Through the Eyes of Infantrymen

Lance Cpl. Nathan Aschenbrenner, an automatic rifleman with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, patrols across a field during the first week of Operation Double Check, a battalion-level offensive to rid Khwajadad and other areas in southern Musa Qal'eh district of insurgents. The Marines spent almost a week away from their company position and had to combat cold weather, inadequate shelter, fatigue and hunger, in addition to insurgents, during the first week of the operation. Photo by Sgt Mark Fayloga.

PATROL BASE 7171, Helmand province, Afghanistan (February 3, 2012) – Infantry Marines deployed to Afghanistan endure trials that Americans unfamiliar with military life cannot begin to fathom. Inclement weather, insatiable hunger, perpetual fatigue and direct combat with enemy forces are challenges frequently confronting the infantryman because he regularly operates in austere, hostile conditions. The infantry Marine in Afghanistan, commonly 18 years old and fresh out of high school, is often significantly more mature than others his age because of his unique experiences.

The Marines of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, face the challenges of combat as they participate in Operation Double Check, an ongoing battalion-level offensive to rid areas in southern Musa Qal'eh district, Helmand province, of insurgents and establish a government presence in places that have been insurgent safe havens in recent years.

Double Check started in the early hours of Jan. 3 when the infantrymen, commonly called grunts, helicopter inserted into the area under the blanket of darkness and began clearing compounds believed to be improvised explosive device manufacturing factories. An early discovery of contraband suggested the enemy might be near. "We moved into a compound; it ended up being abandoned, but after we searched it, we found one room that had homemade explosive [materials] all over the floor and walls," said Staff Sgt. Justin Smith, a squad leader with Fox Company from Clinton Township, Mich. "We searched the rest of the compound, keeping our eyes open for anything else, and then we came across a locked door – it wasn't really a full weapons cache, but we did find some machinegun parts in there as well."

The initial resistance directed at Smith's squad began as the Marines continued to clear compounds while the sun crept above the horizon. They received machinegun fire from a concealed enemy position, forcing many of the Marines to duck for cover. The Marines responded by launching grenades, maneuvering to a dominant position, and returning direct fire at the insurgents, which caused them to flee, according to the 27-year-old Smith.

"No one freaked out under fire even though a lot of us almost got shot," said Smith, a 2002 graduate of L'Anse Creuse High School in Harrison Township, Mich. "[The Marines] would get shot at, and they'd just get right back up and look at the enemy like, ‘Try again!'"

Mother Nature was also unkind to the Marines during the operation's first weeks. Freezing temperatures made life miserable for the Marines at night, who only had sleeping bags, cold weather jackets and warming layers to try and keep warm. The gear helped, but the cold proved inescapable.

"We settled in, tried to fit as many guys as we could in small rooms, as small as these rooms are, to keep warm at night," said Dayton, Ohio, native Cpl. Russell Swabb, a fireteam leader with Fox Company. "We would find some nasty, nasty blankets and pillows that were left in compounds and just kind of snuggle up next to each other to stay warm when we weren't on post. While on post, me and whoever I was on post with, we'd throw a tarp over each other and just stay close."

The Marines traveled everywhere by foot and tried to keep their packs as light as possible. Most packed only the bare essentials needed for survival in a combat zone, such as food, cold-weather gear and batteries. Even still, the bags were awkward and heavy to carry for the Marines, who were also wearing full combat gear.

"It's definitely exhausting, regardless of if you're somebody who has to carry around a lot of stuff or if you're just carrying the bare minimum," said Edmond, Okla., native Lance Cpl. Nathan Aschenbrenner, an automatic rifleman with Fox Company. "The only way to really do it and keep positive about it is to think of it like a joke like, ‘I can't believe I'm doing this.'

"I just take it from checkpoint to checkpoint," added the 24-year-old. "If I'm thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I've got to move so many kilometers tonight or so far today,' it's just going to beat you down, but if you take it from checkpoint to checkpoint or objective to objective, it goes by pretty quick."

The Marines have stayed busy during the operation, spending most of their time moving positions, sending out security patrols, or standing posts. When the infantrymen do get some spare time, they spend it hanging out with other Marines from their squads, sitting around a fire, playing cards or joking around.

"Most of the time if we've got some downtime we really try to sleep, but that's really when all the jokes and horseplay really comes out," said Aschenbrenner, a 2005 graduate of Edmond North High School. "If we've got a chance to horse around and have some fun, kind of boost morale, that's definitely what we do."

Experiences like Double Check may seem like a nightmare to people who have never experienced a combat operation – volunteering to be cold and miserable, to go without bathing or using a toilet, to have incessant hunger, and to regularly put one's own life in danger for an extended period of time may seem crazy. ??There is an upside, however. ??The infantrymen of Fox Company share special bonds with members of their squads because on deployment, grunts spend every day together, sharing every triumph, every hardship – shared experiences in Afghanistan have made them friends for life.

"We're all around each other 24/7 living in small tents or sleeping in small buildings, getting together close for warmth so we don't freeze to death, and these are the best friends you're ever going to have," said Swabb, who graduated from Belmont High School in 2008. "I've got good friends back home, but honestly I'm closer to these guys than I'll ever be with anybody else."

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