Posted : Sunday Oct 24, 2010
MARJAH, Afghanistan — In the first two months of a seven-month tour, Marine Cpl. Chuck Martin has been in 16 firefights.
He's done laundry twice, mailed five letters and received two. He's spent 378 hours on post and 256 hours on patrol. He's crossed 140 miles of thorny bomb-laced farmland and waist-high trenches of water on foot.
Along the way, he's ripped eight pairs of pants, ruined two pairs of boots, and downed 1,350 half-liter bottles of water. His platoon has killed at least eight militants in battle and nine farm animals in crossfire. The rugged outposts he's lived in have been shot at 46 times.
"Tiring would be the best word to describe it," the lanky 24-year-old native of Middletown, R.I., said, summarizing his time in the insurgent-plagued southern Afghan district of Marjah so far. "There's no downtime. It's a constant gruel."
Martin's list, stored on spreadsheet on his laptop, offers a snapshot of American military life in this rural battlezone, where a new generation of young troops are growing up thousands of miles from home.
Since arriving in mid-July, troops from the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines' Echo Company have spread out across 13 small, spartan outposts in northern Marjah, a vast patch of fields and ancient hardened mud homes without running water or electricity that one company commander likened to "200 B.C."
At one outpost called Inchon, a droning generator provides power for laptops loaded with movies and iPods, and just two lights — one for the Americans, the other for their Afghan counterparts. Troops have knitted together several shaky chairs from the metal fencing of discarded Hesco barriers.
At many bases, Marines sleep outside on cots inside hot-dog shaped mosquito nets. There are no toilets — just "wag" bags, no showers — just pouches you can fill up with water warmed by the afternoon sun. Fleas are such a problem, many Marines have taken to wearing flea collars made for cats or dogs around their wrists and belts.
"It's definitely a culture shock," Lance Cpl. Benjamin Long, 21, of Trussville, Ala. said of life for incoming troops. "Some people come here and they think we're living like cavemen."
For Sgt. Jeffrey Benson of Medina, Ohio, the hardest part is being away from his wife and two-year-old son.
"Every time I call home, I feel like I'm missing something, missing another milestone," said Benson, 34-year-old squad leader.
On the front, Benson said, his biggest fear is of making a decision that will lead to one of his Marines getting hurt. He said he worries about varying routes and patrol patterns to avoid insurgent attacks.
"I'm constantly double-checking things," he said. "Marines want to get into gunfights. But it's the small details — running into an ambush or running over an IED — that I worry about most."
The dangers of Marjah became apparent shortly after the Marines touched down. On one early patrol, six of them were wounded when guerrillas sprayed machine gunfire down a canal they were moving through.
The first time Benson led troops outside the wire, a Taliban fighter set off a fragmentation charge that blew up an Afghan soldier and wounded his radio operator. A few minutes earlier, he had been squatting on a knee in the same spot as his squad passed by.
There have been many more close calls, including one Marine who walked into a trip wire across a canal that didn't go off. Another survived a burst of gunfire where a bullet pierced his radio and then the Camelbak hydration pack strapped to his back, before finally stopping at his armored plate.
Lance Cpl. Patrick Cassidy remembers bullet rounds kicking up dust just six inches from his head during a morning firefight — after he had already hit the ground to take cover at the start of an ambush.
"Some days it sucks, but I can't complain," said the 23-year-old native of Stroudsburg, Penn., after lugging around a mortar tube for hours on a patrol that thankfully turned out quiet. "I signed up for it. I knew what I was getting into."
At one patrol base, a dinnertime conversation turned to this: is it better to be blown up or shot?
The two American Marine battalions deployed in Marjah since this summer have lost 21 men so far, according to a Facebook page that tracks casualties.
Lance Cpl. Damon George, 21, of Northville, Mich., remembers two of them in particular. As he walked away seconds after a military memorial service for a fallen friend, he was told by his commanding officer that another comrade had been killed.
Despite the danger, George, a driver, said it was crucial to ferry supplies to the troops. "Even if it's Pop Tarts or Rip-its ... or mail ... It's a morale factor."
Lance Cpl. Matthew Gallant, 21, of Cape Cod, Mass., was in a convoy that hit two roadside bombs in 24 hours, one of which was the biggest blast his unit has seen. That explosion broke his ankle, ripped the driver's leg apart, and severely wounded his truck's gunner, who was hurled into the road.
"It's not fun," Gallant said of driving on Marjah's roads. "It's waiting to get blown up again for the most part."
Marjah has no paved roads and 90 percent of U.S. military operations are on foot.
Troops routinely patrol weighed down with 80 or 90 pounds of gear — armored jackets, rifles — traversing a harsh terrain of water-filled trenches. The canal system was built by American aid money half a century ago; today both insurgents and coalition forces use them as cover to avoid or stage attacks.
"All the guys out here have lost weight," Martin said, speaking of the pace doing three patrols a day, then back-to-back six-hour post shifts the next. It "really beats you up."