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Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, they've become staples of the digital landscape. But on the battlefield in Afghanistan, U.S. commanders have been struggling with how U.S. troops should and should not use social media. They use these sites to keep in touch with their families. But posting online can lead to headaches, like releasing the names of American dead before the families are notified or revealing gruesome pictures of war dead.
NPR's Tom Bowman is in Afghanistan and has this report from an Internet cafe on the frontlines.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Inside a plywood shack at Combat Outpost Marjah, three Marines sit before a bank of computers. They're provided by the military to keep up morale at this dingy collection of tents, where there are swarms of flies, bland and starchy chow and the constant hum of generators. One Marine is Skyping with his wife. Sergeant William Garner is on Facebook.
SERGEANT WILLIAM GARNER: I was just hanging out on the Internet, bored.
BOWMAN: Sergeant Garner turns from the glowing screen for a moment. He says members of his squad show him the pictures they snap with their cameras, and he decides which ones can show up on the Internet.
GARNER: We get a lot of firefights come over and a lot of dead Taliban and what not. So Marines want to take pictures of that, and there's really no point behind it.
BOWMAN: It's reality. Marines take pictures of dead Taliban.
GARNER: It's just pretty cut and dry what you can do and not do - it's common sense-wise.
BOWMAN: It's up to Sergeant Garner to make sure they don't post those pictures. The Marines leadership isn't taking any chances. Officers brief the troops before they come to Afghanistan on what not to post.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL MICHAEL STYSKAL: Don't take pictures you're not supposed to take. And then, you're not supposed to put them on to social media.
BOWMAN: That's Lieutenant Colonel Michael Styskal, commander of Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. He's the top Marine officer in the area and was visiting the Marjah outpost.
STYSKAL: You know, so you don't take pictures of detainees. You don't take pictures of dead people. You don't take pictures of Afghan people in compromising positions and - or women.
BOWMAN: Colonel Styskal has one of his officers occasionally check the Internet for any potential social media problems. Still, the colonel says his concern goes beyond pictures of detainees or dead Taliban. They include the frequent videos of firefights on YouTube, like this one from his battalion taken during the last two years right here in Marjah before Colonel Styskal took command.
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BOWMAN: What would the colonel do if he saw such a video today of his Marines?
STYSKAL: I'd probably go talk to the company commander and say what was this guy doing when he was videotaping when he should have probably been helping fight.
BOWMAN: Of course, in the military, there's not always a fight. There's plenty of downtime. Back at the plywood Internet cafÃ©, Private Alejandro Francis of Manhattan is logged onto Facebook. He's 19 and on his first deployment. A tattoo of St. Michael the Archangel is etched on his upper arm.
PRIVATE ALEJANDRO FRANCIS: I mean, I put up pictures that are appropriate. And I know if I have to think about it twice to put it up, then I won't put it up.
BOWMAN: That's probably because the message has been drummed home. When a video surfaced in January showing Marines in Afghanistan in 2010 urinating on dead Taliban, Private Francis says all the Marines here were required to take a class.
FRANCIS: About the video and how that wasn't very appropriate and how it gave us a bad name.
BOWMAN: That video taken two years ago is still under investigation. Disciplinary action is possible not only against the four Marine sergeants involved, officials say, but also their commanders. Private Francis isn't even close to giving the Marines a bad name. On this day, he's posting a message to his mom back in New York.
FRANCIS: (Reading) Words can't explain how I feel about you. Anything I were to do would never amount to things you have done for me. I want to thank you for bringing me into this world. It's time for you to sit back and let me make you proud.
BOWMAN: Maybe that's the test for troops when they're thinking about posting something on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, does it make you proud? Tom Bowman, NPR News, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
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