"I used to regard kids as pests, when we were in Iraq," says Corporal Andrew Egan of the 3rd Battalion 1st Marines.
"They would come crowding around, and you would be trying to wave them away."
Egan, from St Paul Minnesota, was single then when he was deployed to Iraq. Now he is married, has one son, his wife Misha is expecting a second baby, and the world of sub-adults looks very different. It is, he says, "remarkable" how things change. Indeed.
In a sweet twist of fate, Egan, along with Sergeant Matthew Carter from Toledo, Ohio, now finds himself in charge of several hundred kids at the Kadola Drab school in Garmsir district of Helmand in southern Afghanistan. He lives in a small Marine outpost which is built up against the wall of the school. Shortly after dawn every morning except Friday, he has a constant stream of kids passing by his front door (a long coil of concertina wire) on their way into the school.
The day we visited Kadola Drab, Egan was happily playing soccer with a crowd of kids before classes began. They chased around in mad packs with no definite goal nor rules in mind, running after the ball as it bounced erratically off the uneven ground. It could be any school anywhere in the world, except it is not. It is the first functioning school in the area since 1979, when the Soviet invasion started a cycle of violence that denied an entire generation access to education. The Taliban opposed all but the religious schools - and have tried to intimidate locals throughout Garmsir district from opening their own schools. Another school at Amir Agah just a few miles north of Kadola Drab was set fire to by the Taliban last year before it could open. It has since been rebuilt, but has yet to start classes.
The Taliban haven't given up. The main teacher at Kadola Drab, who pressed most aggressively to have it opened up for summer school this month, Haji Hashem, says the Taliban have threatened him - along with several of the other teachers. "We know we are on a hit list, but it is our job to teach the children," he says. "It is no good being scared and doing nothing." For many years the people in Garmsir have been scared, and it is only in the past year that the Marines have managed to push the Taliban back and give the locals some confidence to think about opening schools, markets, and trying to live a normal life.
On the first day of enrollment, Kadola Drab had 120 children, mostly aged between 5 and 13. After two weeks it had 300, and then the Marines started to get inquiries from other villages and townships about opening schools - after 30 years of neglect education, it seems, is now fashionable in southern Helmand. Sadly that only means education for boys - so far nobody dares send girls to school. Some of the better educated elders - which mostly means those that can read, in a country where three quarters of the population cannot - have said privately that some time in the future they would like to have girls' schools too.
Egan shrugs his shoulders when asked about this - it is a deeply conservative society that is very repressive to women and there is little he can do to change that in the short term - except helping to get the boys an education. This is a country where the Taliban throw acid in the faces of girls who try to go to school.
When Egan found out his wife was pregnant with their second child, he had the option to have his deployment to Afghanistan deferred so he could be at home for the birth. His wife told him she could handle it and he should deploy anyway - "she is a real tough girl", he says. Little did he know that from a household of soon to be two kids, he travelled half-way around the world to supervise 300. When he returns home will be very peaceful, by comparison.More Coverage of the "Thundering Third"