Most of the more than 1,300 U.S. Marines in Afghanistan live in holes in the ground. They sleep in shifts so someone is always alert, scanning the endless horizon of the desert. But conspicuous by its absence is the time-honored enlisted men's tradition of griping.
"It's not fun sitting in a hole, but I like being part of it and I like being here doing my part," said Lance Cpl. Chris McNeel of Whiting, Kan.
And the Marines know why they are here.
"It was a direct hit on our home. It's not like we went to bail out another country," said Sgt. Darren Bould of Commack, N.Y. "It's our house."
There are quiet moments, of course, time to catch a few rays. And the end of the day often brings a moment of sublime beauty. But the wind can be vicious and unrelenting, whipping up biting dust that penetrates everything.
The routine haircuts they call "high and tight" are for more than meeting Marine regulations. Hygiene is a major issue here. Disease laid low more than 60 percent of the Russian troops when they occupied Afghanistan. The physical fitness Marines consider as vital as a gun means anything handy functions as a gym not a bad idea when the only things to eat are MRE's (3,000 calories per meal).
And the job keeps getting harder too. In addition to looking for al-Qaida and top-ranking Taliban members, the Marines are taking on another task: They are now on orders to start seizing weapons from anyone other than friendly forces.
Sorting out friend from foe is no easy task, especially considering that many of these Marines haven't even reached their 21st birthday. But each day is another notch on the learning curve.
"There's not a place on earth I'd rather be than right here, right now, " said one Marine.
Something perhaps only a Marine could even think, never mind say.
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