"All we've done since we got here is get blown up," one of them said. And then they started to talk.
On a patrol exactly like this one a few days ago in southern Helmand province, they had been walking along the canal. One of their Marines stepped on a relatively small explosive device hidden in the ground, most likely a landmine.
The problem was, that mine was linked to a bigger explosive device in a deadly daisy chain that did not miss its mark. The Marine who was walking behind was hit by the bigger, secondary explosion.
"We ran as soon as we heard it go off but when we got to the canal the only thing that was there was his body armor. He was nowhere," they told me, "just gone."
So they started to search. Some distance away, they found their friend's arm, his watch still attached.
Pictured above: An Aug. 10, 2009 photo shows Marine Lt. Victoria Sherwood, left, of Woodbury, Conn., waiting with members of a Female Engagement Team for a security detail to take position before making contact with locals in the village of Khwaja Jamal with Golf Company, 2nd Batallion, 3rd Regiment of the 2nd MEB, 2nd MEF in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
"I just cannot get that picture out of my head, I keep seeing it, his arm just lying there with his watch. I can't stop seeing it."
It was hours later when they found the rest of him. It would take much longer for the shock to wear off, and the fear to subside.
In this part of Helmand province, landmines and roadside bombs are the weapon of choice. The roads are literally awash with improvised explosive devices. Entire areas are mined by the Taliban, with hundreds of IEDs.
Just to gain access, Marines are walking a tightrope of death every day.
The Marines in Helmand are part of a U.S. surge some 10,000-troops strong meant to secure Taliban-held parts of the country ahead of this Thursday's presidential elections. Candidates must end their campaigning for that vote tonight, but making many areas safe enough to get out the vote is still very much unfinished business.
The Taliban has enjoyed almost eight years of freedom here. Apart from a few British troops that wandered their way every now and then, much of this province had never seen any significant foreign troop presence — until some 10,000 Marines flooded the area on July 2.
The Marines have pushed the Taliban further south, but there are still areas even they have never been. Hard to imagine that, when the U.S. and NATO have been fighting this war for so long, but completely true.
The terrain in Helmand is as relentless as the enemy. The heat burns into your body, tearing you down bit by bit. There is no shade, no shelter from the sun. The earth soaks up the warmth like an oven and spits it back at you when you come to the end of the day. A clinging, soaking humidity that wraps itself in a sickly blanket around your body.
But here, I stare in amazement — and some horror — at the uniforms hanging off their lean bodies. There isn't an inch of excess anywhere. Every uniform is worn thin and faded, hanging off wily frames that still manage to haul over a hundred pounds of gear and weapons and patrol for miles.
These Marines have what they need to fight — and just enough to survive.
They don't seem to care. I don't hear them complaining or even talking about it. They make do with what they have and get on with it. It's as if they don't even think about it much anymore.
When you gather around at night, exhausted after a long day, the talk is not of what they will do when they get back. It's of memories and good times back home. It's of the men they have lost, the battles they have fought, the lives they hope to have beyond this place some day.
I think back to the first U.S. soldiers that landed at Bagram Air Base just north of Kabul back in 2001. A young soldier was standing with his weapon as a group of journalists gathered. One of the Afghan soldiers I knew well walked by, and I greeted him with the normal Islamic greeting, "As-Salaam-o-Alaikum," and he responded.
The American soldier stared at me, slightly surprised and nonplussed, not understanding the exchange.
"That's how you greet people in this part of the world," I said to him, "didn't they teach you that before you invaded?"
"No ma'am," he answered politely and looked away, to end the conversation.
What a different Army and Marine Corps the U.S. has today. Many are fluent in the local language where they serve, almost everyone can say a few words. The essential terms for making friends and earning respect — words like hello and thank you, those are second nature.
Here on the base, there is an Afghan soldier who runs a small kiosk, selling things that Marines really want — cigarettes and cold drinks. It's good business for him and welcome respite for the Marines who have access to no comforts here.
But what I enjoy most is watching how they interact. The exchange of words, sometimes a joke, sometimes a deal. The small jibes that are symbolic of sincere affection.
It's not a panacea. It's not a cliché that will save the country. It's just a very human moment in a very inhuman place.