ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The Marines of the 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment are getting accustomed to a hot, dusty base in Southern Afghanistan. The 2/8 calls itself America's Battalion. It departed Camp LeJeune in North Carolina one month ago. We're following the battalion throughout its deployment. We're also checking in with the families back home.
SIEGEL: In a few minutes, we'll hear from the home front where a daughter graduated from high school without her father in the audience.
First though, a report from the field. NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman, is with the Marines at their base in the Afghan Desert as they prepare to push out and get into the fight.
TOM BOWMAN: It's baking hot, thick hairdryer in the face hot. That's not the worst of it. Talcum-like dust swirls around this desert base called Camp Leatherneck. In the early afternoon, it rolls in like a brown fog and seeps into the massive tent.
(Soundbite of alarm)
Lieutenant JAMES WENDE: That's our fire alarms in the tent. It's - I mean, basically, the dust in here, it gets so dusty during the day that the fire alarms actually go off from that. It's quite annoying, actually.
BOWMAN: Lieutenant James Wende from San Antonio, Texas is perched on his cot in shorts and t-shirt reading "The Steel Wave," a novel about World War II. He's eager to start his own war.
Lt. WENDE: Marines, they want to go and they want to get in the fight. So, everyone was pretty much helping for Afghanistan. We'll see. They say, be careful what you wish for.
BOWMAN: Like many Marines in this massive tent, Wende did a tour in Iraq last year. By then, it was largely peaceful. Boring, the Marines say. They were supposed to head back to Iraq. Instead, they got word they would head to Afghanistan.
Lt. WENDE: I think once we get down and start conducting operations, things are going to pick up. This is what they've always wanted to do. I had a few Marines that were kind of riding the fence whether or not to even get out of the Marines Corps or not. And then, once they found out we're going to Afghanistan, they decided to extend.
BOWMAN: Behind him on the tent wall is a Texas Tech banner. In front of him is most of Fox Company, a sea of 120 bodies on green cots stretching out in this low-slung circus tent that's half the length of a football field. Field packs and boxes are stacked next to them.
(Soundbite of banging)
Some Marines are shirtless, revealing tattoos spread across torsos and arms: skulls, crossed rifles, the Marine Corps symbol. Some carefully clean their weapons. Others stretch out on their cots, listening to iPods, chatting with friends, writing letters. The air has the aroma of dirty socks.
Lt. WENDE: Right now, I think it's kind of like laundry day, so it's more like a gypsy camp than anything.
BOWMAN: The Marines are mostly in their 20s, some still in their teens. They are the vanguard of 21,000 American troops, part of a new strategy by President Obama to take back parts of the country from Taliban control. Their piece is roughly the size of New Jersey. Most will tell you they're anxious.
Lance Corporal ZACHARY RASH: I run through scenarios all the time.
BOWMAN: That's Lance Corporal Zachary Rash. He's covered in sweat. He just got back from a training exercise in full gear.
Lance Cpl. RASH: And I come in, in the house, and the enemies could have certain things set up, and what's the best reaction? You know, even if one of your comrades goes down, like, you constantly think about things like this.
BOWMAN: Does it keep you up at night when you're in the tent thinking about what you're going to be facing?
Lance Cpl. RASH: A little bit sometimes. But I mean, if it's my time to go, it's too late to change your mind now. I'm here.
BOWMAN: Another Marine, Corporal Wesley Dutch Perkins from Louisiana, is eager to leave the dull routine of this barren landscape.
Corporal WESLEY DUTCH PERKINS: It's hot. It's dusty. It sucks.
BOWMAN: What keeps the men sane is word from home. Families send letters, packages.
2nd Lieutenant SAMUEL OLIVER (Platoon Leader): We got trail mix. We got granola bars, a lot of gum. I figured out it works pretty well to keep the sand out, you know?
BOWMAN: That's 2nd Lieutenant Samuel Oliver. We first met him at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina in April. Corporal Perkins got his own care package. His parents sent him baby wipes, nuts, dried fruit. A separate package of anxiety comes in hurried phone calls from home.
(Soundbite of fire alarm)
2nd Lt. OLIVER: They were really nervous about it. Just my mom's got a lot of friends. They're really close friends with the Army wives, and they heard a lot of bad things about Afghanistan. So, she's really worried.
BOWMAN: Perkins is just 22 on his first deployment. When he lays in his cot at night, he admits he worries.
2nd Lt. OLIVER: Kind of nervous. Don't really know what's going to happen. So just waiting to see what's going to happen, really.
BOWMAN: What's running through your mind when you think about (unintelligible) down there?
2nd Lt. OLIVER: Landmines, IEDs, pretty much.
BOWMAN: Is that the talk of the folks in the tent?
2nd Lt. OLIVER: Yes, sir. Everybody just wants to come back in one piece. How they're blowing up our Humvees and we're not using Humvees anymore.
BOWMAN: About 70 percent of casualties here are from IEDs, those roadside bombs. Just last week, one of the Marines was killed by a roadside bomb - the brigade's first loss. A few days later, one Marine was killed, several other were wounded when their convoy was struck by a blast.
2nd Lt. OLIVER: You got a lot of IEDs traps. That's no secret. I mean, we've got - that's one of their biggest ways to level the playing ground, you know? I put IEDs and mines everywhere. I might not have to have as many people as you.
BOWMAN: That was Lt. Oliver again. He's a platoon leader responsible for about 50 Marines. A water tobacco bulges from his lip. He let's lose a stream of brown spit into a plastic bottle. Oliver's biggest challenge: making sure his Marines remain disciplined if an IED hits his team and not lash out at the nearest Afghan civilian.
2nd Lt. OLIVER: You step on a mine. Who are you shooting back? Who are you going to kill? You know, it's not like somebody come up to you and hit you in the face in a bar. You know who to punch back. Here, you don't have that.
So, the biggest thing is like, people are going to start getting pissed off. You know, you get blown up enough you're going to get pissed. That's when you got to start - really start watching how guys are acting.
BOWMAN: When we met Lt. Oliver back at Camp LeJeune, he wondered whether he could lead men in combat. It's his first deployment, too. Now that he's here, he devours After Action Reports, combat reviews from Marine and British officers about firefights with Taliban forces.
2nd Lt. OLIVER: What they did do, what they didn't do, what they should have done, learning with the population, stuff like that.
BOWMAN: At the other end of the tent, Captain Junwei Sun sits in his cot, working through a list of Marines in his company: checking names, blood types, the next of kin; the last paperwork before the final push.
The captain is among the veterans, two tours in Iraq. The last time we saw him, he was training in a mock Afghan village, set in the pine forest of North Carolina, role players dressed up as Taliban. Now, here at Camp Leatherneck, he's waiting for the real thing to start.
Captain JUNWEI SUN (U.S. Marine Corps): You can't really complain. We have three meals and a cot, and nobody's shooting at us yet.
BOWMAN: Captain Sun and the rest of the Marines in America's Battalion know the shooting will start soon enough, once they push out of this base and head deep into the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.