May 1, 2009
NCO's - The Backbone of the Corps!
Training Afghans As Bullets Fly: A Young Marine's Dream Job
New York Times
May 1, 2009, Pg. 1
By C. J. Chivers
FIREBASE VIMOTO, Afghanistan — Three stone houses and a cluster of sandbagged bunkers cling to a slope above the Korangal Valley, forming an oval perimeter roughly 75 yards long. The oval is reinforced with timber and ringed with concertina wire.
An Afghan flag flutters atop a tower where Afghan soldiers look out, ducking when rifle shots snap by.
This is Firebase Vimoto, named for Pfc. Timothy R. Vimoto, an American soldier killed in the valley two years ago. If all goes according to the Pentagon’s plan, this tiny perimeter — home to an Afghan platoon and two Marine Corps infantrymen — contains the future of Afghanistan. The Obama administration hopes that eventually the Afghan soldiers within will become self-sufficient, allowing the fight against the Taliban to be shifted to local hands.
For now this vulnerable little land claim — in the hostile village of Babeyal and supported by a network of American infantry positions nearby — offers something else: a fine-grained glimpse inside the Afghan war, and the remarkably young men often at the front of it.
There are nearly 30 Afghan soldiers here. Their senior mentor, Cpl. Sean P. Conroy, of Carmel, N.Y., is 25 years old. His assistant, Lance Cpl. Brandon J. Murray, of Fort Myers, Fla., is 21.
On the ground, far from the generals in Kabul and the policy makers in Washington, the hour-by-hour conduct of the war rests in part in the deeds of men this young, who have been given latitude to lead as their training and instincts guide them.
Each day they organize and walk Afghan Army patrols in the valley below, some of the most dangerous acreage in the world. Each night they participate in radio meetings with the American posts along the ridges, exchanging plans and intelligence, and plotting the counterinsurgency effort in the ancient villages below.
In Corporal Conroy’s war, two Marines train Afghans in weapons, tactics, first aid, hygiene and leadership. They keep the firebase supplied with ammunition, water, batteries and food. They defecate in a rusting barrel and urinate in a tube that slopes off a roof and drains into the air. Fly strips surround them. They have no running water; their sleeping bunker stinks of filthy clothes and sweat.
The corporal has tied a flea collar through his belt loops; he needs it like a dog. He served two tours in Iraq. His four-year enlistment ended last month, but he extended for nine months when promised he would be assigned to a combat outpost in Afghanistan.
He hopes to attend college later. For now, he represents a class of Marine and soldier that has quietly populated the ranks since 2003. He enlisted not to pick up job skills or to travel the world at government expense. He enlisted to fight. “We’re the new generation,” he said. “I’ll tell you what — there are a lot of young Marines who’ve seen more combat than all of the guys up top who joined in the ’90s.”
He is supremely cocky, but unpretentious. When he met two journalists from The New York Times he asked what news agency they represented. Hearing the answer, he replied with one extended syllable: “Boooooo.” He prefers a good tabloid, he said.
He does not hide that he likes his life here: the senior man in an isolated post, surrounded by the Taliban, waking to a new patrol every day and drilling what he calls the Alamo Plan, to be executed if the firebase is overrun.
“This is the sweetest deal ever,” he said one evening between firefights. “There is no other place I could get a job like this — not at this rank.”
He woke the next day before 4 a.m. for a patrol. As he slipped into his ammunition vest, he groused that back home, when conversations drift to the war, the infantry too often is misunderstood. “You know what I don’t like about America?” he said, in the chill beneath lingering stars. “If you do what I do, then they think either you should have PTSD or you are some sort of psychopath.” PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder.
He exhaled cigarette smoke. “This is my job,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
The war in Afghanistan defies generalization. Each province, each valley and each village can be its own universe, presenting its own problems and demanding its own solutions.
In large areas of the countryside, the Americans try the softer touch of local engagement: distributing aid, seeking allies and coaching a nascent government to provide services on its own. Corporal Conroy and Lance Corporal Murray drew a different sort of assignment.
Here there is no Afghan government. The valley long ago sank into an old-school fight. Whether and how the contest for the Korangal can be shifted into something different, through negotiations, force or a counterinsurgency campaign, is not clear.
For now, the villages are eerily empty of men between the ages of 15 and 45. They are in the forests and mountains, from where they stage attacks and disrupt efforts at aid and development. They appear openly only on Fridays, when they gather without weapons at mosques, one of which is 150 yards from the firebase. The Afghan soldiers sometimes visit the mosque to pray at the same time, and the two sides eye each other warily, sharing a sacred space in a lull between fights.
The firefights between the insurgents and the Americans vary widely. Some are a few rifle shots or bursts of machine gun fire. Others are intensive ambushes of foot patrols. Many are attacks on American outposts and firebases. Sometimes all the firebases are struck at once.
In all, Corporal Conroy said, in five months here, he and Lance Corporal Murray have been attacked more than 70 times. He said he respected the insurgents’ courage, but was grateful that most of them lacked an essential skill.
“They are experienced and understand the principles of the ambush,” he said. “But they are not very good shots. If these guys knew how to shoot like even the U.S. Army, we would be taking 50 percent casualties on all of our patrols.”
He looked himself over. “Not a scratch yet,” he said. He balled his left hand into a fist and knocked on a sagging plywood table, warding off the jinx.
How effective the American training mission will be is unclear. The corporal said it would be years before the Afghan Army was ready to operate independently full time. But he said he had seen reason for optimism.
The Afghan captain who worked here until early April was overweight, lazy and rarely left the firebase. He used Afghan infantryman as valets. “I expected to come in and find the soldiers dropping grapes in his mouth,” Corporal Conroy said.
“Or fanning him with a palm branch,” said Lance Corporal Murray.
A new Afghan lieutenant rotated in last week. He is neat and lean, and has shown self-discipline and tactical sense. The Marines celebrated his arrival by buying a chestnut-and-white bull.
The Afghan soldiers bound the animal’s legs and flipped it onto its side. A soldier worked a blade across its throat. These Afghan soldiers eat meat once every two or three weeks. Tonight they would feast.
They were palpably happy. “Let Barack Obama come here and kill a cow for us,” one said. The rest laughed.
Corporal Conroy watched until the jokes subsided. War, like politics, is local. He reminded the Afghans that a platoon looked out for itself, and that he was the senior American on hand. “You don’t need Obama here,” he said. “I bought the cow.”