Saturday, August 15, 2009
Cpl. Justin Thompson crawled out of his rat hole dug deep into a wind-beaten, barren hilltop. Stepping over mounds of protective sand bags, he watched the sun rise over the Now Zad valley, a Taliban stronghold.
Thompson is part of a small Marine force that keeps watch over the deserted town of Now Zad.
About 10 miles (16 kilometers) away, Marines from the same company are fighting to drive the Taliban out of the town of Dahaneh. But Marines stationed on ANP Hill are removed from the battle, relegated to keeping an eye on insurgent movements elsewhere in the Zad valley.
Three years of intense fighting between the Taliban and NATO forces have chased away Now Zad's 30,000 inhabitants, leaving what had been one of the largest towns in southern Helmand province deserted.
The Marine company lacks the firepower to force the Taliban out of their positions just a mile away. So the Marines of ANP Hill keep watch over the area from their lonely outpost.
"Things can drag pretty slowly up here," said Thompson, of Manchester, Tenn., who is on duty six hours out of every 18. His unit has been stationed on ANP Hill for over three months, with that many still to go. The position's name, ANP, stands for Afghan National Police — even though no Afghan government official or police official has been stationed in the valley for years.
"The biggest thing here is not shooting the people who don't need to be shot," says 1st Lt. Malachi Bennett, of Tampa, Fla., the outpost's commander and _at 26_ one of the oldest men on the hill. He says the platoon has been making some progress at befriending residents on the outskirts of town and luring them away from the Taliban.
"At first, villagers looked at us like animals from a zoo," Bennett said early this week from the command post, where the briefing room is an earthen pit with an old Russian anti-aircraft battery that serves as a beam to hold the ceiling. "Now they come to talk to us on patrols."
Life on ANP Hill is Spartan. The Marines have no air conditioning despite temperatures that can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit. The men sleep alone or in pairs in tiny dugouts barely 4 feet high that they've dubbed "Hobbit Holes," a reference to J.R.R. Tolkien's dwarflike character.
"It's great, I love being up in the outpost," Thompson said. "You get to know everybody, and there's less hassle, it's much more relaxed."
Afghanistan is Thompson's third deployment. He's spent seven months "with some intense war stories" near Haditha in Iraq in 2006, and another "pretty peaceful" seven months in Fallujah in 2008.
Helmand is different from Iraq, Thompson said, because the Marines have learned their lessons from years of counterinsurgency. "In this type of fight you can't be 'gung-ho, kill everything,'" he said. "You'll just be turning more people against you."
Thompson jokes with his friends about injury, or death, during patrols.
He feels sorry for the villagers and children he meets on patrol. "We're here to kick butt," he says. "But you also want to do what you can to make their life a little bit better."
For now, Thompson feels international forces are spread too thin to make much of a difference.
"Once they put a lot of Marines out here, it will get a lot better," he says.
Though his unit is isolated and therefore vulnerable, Thompson says its position on high ground prevents most Taliban attacks. In the last two months, there's been one Taliban shooting here — from so far away, he says the gunmen were probably "spraying and praying."
The main base in town, meanwhile, has received mortar fire. Two Marines have been killed and seven seriously wounded by roadside bombs while on patrol.
The outpost on the hill sometimes has a locker-room atmosphere. Under the shade of a parachute spread out as a tent, Marines have assembled their own power gym, where they exercise when the sun becomes less punishing in the late afternoons.
While troops in full battle gear rotate on guard posts or to watch a nearby helicopter landing pad, Hard Rock music can be heard blasting across the center of the camp. Some Marines play with Static, the mascot hedgehog they found here; others throw the ball to Cpl. Clay, the platoon's bomb-sniffing Labrador.
In the evenings, off-duty troops play endless games of poker while wild dogs across the valley howl at the rising moon. Others watch DVD movies on their laptop computers. "Sometimes we can watch three or four in an evening," Thompson said.
Scattered in the darkness, several Marines also call families and girlfriends at home. The calls are sponsored by U.S. companies or charities, and the Marines get 20 minutes of free satellite phone every two days, if officers don't enforce "River City" — a communications blackout because there's been a casualty.
"It's faster and more reliable than the mail," said Thompson, who's been waiting for his birthday deliveries from Tennessee for the past three weeks.
Much of Thompson's life has been like this since he enlisted with the Marines in 2005, turning 20 on his second day at boot camp. Raised by his mother and his grandparents in a working class town where most people go to vocational college, Thompson said the Marines Corp. was his natural choice after high school, because he felt no inclination to further study.
He's just re-enlisted for another four years. Most of his pals did the same. He doesn't want to be "one of these guys who becomes a civilian and ends up splitting burgers ... or delivering pizza."
When his time is up in 2013, Thompson says he might enlist again. But his girlfriend, who's finishing college to become a teacher, wants him to come back and settle down. Thompson might then become a police officer, because handling guns is the only thing he's trained for.
"It'll be like the American Dream, she'll be a teacher, I'll be a cop, we'll have a white picket fence in a small town," he said. "You can't beat that."