Marines Train To Conquer Taliban, Their Own Fears In 100-degree heat in the southern Afghanistan desert, U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment are training physically and mentally to prepare for their mission: battling the Taliban insurgency. Their leaders are teaching them to handle the enemy, as well as their own doubts.
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Marines Train To Conquer Taliban, Their Own Fears

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Marines Train To Conquer Taliban, Their Own Fears

Marines Train To Conquer Taliban, Their Own Fears

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At a desert camp in southern Afghanistan, Marines are preparing for war. Many of them have never fought in a real battle, and so they train over and over and over. We've been following the Marines of the 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They call themselves America's Battalion.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spent time with them as they trained.

(Soundbite of gravel)

TOM BOWMAN: The Marine squad dashes toward the trench line, rifles high.

Sergeant JOE GARRISON (2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps): One (unintelligible).

BOWMAN: Sergeant Joe Garrison leads the way.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Man #1: Shift left. Shift left.

BOWMAN: They flop on their bellies, take careful aim, and let loose a barrage of fire.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Man #2: Bang, bang, bang, bang.

Unidentified Man #3: Bang, bang.

BOWMAN: Well, not really firing, pretend firing against an invisible Taliban force in a trench cut into a landfill at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.

Unidentified Man #2: Bang, bang, bang, bang.

(Soundbite of conversation)

Unidentified Man #3: Ceasefire. Ceasefire.

BOWMAN: These Marines from Fox Company are in full battle gear, carrying an extra 70 pounds of armor and ammo in 104-degree heat. They're practicing to face the real Taliban. Everyone, the youngest privates, their junior officers, and old sergeants, even the commanding general, they're all doing what they have to do to get ready and stay focused.

Unidentified Man #4: Once we're in a real situation, I mean, it's going to be a lot different. I mean, we're not going to be running targets. Everybody is going to be hitting the deck when the rounds are cracking around.

BOWMAN: Watching it all is the platoon leader, 1st Lieutenant Steven Lind of Long Island.

1st Lieutenant STEVEN LIND (Platoon Leader, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps): (Unintelligible)

BOWMAN: You've been doing this how long?

1st Lt. LIND: About three weeks now since I got here.

BOWMAN: Every single day?

1st Lt. LIND: Yes.

BOWMAN: You pretty much have it down by now.

1st Lt. LIND: We do. We're ready.

BOWMAN: Some of them are probably more ready than others. The Marines can be divided into two groups: those who've seen combat before and those who haven't. Lieutenant Lind has been there before. He saw action last year in Iraq in the city of Ramadi. Though by the time he got there, Ramadi was mostly pacified. Still, this gives you a sense of how bad it is in Afghanistan now. Iraq was easy compared to what these Marines are about to face in Helmand Province.

1st Lt. LIND: They know it's not going to be Ramadi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So, they know it's going to be - they're going to be tired. They're going to see things that people shouldn't have to see. They have to do things that people shouldn't have to do.

BOWMAN: Lind is all of 25, considered an old man among the young Marines in his platoon. He says many Marines will be turning to Sergeant Garrison(ph), the squad leader who guided them through the afternoon's make-believe combat lesson.

Garrison is another marine who has seen combat before. He served two tours in Afghanistan and he knows most of his Marines have never faced enemy fire. Garrison's first contact with the Taliban left a searing imprint, like a job loss or the death of a parent.

Sergeant GARRISON (2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps): It was December 24th, 2004, out there in Korengal Valley.

BOWMAN: A Marine unit was attacked. Garrison's squad went to help.

Sgt. GARRISON: They ambushed us. Actually, it's kind of ironic, in a little town called Taliban. It was like nine or 10 houses there.

BOWMAN: Sergeant Garrison, a short stocky Marine from Pittsburgh, says they ended up killing some but capturing more, nine Taliban were rolled up.

Sgt. GARRISON: It's, I'll honestly say, probably the biggest adrenalin rush I ever had in my life. From that point on, I mean, it's something you can't really explain. It's something you got to kind of experience yourself.

BOWMAN: His job though is to explain it, to help all the young Marines in his unit who haven't experienced it yet, but are likely to soon.

Sgt. GARRISON: I ain't going to lie. It scares a little (unintelligible). But after that, you know, you kind of get used to it. And then it just comes to where you're like you aren't afraid of it anymore because you, (unintelligible) at first when you expect it happen more often, I guess.

BOWMAN: He's not sure if he shot anybody in that first firefight, but there were others.

What about the other contacts you had? Did you ever shoot anyone there?

Sgt. GARRISON: I really don't like talking about that too much, sir, if that's alright.

Unidentified Man #5: And then do body checks left and right. Here we go. All right, go ahead and make (unintelligible) when ready.

BOWMAN: They train to shoot in range about a mile from Camp Leatherneck. The desert stretches unbroken to the hazy mountains in the distance. Marines from the 2/8 set up paper targets, concentric circles stapled to plywood. They lay on their stomachs and pump rounds into the target.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BOWMAN: Dozens of Marines take turns shooting. For the battalion's senior Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss and Sergeant Major Robert Breeden, it turns into a friendly competition. Several months ago on the range at Camp Lejeune, the sergeant major beat the colonel by one point.

Lieutenant Colonel CHRISTIAN CABANISS (Commander, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps): I'm going to have go over here now and watch the CO. Give him a hard time.

BOWMAN: Colonel Cabaniss shoots well this day, his final four rounds closely grouped in the black at the center of the target, the size of a quarter. The Marines will tell you that shooting that paper target, a make-believe enemy, isn't the same as shooting a person, frozen in your cross hairs.

Have you shot and killed anybody?

Lt. Col. CABANISS: No.

BOWMAN: Do you think about it, what's going to…

Lt. Col. CABANISS: Do you think it's going to cross your mind? Oh, yeah. And that's why I wanted to talk everybody about it. But I don't want the first time that the thought has ever crossed their mind is the first time the weapon comes up.

BOWMAN: Colonel Cabaniss wants to train the Marines to handle not just the enemy, but their own fears and doubts. So does the battalion's top commander. He's Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, and his message is simple: It's us or them.

Just before dinner, most of the battalion, hundreds of men, gather outside their tents to listen.

Brigadier General LARRY NICHOLSON (2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, U.S. Marine Corps): (Unintelligible) very quickly. And we've got a lot of them. (Unintelligible) here. And we have guys that have been, multiple times in Iraq…

BOWMAN: Some sit on the ground, others gather around in a semicircle. He grips a microphone and sends them off to war.

Brig. Gen. NICHOLSON: All right, bottom line, (unintelligible) battalion, I know America's Battalion is going to kick ass in there. You're going to do well. You find that enemy, you hang onto him. You don't let him get away. You pursue ruthlessly this enemy because by letting him get away, he has another day to fight. He has another chance to come back at you.

BOWMAN: The general finishes his speech. The Marines slowly head back to their tents. The training is over. They are ready. Soon they'll head out to fight for real.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.


And you can see a photo gallery of the Marines training in the Afghan desert at

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