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Week of 7.18.08

Images and Impressions from Afghanistan
By NOW Correspondent Bill Gentile

Just weeks after 9/11, I stood at the Afghan border with Tajikistan and watched American bombers pound Taliban positions in northern Afghanistan. I watched as America routed the Taliban and liberated Afghans hopes for a future better than the one they endured during decades of war since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. Our country had a chance to dramatically and swiftly alter the course of history for the better. But that didn't happen.

Now the Marines are back in Afghanistan as the alarm is sounding and that nation is slipping once more into the abyss. Only days ago, Taliban forces overran a U.S. military outpost in Kunar Province, killing nine American servicemen and forcing others to retreat. It was an enormous propaganda victory for the Taliban. And that's only the latest incident in Afghanistan's downward spiral of violence and instability. The casualty toll for U.S. forces in Afghanistan now rivals the toll in Iraq.

In May and June, I spent nearly three weeks with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU) in the Garmser District of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, near the border with Pakistan. This was actually the second time I'd been embedded with the 24th MEU. The first was in 2005 in the Iraqi city of Iskandariyah, about 25 miles south of Baghdad.

Bill Gentile at work in the Amir Agha bazaar in the Garmser District of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.
Bill Gentile at work in the Amir Agha bazaar in the Garmser District of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.
My biggest concern this time, contrary to what a lot of people might expect, was not the danger of covering a combat situation. I've been covering conflict since 1979, so this wasn't anything new. My real concern was the heat. Having covered the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and then the war in Iraq, I know how temperatures of 120 degrees can take you down almost as fast as a bullet.

The difficulty in working in that kind of heat was complicated by the fact that I had to carry everything I would need in an environment that offered absolutely no amenities. No hotel. No electricity. No clean, running water. No phones. So I had to carry camera gear, a computer to download the material that I shot with a high-definition digital camera, plenty of batteries to keep everything running, body armor, helmet, other gear and clothing and, on top of it all, the food and the water that the Marines provided. These were some of the most challenging conditions that I had ever worked in.

Also embedded for a while with the 24th MEU was New York Times photojournalist Tyler Hicks. I shot a brief video of him transmitting photographs from the field to New York with a satellite connection. You get a sense of the tough conditions we worked in by watching that video, available on the Foreign Correspondence Network.

"These were some of the most challenging conditions that I had ever worked in."
I was embedded with the Marines in time to watch the end of what they call the kinetic, or heavy combat stage, of their counterinsurgency mission. They cleared an area that the Taliban had seized two years ago. They re-opened a bazaar after clearing it of insurgents and weapons. They helped the Afghan police return and establish an official presence in the area for the first time in two years.

The Marine Corps is a fascinating sub-culture of the American military. They distinguish themselves by a proud tradition of sacrifice, by achieving more with less in the face of adversity, by their camaraderie and their brotherhood. It's an extremely tight-knit meritocracy in which performance and respect are everything regardless of race, ethnicity, color, creed or how rich or poor your parents may be. One Marine told me, "You join the Marine Corps because you have something to prove."And they do. Every day.

I spent my entire embed with the nearly 200 Marines of Alpha Company, which is commanded by 31-year-old Captain Sean Dynan. Capt. Dynan comes from a Boston suburb and his Marines come from the sleepiest towns and the most vibrant cities of America...and everything in between. They are mostly in their upper teens and lower 20s. They are white, black and Hispanic. Alpha Company also includes at least four Native Americans and at least one Asian American.

The Marines come from model families and from broken families. Their fathers are corporate executives and truck drivers, x-ray technicians and land surveyors, kitchen remodelers and road crew supervisors. One of these Marine's fathers operated his own airline. Another is a Baptist preacher. Still another, a university professor. Their mothers are nurses, receptionists and housewives. They are Montessori teachers, church workers and pharmacists.

Bill Gentile at work at a Marine Corps base in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.
Bill Gentile at work at a Marine Corps base in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province.
During the time I spent with them, many of the Marines opened up and told me their personal stories. Not all their stories are happy ones. When I asked one Marine about his father, he said he hadn't spoken with the man during his entire adult life and didn't care to do so, ever. Another Marine described his mother as "trash" and, "a drug addict." When I asked another about his parents, the Marine said, "That's not your business, Sir."

The Marines share everything, including a level of sacrifice that most Americans will never understand. And they are bonded by one of the most formative experiences of their young lives. In a sense, the Marines have created another family, their own family, and that family is called the United States Marine Corps.

I documented them as they endured temperatures that made my camera so hot that I had to put it down or take it to shade. They ate Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) that turn your insides to concrete. They slept on hard ground and breathed dust so fine that it gets into everything you own and everything you eat or drink. They fought off mosquitoes, spiders and fleas. They drank warm water from plastic bottles and washed their bodies, if at all, from contaminated wells. They repeatedly risked life and limb—and never whined. I wish more Americans could witness that level of sacrifice.

"[The Marines] repeatedly risked life and limb—and never whined. I wish more Americans could witness that level of sacrifice."
And I wish more Americans could see and understand the gravity of what is happening in Afghanistan. The consequences of a failed Afghanistan could be catastrophic. Once again Afghanistan could become a recruiting and training ground for anti-American terrorists like Al Qaeda.

After my embed with the Marines, I had dinner in Kabul with an Afghan friend who knows his country better than anybody else I know. We talked about the security situation that he said had deteriorated so drastically since my last visit three years before.

Toward the end of dinner my friend implored me to help his 19-year-old son leave Afghanistan and enroll in American University in Washington, DC, where I teach journalism. He asked me about scholarships to fund his son's education in the United States. "There is no future in this country," he said.

I hope he is wrong.

Afghanistan: The Forgotten War

Images and Impressions from Afghanistan

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