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Marines in Afghanistan Weigh In on a Life at War

All Things Considered, June 25, 2008 · When compared to Iraq, the conflict in Afghanistan is often described as the forgotten war.


by Ivan Watson

The U.S. military has 33,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan, and has lost 448 service members there since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Last month, 1,500 Marines were sent to attack a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan's southern Garmsir district. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit captured Garmsir from the Taliban after 30 days of constant fighting.

Now, their mission is to stabilize the region. Meanwhile, they're dealing with strenuous living conditions and wondering what's happening back home.

Fighting the Heat and Dirt

In the Dari language, Garmsir means hot weather.

The Marines in Garmsir spend a lot of time talking about the heat. A thermometer flat-lined one particular day, when temperatures reached 135 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun.

"It's even too hot at night for the mosquitoes," says one Marine.

They live in crude mud-wall compounds. There are no sewage system, no telephones, no electricity — these young men have been sleeping in the dirt for weeks.

But the Marines have come up with a trick to beat the Afghan heat.

Lance Cpl. Brian Archer sticks water bottles in a wet cotton sock.

"Piece of cloth, wrap up a hot drink in it, well water over it, let the wind hit it. Be like an hour or two. And it feels like you just pulled it out of the fridge. It's great," he explains.

Changing the Meaning of Politics

In this hostile environment, Archer says he feels worlds away from the debates over Iraq and Afghanistan in the U.S. presidential campaign.

"It really is almost irrelevant, too," he says. "When we get here, you know, you know that war, all it is is old men talking and young men dying. That's all we see. So, it calms down politics a lot of when you're out here."

Like many of the Marines in Garmsir, Cpl. Cody Bazanech was in eighth grade when the Sept. 11 terror attacks took place.

Six years later, Bazanech is patrolling on foot through fields of waist-high, opium poppies.

"I do what I have to do," he says. "Signed the contract. … I'm fighting for these people's rights. And I can do that because these people deserve the same rights that we have in our country."

But many of the Marines worry that Americans back home don't know what they're doing in Afghanistan.

"People should know kinda what we're doing over here probably a little more than they are," says Mason Bennet, a Navy medic. "It seems like they're focusing a lot more on Iraq right now than they are on Afghanistan. People call this the forgotten war. They need to know what's going on here, I guess."

Afghanistan and Iraq

About a third of the Marines in this company have done previous tours of duty in Iraq.

Cpl. Dennis James says the living conditions there are more comfortable, but the enemy in Iraq is more dangerous.

"The people in Iraq are sneaky," he says. "They hide amongst the crowd. These guys, you know who's gonna shoot at you, you know who's not. But in Iraq you're right there, next thing you're getting shot. Anything can happen in Iraq."

Lance Cpl. Michael Ertle, from Fleet, Ohio, has been to Iraq, too.

"Having been both places, I don't want this place to become another Iraq," he says. "I don't want us to become an occupational force. And we're leaning toward that big time in Iraq."

Sgt. Christopher Nipper says he expects to be sent to Iraq next year, after he finishes up this tour in Afghanistan.

"I'd like to see more action from the politicians versus talking," he says, "because they've been talking now for seven to eight years with very little resolve. The conflict in Iraq's been going on for five years now; the Afghanistan thing's been going on with the U.S. and other countries now since 2001."

But for now, the Marines have come up with a temporary solution to the homesickness and boredom in Garmsir.

On one particular day, the group bought several sheep from a passing Afghan shepherd and cobbled together a barbecue. They took a 50-gallon drum, cut it in half and made a grill.

The Marines ate lamb chops and — for a few hours — forgot about the heat.