A Birthday Party in Helmand Province

Marine Staff Sergeant Paul Worley, commander of Observation Post Harris, is pictured in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Marine Staff Sergeant Paul Worley, commander of Observation Post Harris, is pictured in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

It was the most unlikely place for a birthday party: Observation Post Harris, a Marine observation post beside a dirt road, backing onto a canal, in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of a war.

No electric power, no music . . . just seven Marines from 3/1's Weapons Company, a cake, and some non-alcoholic grape juice.

As it turned out, two of the seven Marines had a birthday on the same day last week: the post commander, Staff Sergeant Worley, who turned 30; and a young Lance Corporal, Powell, who came of age that night, turning 21. Six months in combat, and finally he could drink his first legal beer.

Except no alcohol is allowed on deployment, so Powell will have to wait for that particular indulgence until he goes home.

But the cake was sweet, the grape juice sweeter, and the evening further enlivened by the rapid approach of these Marines' out date - soon they are heading home after seven months in the most dangerous and fought-over part of the whole battalion's area of operations. Six Marines died in this area, 31 were injured - a heavy toll. OP Harris itself is named after Corporal Harris, who was killed by an IED as he carried a fellow Marine, already wounded, towards an incoming Medevac helicopter. The other Marine survived, Harris didn't make it - and is now being nominated posthumously for a medal for his valor.

All of these Marines from Weapons Company's first platoon have seen combat - Worley was shot in the leg during a protracted firefight back in June, as he tried to sprint from one position to another to pick up fresh ammunition for his machine gunner: "It just knocked my legs from under me - at first I didn't even know I had been shot." Fortunately the bullet went through his thigh muscle without hitting bone and came out the other side - he was able to get up and run to safety.

There was a Medevac helicopter on the way to pick up another Marine who had taken a more serious shot to the chest - ironically it was Worley who had made the radio call to bring in the Medevac, just before he himself was shot. When it arrived, they told Worley he should get on the Medevac too. He refused at first, not wanting to leave his men in the middle of an ongoing firefight. It took a direct order from Major Rob Farrell, who is in charge of the company - accompanied by "some pretty colorful and persuasive language," said Farrell - to get Worley on board the helicopter.

Corporal Jacob Schmitt, who was cutting the birthday cake and handing it around, has the rare distinction of shooting two Javelin missiles during this deployment - rare because they cost $80,000 each, and so are only used in special circumstances. In fact, although Schmitt had been trained to use the Javelin missiles (which have a sophisticated targeting system that can "see" the target and either fly right towards it or fly up in the air and come down on top of it), he had never actually fired one in practice - too expensive. His only experience was on a simulator.

But when his platoon was being fired on by a half-dozen Taliban in a large building with a tower on top, he hit and destroyed the building with one shot. He had similar success against a group of Taliban hiding in a line of trees.

Schmitt is a modest, well-meaning guy who talks down his achievements ("I guess I was lucky," he says about the Javelin shots). He has been a Marine for five-and-a-half years, and this is his first combat deployment. Like all the others on their first tour to a war, it has changed him. When you see combat, Schmitt says, "You discover your mortality."

Lance Corporal Joshua Echelson, who has been in the Marine Corps for two years, was fighting some bug which gave him a bad stomach and constant headache - sleeping a lot when he didn't have to do guard duty, eating very little (not even birthday cake), barely able to even keep water down. By chance we had gone out with him on one of his very first patrols back in May, shortly after he had arrived in Afghanistan. He had a metal detector and was sweeping for IEDs through a small village, and it was taking him so long that a sergeant told him he needed to hurry up so as not to present a target by moving so slowly.

"I was terrified then," he says now. "I didn't want to miss anything by going too fast - it was scary." Now that he has a full deployment behind him he knows exactly how to clear a path through a village, or anywhere else. And he is still only 20 years old, too young to legally share a beer with Powell.

The day after the birthday party, Worley takes a patrol out to a nearby village, Nari Drowb. He wants to let the locals know the Marines are opening a school for their children the following Monday. Turns out the small store in the village sells Red Bull, much to the delight of the Marines, who buy two dozen cans - it keeps them alert. (Just because they are going home soon doesn't mean they can let down their guard.)

The same night of the birthday party, another observation post a mile up the road was attacked after dark by two Taliban who shot at the Marines there, without hitting anyone, before disappearing into the fields. War isn't over until it's over.

Part of our continuing coverage of "Afghanistan: the Road Ahead," as CBS News correspondent Terry McCarthy follows the Third Battalion, First Marines in Afghanistan.

More of Terry McCarthy's "Thundering Third" Reports:

Marines Train Bomb Disposal Teams with Hidden (Fake) IEDs

Concrete Results for Marines in Safar Bazaar

Marines Help Afghan Kids Go to School

The Most Dangerous Job in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a Beautiful Desert Goes Boom

A Day in the Life: Wardak, Afghanistan

Preaching to the Corps