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Corporal details Marines’ hard life in southern Afghanistan

Troops face constant danger, culture shock in war zone

Marine Corporal Chuck Martin, 24, of Middletown, R.I., arrived at an outpost in southern Afghanistan in mid-July. Marine Corporal Chuck Martin, 24, of Middletown, R.I., arrived at an outpost in southern Afghanistan in mid-July. (Todd Pitman/ Associated Press)
By Todd Pitman
Associated Press / October 25, 2010

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MARJAH, Afghanistan — In the first two months of a seven-month tour, US Marine Corporal Chuck Martin has been in 16 firefights.

The 24-year-old native of Middletown, R.I., has done laundry twice, mailed five letters, and received two. He has spent 378 hours on post and 256 hours on patrol. He has crossed 140 miles of thorny bomb-laced farmland and waist-high trenches of water on foot.

Along the way, he has ripped eight pairs of pants, ruined two pairs of boots, and downed 1,350 half-liter bottles of water. His platoon has killed at least eight militants in battle and nine farm animals in crossfire. The rugged outposts he has lived in have been shot at 46 times.

“Tiring would be the best word to describe it,’’ Martin said, summarizing his time so far in the insurgent-plagued southern Afghan district of Marjah. “There’s no downtime. It’s a constant gruel.’’

Martin’s list, stored on spreadsheet on his laptop, offers a snapshot of American military life in this rural battle zone, where a new generation of young service members are growing up thousands of miles from home.

Since arriving in mid-July, personnel from the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines’ Echo Company have spread out across 13 small, austere outposts in northern Marjah, a vast patch of fields and ancient hardened mud homes without running water or electricity that one company commander likened to “200 B.C.’’

At one outpost called Inchon, a droning generator provides power for iPods and laptops loaded with movies, and just two lights — one for the Americans, the other for their Afghan counterparts. Service members have knitted together several shaky chairs from the metal fencing of discarded Hesco barriers.

At many bases, Marines sleep outside on cots inside hot-dog shaped mosquito nets. There are no toilets and no showers. Troops bathe with water warmed by the afternoon sun. Fleas are such a problem, many Marines have taken to wearing flea collars made for cats or dogs around their wrists and belts.

“It’s definitely a culture shock,’’ Lance Corporal Benjamin Long, 21, of Trussville, Ala., said of life for incoming Marines. “Some people come here and they think we’re living like cavemen.’’

The two American Marine battalions deployed in Marjah since this summer have lost 21 men so far, according to a Facebook page that tracks casualties.

The dangers of Marjah became apparent shortly after the Marines touched down. On one early patrol, six of them were wounded when guerrillas sprayed machine gunfire down a canal they were moving through.

There have been many close calls, including one Marine who walked into a trip wire across a canal that didn’t go off. Another survived a burst of gunfire where a bullet pierced his radio and then the hydration pack strapped to his back, before stopping at his armored plate.

Lance Corporal Matthew Gallant, 21, of Cape Cod, was in a convoy that hit two roadside bombs in 24 hours, one of which was the biggest blast his unit has seen. That explosion broke his ankle, ripped the driver’s leg apart, and severely wounded his truck’s gunner, who was hurled into the road.

“It’s not fun,’’ Gallant said of driving on Marjah’s roads. “It’s waiting to get blown up again for the most part.’’

Lance Corporal Patrick Cassidy, 23, Stroudsburg, Pa., remembers bullet rounds kicking up dust 6 inches from his head during a morning firefight — after he had already hit the ground to take cover at the start of an ambush. “I signed up for it,’’ he said. “I knew what I was getting into.’’