherland caught up with them at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to get a sense of what it's like to get ready to spend the rest of this year in a war zone.
JJ SUTHERLAND: They're counting the days. The Marines will be leaving their base here any time now, and there's lot still to do. The easy part is preparing for war. The hard part is figuring out how to say goodbye. Sergeant Major Robert Breeden has been through this before many times.
Sergeant Major ROBERT BREEDEN (U.S. Marine Corps): It's horrible in some aspects that Marines miss their kids growing up.
SUTHERLAND: Or even their kids being born.
Sgt. Maj. BREEDEN: We'll have, on an average, probably 40 new fathers, new dads. That will be first-time kids. So it'll be challenging. You know, I'm not going to lie.
SUTHERLAND: Breeden's been in the Corps for 21 years. He's been deployed 13 times.
Sgt. Maj. BREEDEN: My daughter was born during the first Gulf War when I was forward deployed. And, you know, now I'm missing her graduation, so there's things you miss and there's sacrifices that are made.
SUTHERLAND: He can keep track of all the times he's been to war by the hobbies his daughter takes up when 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.
Sgt. Maj. BREEDEN: 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. So, you know, what dad experiences and stuff like that. So it's interesting.
SUTHERLAND: Now Sergeant Major Breeden is counseling young Marines on how to prepare for their 210 days in Afghanistan. He's the top enlisted man in the battalion that has more than 800 Marines. He's responsible for all of them.
One of those Marines is Second Lieutenant Samuel Oliver. This is his first deployment. He just got engaged in December. He plans to get married when he comes home. He's worried about his Marines, but he's also trying to figure out how to stay in touch with his fiance.
Second Lieutenant SAMUEL OLIVER (U.S. Marine Corps): I figured, you know, worst case scenario, you write a letter, not that I've done that much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
2nd Lt. OLIVER: It's usually email, tops, it's like a chore. So, no cell phone, no text messages, no voice mail, so I have to learn how to spell over again, I guess. No computer spell check.
SUTHERLAND: The communications will be so difficult because the battalion's mission will take them into places few American forces have ever been. They'll be in southern Afghanistan, the heart of the Taliban insurgency. They'll have to build their own bases. The conditions, they all say, will be austere. That's the word they use.
As a young officer, Lieutenant Oliver has a small platoon of Marines under him. Many of them will have seen combat before. He hasn't, but he will have to lead them.
2nd Lt. OLIVER: I say the biggest point of anxiety is, you know, you got 40 young guys over here, all probably under the age of 25 and that's a lot of responsibility. So that's the main thing. Really, that's the price, that's the only thing.
SUTHERLAND: On the day we met, the Marines got in some of the last training they'll do before doing it for real on the other side of the world.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
SUTHERLAND: A car is stopped at a checkpoint in a mock Afghan village. Actors are playing the roles of translators and villagers and Taliban.
Unidentified Man #1: The lady, you know, she's very sick.
Unidentified Man #3: Tell them their story is not making sense to me.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
SUTHERLAND: The commander leading this exercise is Lieutenant Oliver's boss. He doesn't look like your typical Marine. His name is Captain Junwei Sun. He was born in Shanghai, though he's the first to tell you he's from Queens. His Marines tower over him, but he's obviously in charge. Captain Sun has deployed twice before to Iraq. To get ready for this deployment, he's been trying to learn the language he'll need in Afghanistan.
Captain JUNWEI SUN (U.S. Marine Corps): I know three words right now. I'm still trying to - I'm still learning. I'm just trying to memorize it. I bought a CD and listening to it every day when I drive to work. And it's a little bit difficult, it's different from Arabic.
SUTHERLAND: He says about half of his company has deployed before. The others, like Lieutenant Oliver, are rookies.
Capt. SUN: This is their first unit, first deployment. They're a bit nervous, but they're not scared. They have no fear. They're anxious to go, anxious to do what they're trained to do.
SUTHERLAND: 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.
Lieutenant JAMES ARTHUR WENDE (U.S. Marine Corps): Because I want to fight, basically.
SUTHERLAND: That's another Marine office, Lieutenant James Arthur Wende. He told his wife that he wanted to go to Afghanistan. He told her that almost immediately after coming home from Iraq.
Lt. WENDE: You know, Marines join because they want to get in combat, and they want to, you know, get rid of the people that need to be taken off this earth.
SUTHERLAND: And like the other Marines we've met - Lieutenant Oliver, Captain Sun, Sergeant Major Breeden - he's thinking about how he's going to lead his men.
Lt. WENDE: I think the second time around leading a platoon will be easier. But if it becomes a very kinetic fight, then it will be a lot more strenuous. If it ends up just being really boring, then you've just got to - same thing - keep the Marines from being bored. There's nothing more dangerous than a bored Marine.
SUTHERLAND: They won't likely be bored, not where they're going. And when Lieutenant Wende says kinetic fight, he's talking about combat. All these Marines know, on this deployment some of them are probably going to die. Here's Lieutenant Wende again.
Lt. WENDE: I never lost a Marine, but I can only imagine. And it's one of the things that I think about all the time is I don't know what I'd do to follow up on that as far as talking to parents, talking to Marines, things like that because, I mean, it happens, but it doesn't end there. You know, the mission has to continue. So the biggest thing that concerns me is losing somebody, definitely.
SUTHERLAND: 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.
Sgt. Maj. BREEDEN: The best thing to do, like with my wife, I won't tell my wife anything.
SUTHERLAND: That's Sergeant Major Breeden. He's figured out over the years how to say what's happening without saying what's happening.
Sgt. Maj. BREEDEN: I won't tell her anything that she doesn't already know. The Marines come up with brevities a lot of times. A lot of the more mature Marines and sailors, they'll sit there and just say, hey, things are going good here, and the wives can see through it just by the tone of the communication. So it works.
SUTHERLAND: For the next seven months, the Marines of America's Battalion, the 28, will be fighting in Afghanistan. Their families will be waking up every morning and going to bed each night wondering if they're okay.
JJ Sutherland, NPR News.
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