U.S. Marines Take On the Taliban in Afghanistan

After two Iraq deployments, members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit face a different sort of war.

Helmand and Kandahar province locator map
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Because they thought it would be a quick operation, Alpha Company marines traveled light, carrying only bare essentials on their backs. They each filled CamelBaks with the equivalent of 54 water bottles each for the first three days. Many left even sleeping bags behind. With food and ammunition, gear for each gi weighed an average of 125 pounds, minus the body armor.

This is the largest opium-producing region in the world, and the marines' heavy packs posed hazards in the deeply rutted poppy fields that surround the town. The troops suffered sprained ankles and heat exhaustion. Weapons Company became mired in the fields on its way down as well, as the heavy new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, got stuck in fields and soft sand. At one point, it took the company three hours to go 400 yards. There are other hazards as well, some occasionally doubling as comic relief. The untended donkeys that run and graze in the fields outside the compound—an area the marines have nicknamed the petting zoo—nip at patrols. Troops have been bitten by horses and threatened by rabid dogs. And they have experienced firsthand the largely unexplored consequences of drug consumption among domestic animals. A goat grazing on the marijuana plants that grow here lost its footing after climbing to the top of a pile of discarded boxes and then tumbled down onto a marine dozing in his sleeping bag.

But such comic relief is short-lived. In May, Weapons Company was ambushed by Taliban forces and pinned down in the 90-minute firefight. "We didn't think they'd pour it on like that," says Abbott. "It was one of those things where they just keep turning the volume up, and it was getting louder and louder. There were 30 minutes when we were full-bore reloading," he says. "The next morning, we were like, 'How the hell did we survive that?' "

Recently, Weapons Company lost one of its snipers, at the time detailed to Alpha Company, in an ambush. Such losses take their toll on individual marines. "They get fed up. They cop attitudes and don't talk," says Weapons Company Commander Cpt. Michael Little. "You have to pull them aside and say, 'You're endangering your fellow marines.' That's what 99 percent of the guys respond to." Here, marines "fluctuate between extreme pissed-off-ness and extreme bored-ness," he adds. Oaks, who joined the Marines because he wanted to be just like the grandfather who raised him, has his own analogy. "You take the best family dog you can think of—loving, caring, the whole nine yards. And you build a wall around it. Then you start throwing hand grenades at it," he says. "Well, that dog is never going to be the same."

Beneath a camouflaged canopy on the compound, Cpl. Randall Clinton flips through a magazine. Reading material is at a premium here, since most of the marines couldn't take up pack space carting in periodicals. Clinton is narrating an article about "Seven Ways to Get to Heaven" in the hopes of helping Oaks choose a religion. "Here, we'll go through it—maybe we can find one that's right for you," he jokes. He begins with Hinduism. "You'll need karma," says Clinton. "Well, that's a bitch—my life is a living hell," Oaks replies. "Next." They dismiss Islam because of its ban on drinking. "Here's Christianity," Clinton tries again. "This is pretty popular where you're from."

The battalion's chaplain, Lt. Jeff Jenkins, makes his rounds to the company outposts to lend a professional perspective to the religion discussion. But mostly he wants to see how troops are doing. Weapons Company left 30 marines, or 14 percent of its ranks, back in the States because of trouble they got into with the law, alcohol abuse, or post-traumatic stress, says Wunder.

The transition between war zone and home life can be difficult for myriad reasons, he adds, and some go home with a post-combat sense of entitlement. "They have served, and they have been to war," says Wunder. "And they sometimes feel like it's the Wild West, that the rules don't apply to them."