ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
When the Marines from the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment first arrived in Southern Afghanistan, they were eager to fight the Taliban. They found camp life boring. Then came the firefights, the roadside bombs and the loss of more than a dozen comrades. Now, the Marines known as America's battalion have reached the end of their seven-month deployment.
NPR's Tom Bowman has been following them since they shipped out.
TOM BOWMAN: On a July morning, Private First Class 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.
Lance Corporal BRAD STYS (U.S. Marines): I've been patrolling 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.
BOWMAN: Vincent never wrote another word. He was shot and killed on that patrol, just 26 years old, the first Marine from Fox Company to die here. That was one of his friends, Lance Corporal Brad Stys, reading Vincent's journal. The other Marines from Fox Company listened, lounging on their cots in their tent, gazing at Stys as he spoke.
Lance Cpl. STYS: I still look over there and still think I see his rack, you know - should still be here.
BOWMAN: In another tent across a patrol base, First Sergeant Derrick Mays sits on a cot under some camouflage netting. He's a top enlisted man in Fox Company, and he promised the parents back at Camp Lejeune he'd bring their sons home. Now Mays grapples with what he'll say to them.
First Sergeant DERRICK MAYS (U.S. Marines): That's one of the things that will probably forever haunt me.
BOWMAN: He looks away.
First Sgt. MAYS: What can you tell a parent of someone that's deceased? What I can do is, you know, give them my well wishes and always be there for them.
BOWMAN: Donald Vincent wasn't the first loss for these Marines. Just days before, one of their Afghan interpreters, terps, they're called, was killed by a roadside bomb. His nickname was Jason. He cooked Afghan meals for the Marines. He'd always run toward the head of the patrol ready to help. Sergeant 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.
Sergeant RICHARD LACEY (U.S. Marines): 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.
BOWMAN: The interpreter left his parents, a brother and a young sister in Kabul. Sergeant Lacey remembers how that night, back at their base, the Marines ate their rations in silence.
Sgt. LACEY: Nobody really talked. It was just quiet.
BOWMAN: Those first deaths changed everything.
Sgt. LACEY: 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.
BOWMAN: Leatherneck - that was a large desert base where the Marines were stationed for two months at the beginning of the summer. Camp Leatherneck, they were bored, living inside a large, white tent. They called it the circus tent. They talked of Semper Kill, getting some. Back in June, we talked with Lieutenant James Wende in that tent. It was miserably hot. The Marines were just about to mount a massive operation to try and take back the Helmand River valley from the Taliban, and they couldn't wait.
Lieutenant JAMES WENDE (U.S. Marines): I mean, Marines, they want to go and they want to get in the fight. So, everyone was pretty much hoping for Afghanistan. So, we'll see. You know, it's - they say be careful what you wish for.
BOWMAN: That same day, we met Lieutenant Sam Oliver. He wanted to get into the fight too.
Lieutenant SAM OLIVER (U.S. Marines): I don't think you're ever in a hurry to get shot at. But you kind of want to get out and do what you've been trained to do. You want to do your job. You know, it's like the firefighter who waits to get to go to this fire, you know. You don't necessarily want it, but you're going to want to see what all your training is for.
BOWMAN: More than four months later, Wende and Oliver are different men. Lieutenant Wende is physically changed. He's already tall and slim, yet he 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.
Lt. WENDE: 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 kind of regain yourself and regain control over what's happening around you.
BOWMAN: Then there's Lieutenant Oliver, the one 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.
Lt. OLIVER: You just kind of realize the whole thing, like, wow, probably should've been dead on that one. Like, because the dude buried it six inches too deep, because you were one foot in the wrong direction. There's been a lot of guys this deployment that that didn't work out for them.
BOWMAN: Now, Oliver's at a small patrol base, a mud compound that looks like a cross between a ruined castle and a giant anthill. He's surrounded by cases of rounds and rockets. He also remembers the boasting back at Camp Leatherneck in the early summer.
Lt. OLIVER: Some of it was more of the glory of it, like, you know, people thinking, you know, we're going to get shot. There's no cool music playing. For myself and a majority of the guys in my platoon, yeah, it was kind of that whole naive thing, like, oh, this is going to be awesome.
BOWMAN: It was awesome, but not in the way they expected. Private Joseph Salesky.
Private JOSEPH SALESKY (U.S. Marines): I got the experience, but it's not how I wanted it to be. But I have that experience, I guess you can say.
BOWMAN: What did you want it to be?
Pvt. SALESKY: 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. I think that's the only - in Fox Company that's the only person that got hurt from a gunshot wound and died from it.
BOWMAN: Private First Class Donald Vincent, among the first Marines in America's battalion to have been killed on this deployment. His squad mates will give his journal, the one with that single entry, to Vincent's parents. They all plan to write a few lines about him, like 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.
Lance Cpl. STYS: There's not much you can say, just try to talk about our remembrances of him.
BOWMAN: And how Private Vincent's death changed everything.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
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