Jun 25, 2009
2nd Bn, 8th Marines in the 'Stan !
June 22, 2009
Marines Train To Conquer Taliban, Their Own Fears
All Things Considered (NPR), 4:10 PM
ROBERT SIEGEL: At a desert camp in southern Afghanistan, Marines are preparing for war. Many of them have never fought in a real battle and so they train over and over and over.
We’ve been following the Marines of the 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They call themselves America’s Battalion.
NPR’s Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman spent time with them as they trained.
TOM BOWMAN: The Marine squad dashes toward the trench line, rifles high. Sergeant Joe Garrison leads the way. They flop on their bellies, take careful aim and let loose a barrage of fire, well, not really firing, pretend firing because an invisible Taliban force in the trench cut into a landfill at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.
These Marines from Fox Company are in full battle gear, carrying an extra 70 pounds of armor and ammo in the 104-degree heat. They’re practicing to face the real Taliban. Every one, the youngest privates, their junior officers and old sergeants, even the commanding general, they’re all doing what they have to do to get ready and stay focused.
UNIDENTIFIED U.S. MARINE: Once we get in a real situation, it’s going to be a lot different. We’re not going to be running targets, everyone‘s going to be hitting the deck when rounds are cracking around.
BOWMAN: Watching it all is the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Steven Lind of Long Island.
You’ve been doing this how long?
FIRST LIEUTENANT STEVEN LIND (U.S. Marine Corps): About three weeks now since I’ve been here.
BOWMAN: Every single day?
BOWMAN: You have it down by now.
LIND: We do. We’re ready.
BOWMAN: Some of them are probably more ready than others. The Marines could be divided into two groups, those who have seen combat before and those who haven’t. Lieutenant Lind has been there before. He saw action last year in Iraq in the city of Ramadi, though by the time he got there, Ramadi was mostly pacified. Still, this gives you a sense of how bad it is in Afghanistan now. Iraq was easy compared to what these Marines are about to face in Helmand Province.
LIND: They know it’s not going to be in Ramadi, so they know they’re going to be tired and they’re going to see things that people should not see and have to do things that people shouldn’t have to do.
BOWMAN: Lind is all of 25, considered an old man among the young Marines in his platoon. He says many Marines will be turning to Sergeant Garrison, the squad leader who guided them through the afternoon’s make-believe combat lesson. Garrison is another Marine who has seen combat before. He served two tours in Afghanistan and he knows most of his Marines have never faced enemy fire.
Garrison’s first contact with the Taliban left a searing imprint like a job loss or the death of a parent.
SERGEANT JOE GARRISON (U.S. Marine Corps): It was December 24th, 2004 up in Korengal Valley.
BOWMAN: A Marine unit was attacked. Garrison’s squad went to help.
GARRISON: They ambushed us, actually, it’s kind of ironic in a little town called Taliban, there’s like nine or ten houses
BOWMAN: Sergeant Garrison, a short, stocky Marine from Pittsburgh, says they ended up killing some, but capturing more. Nine Taliban were rolled up.
GARRISON: Honestly, probably the biggest adrenaline rush I ever had in my life, from that point on, I mean, it’s something you can’t really explain. It’s something that you’ve got to kind of experience yourself.
BOWMAN: His job though is to explain it, to help all the young Marines in his unit who haven’t experienced it yet, but are likely to soon.
GARRISON: It scares you at first, but after that, you know, you kind of get used to it and then it comes to you where you’re not afraid of it anymore. You expect it to happen more often, I guess.
BOWMAN: He’s not sure if he shot anybody in that first firefight, but there are others.
What about the other contacts you had? Did you ever shoot anyone here?
GARRISON: I really don’t want to talk about that too much, sir, if that’s all right.
BOWMAN: They train to shoot at a range about a mile from Camp Leatherneck. The desert stretches unbroken to the hazy mountains in the distance. Marines from the 2-8 set up paper targets, concentric circles stapled to plywood. They lay on their stomachs and pump rounds into the target.
Dozens of Marines take turns shooting. For the battalion’s senior Marines, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss and Sergeant Major Bob Breeden, it turns into a friendly competition. Several months ago on the range at Camp Lejeune, the sergeant major beat the colonel by one point.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRISTIAN CABANISS (U.S. Marine Corps): We’re going to have to go over here and watch the CO give him a hard time.
BOWMAN: Colonel Cabaniss shoots well this day. His final four rounds closely grouped in the black at the center of the target, the size of a quarter. The Marines will tell you that shooting that paper target; a make-believe enemy isn’t the same as shooting a person frozen in your crosshairs.
Have you shot and killed anyone?
BOWMAN: Do you think about it?
CABANISS: Yeah. And I don’t want the first time that the thought has ever crossed their mind is the first time the weapon comes up.
BOWMAN: Colonel Cabaniss wants to train the Marines to handle, not just the enemy, but their own fears and doubts, so does the battalion’s top commander. He’s Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and his message is simple: It’s us or them. Just before dinner, most of the battalion, hundreds of men, gather outside their tents to listen.
GENERAL LARRY NICHOLSON (U.S. Marine Corps): Get in there very, very quickly. We’ve got a lot of Ramadi vets in here and we have guys who’ve had multiple tours in Iraq.
BOWMAN: Some sit on the ground, others gather around in a semi-circle, he grips a microphone and sends them off to war.
NICHOLSON: All right. I know America’s Battalion is going to kick ass in there and you’re going to do well. You find an enemy, you hang onto them, you don’t let them get away. You pursue ruthlessly this enemy because by letting them get away, he has another day to fight. He has another chance to come back at you.
BOWMAN: The general finishes his speech. The Marines slowly head back to their tents. The training is over. They are ready. Soon they’ll head out to fight for real.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
SIEGEL: And you can see a photo gallery of the Marines’ training in the Afghan desert at npr.org.