ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment is just days from completing its deployment to Afghanistan. The 2/8 calls itself "America's Battalion." We've been following these Marines since they left Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, back in May. They've been patrolling one of Afghanistan's most dangerous regions, and they have one final responsibility: training the troops who will take their place.
NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman was there to watch the old guard teach a new group of Marines.
Sergeant RICHARD LACEY (U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment): (Unintelligible), Peach.
Unidentified Man #1: Go ahead, Peach.
Sgt. LACEY: Hey, this is operation...
TOM BOWMAN: Sergeant Richard Lacey is on one of his final patrols with Fox Company here. They're working the fields and pathways of southern Helmand province he's known for months.
Sgt. LACEY: Just letting you know this area we're in, we've been hit from two or three times with heavy volumes of fire.
BOWMAN: On this day, he's also something of a teacher, instructing Staff Sergeant 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.
Staff Sergeant JOHN NICKERSON (U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines): You just throw two or three rounds in there?
Sgt. LACEY: Yeah, they shot rockets into us.
BOWMAN: Nickerson and his fellow Marines from 2nd Battalion of 2nd Marines are just moving in. Their uniforms are clean, not like those of Fox Company, which are torn and stitched after months of jumping over drainage ditches or kneeling on rocky trails. More than a few combat boots are split open near the toes.
The Marine replacements don't have all their equipment yet. Nickerson sheepishly admits he doesn't even have a radio.
Staff Sgt. NICKERSON: 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 if I'm bugging you.
BOWMAN: What does trouble Lacey is the gung ho spirit of some of these new Marines, the itchiness to get into the battle. You can see he's a long-term resident. After a patrol, Lacey and his squad are lounging outside their tent, on furniture they fashioned from the steel framework of the large sandbags that rim their outpost.
Sgt. LACEY: Their lieutenants especially are really 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 commander what they can do.
BOWMAN: Lacey is trying to head that off.
Sgt. LACEY: But I've told their squad leaders they need to calm their lieutenants down or somebody's going to get hurt.
BOWMAN: What do they say to that?
Sgt. LACEY: They all know that 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.
BOWMAN: He's not the only one who shares these feelings about the new Marines.
Lieutenant JAMES WENDE (U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment): You look at them and I just kind of hope that that's not how I was when I first got here.
BOWMAN: That's Lieutenant James Wende who was just as eager for battle when he first got here.
Lt. WENDE: They definitely have a long way to go and a lot to learn before they get done with this deployment. So it's kind of like the senior class looking at the new freshmen coming in in the fall.
BOWMAN: The freshman stand at the back during Fox Company's nightly operational meetings, taking notes. They cluster around a large map at the command center.
Lt. WENDE: Their success really just depends on how much they're willing to take in what we've learned � our mistakes, our - I guess our victories, if you will, and just learn from it as much as they can.
BOWMAN: How much can you really teach them? And how much of this is intuitive?
Lt. WENDE: Oh, yeah, definitely. A lot of it is intuitive. It's kind of like they'll listen. They'll understand what you're saying, but until they actually get out there and they do it themselves, they're not going to take it to heart. I mean, some of it they will. And I won't say they're not going to take everything to heart but it's like one of those things. Like, you have to learn a lot of this on your own.
BOWMAN: Part of what the new guys have learned is how several months in the field can change a Marine.
A few hundred yards behind this patrol base is a smaller outpost. It's 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, no electricity or running water.
Unidentified Man #2: How are things at The Rock?
Unidentified Man #3: Good. Nice piece of real estate.
BOWMAN: A handful of Marines have been stationed at this lookout, keeping watch for about two weeks. They're slowly losing their military bearing. Private Joseph Sileski and the others are shirtless and bearded.
What's the reaction of 2/2 when they come up here and get a look at this World War I encampment?
Private JOSEPH SILESKI(ph) (U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment): Oh, we've been hiding...
HANSEN(ph): We've been hiding.
Pvt. SILESKI: ...because no one wanted to bring us razors and we didn't want to get in trouble.
Pvt. SILESKI: But Hansen, how was their reaction yesterday? You were out, right?
HANSEN: Yeah. They looked at us like we were cavemen.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BOWMAN: For all the joking, the Marines of Fox Company hope their replacements can pick up where they've left off � disrupting the Taliban and setting up small outposts. The next step is a long, slow process of reaching out to the Afghan population.
The handover continues. Corporal Matthew Pierce(ph) is a scout sniper with the new Marines. He's finishing up one more patrol, soaking up as much as he can during this transition period.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Corporal MATTHEW PIERCE (U.S. Marine Corps, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment): Do you see that palm tree.
BOWMAN: Yep. Small arms, RPGs?
Cpl. PIERCE: Small arms, right.
BOWMAN: Pierce and the others 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.
Cpl. PIERCE: Definitely. Anytime we get to go out and, you know, observe the area and stuff like that. And they give us their input on bad areas, good areas. You know, where they've been hit, you know, where they've not been hit. Who's good, who's bad.
BOWMAN: Before long, Pierce and his fellow Marines will have to find out the answers to those questions on their own.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.