PATROL BASE MEHRAJ, Helmand Province, Afghanistan --
The culture, landscape and austere conditions of Helmand province can be downright shocking to American troops deployed to the area for the first time. Life in Helmand is completely different than life in the United States, and one can only begin to understand this exotic land after experiencing it first-hand.
Many Marines from 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, are currently serving on their first combat tour as the battalion operates in Musa Qal’eh district, Helmand province, and have learned something new at each twist and turn of their journeys. Lance Cpl. Trey Woodward, of Fort Worth, Texas, and Cpl. Nicholas Hardesty of Columbus, Neb., both from 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2/4, are among these Marines discovering the Afghan experience for the first time.
Woodward, 21, and Hardesty, 22, are both machine-gunners with 3rd Platoon, responsible for laying down automatic fires during engagements with their M240 machine guns. Woodward learned the dangers of being in a combat zone early into the deployment.
“Our first engagement (with enemy forces) was our second or third patrol,” said Woodward. “We came across this field, and off to our right was a compound, and we just started taking fire from there. We got down – I couldn’t shoot because another (friendly) element was off to our right, cutting off our sectors of fire, so I held rear security.
“That first round cracks by your head, you don’t realize your doing it, but you’re getting down in a hurry and getting your gun up,” he said. “Your head’s on a swivel.”
The Marines have quickly learned that an area’s atmosphere typically takes on an ominous ambiance before insurgents strike, knowledge that has helped the Marines determine whether they are unlikely to receive enemy fire or if danger is imminent.
“You know certain areas where you’re pretty safe, and you know certain areas where something’s going to happen,” said Hardesty, a graduate of Columbus High School. “If there’s nobody around and nothing’s going on, or there’s everybody around and then they leave, it’s never good.”
Woodward and the rest of 2/4 prepared for the deployment through in-depth training and hard work prior to arriving in Afghanistan, as reflected in their performance during enemy engagements. They also received cultural training prior to deploying, but the Marines have nevertheless been surprised at some of the things they have witnessed during their surreal adventure.
“There were a few things I wasn’t expecting,” said Woodward. “People are living in mud huts, walking around barefoot most of the time, kids with scars and stuff on their faces from being sick – you don’t see this kind of stuff back home.”
The children, likewise, have responded with surprise at the appearance of the funny-looking Marines in their strange combat gear, according to Woodward, who graduated from Boswell High School in Fort Worth.
“One patrol we went on, (the) kids, I don’t know, I guess they thought we were cyborgs or something. They look at us like, ‘Are these guys humans or what?’” said Woodward. “They started hitting my (helmet), and they were amazed by how tough it was.”
The Marines have noticed other obvious differences in Afghan culture too. Hardesty was shocked by the status of women in Afghanistan when he first arrived in country.
“On patrol today I saw a woman pop out of a compound, and she saw me,” said Hardesty. “(Immediately) she took off because she’s not supposed to be seen by us, and I know it’s bad for us to look at their women too. It was an accident.”
Afghanistan’s undeveloped landscape is also something that can only truly be appreciated through experience. The rocky terrain, endless fields, unpaved roads and numerous canals of Musa Qal’eh district contribute to a picturesque setting for the squad’s patrols, but also provide obstacles the Marines must overcome.
“(The terrain) affects me, but not to the point where I can’t do my job,” said Woodward. “You just hop over some canals and that’s it; you’re getting muddy and wet. It comes with the job.”
Being deployed to Afghanistan has left the Marines with an appreciation of how good life is for most Americans, something Hardesty took for granted until he started his own Afghan experience with 2/4.
“They don’t have the technology we do,” said Hardesty. “(Many) people don’t have electricity, running water – they use wells for everything, they go barefoot everywhere. Everything here, it’s different. Unless you’ve been here, you don’t know what to expect – it’s a culture shock.”
Perhaps the best experience of a combat tour is the camaraderie achieved through shared hardship between brothers going through a common trial. Many of the Marines in 3rd Platoon have become very close with each other.
“Being (an infantryman) has its ups and downs,” said Woodward. “(The best part is) you get to spend time with your brothers.”
Editor’s note: Second Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8 in 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.