Holding Garmsir

After the Marines in Mustang Platoon routed the Taliban to capture a key stronghold in southern Afghanistan, they were faced with an even more difficult mission: defend against the heat, the boredom, the stress, the homesickness, and the weight of history in a place that had never been conquered—and held—by outsiders.

January 2009By Comments

Mustang platoon on patrol near a road to Pakistan in Jue 2008.
Photograph by John Spong

Only a handful of the Marines in Mustang Platoon actually saw Gallucci get hit. They were three hours into a battle that had started at four-thirty that morning, on May 29, 2008, just as dawn had broken over the collection of compounds and bazaars that make up the Garmsir District of southern Afghanistan. The shower of Taliban RPGs and small-arms fire had been near constant, coming from the north, south, and west. During a brief respite Lance Corporal Cody Brown had started on foot toward Gallucci’s Humvee for a bottle of water. Corporal Michael Gallucci, a 25-year-old Ohioan who answered to “Gooch,” was manning the grenade launcher on top of the truck. He made eye contact with Brown and then looked down. He probably never saw the white flash of the RPG. It was an impossibly lucky shot from some three hundred meters away, directly on his turret.

The news raced through Mustang over the Humvees’ radios. Gooch was one of the platoon’s turn-to guys, admired beyond his rank. Now he was down, and the instant reaction was rage. Mustang opened fire, emptying their weapons in the direction of the RPG’s source, then reloading and draining them again. Grenade launchers. SAW machine guns. .50-cals. 81 mm mortars. The platoon’s commander, Lieutenant John Branson, held radios to both ears, directing air support on one and a casualty evacuation, or caz-evac, on the other. His second in command, Staff Sergeant Stephen Neumeyer, called out in a daze for Mustang’s two corpsmen, the platoon’s medics, then started screaming “my Gooch!” as he emptied his M4.

The feeling was all too familiar for much of the platoon. Two thirds of Mustang had fought during the bloodiest months in Ramadi, Iraq. Still in their early twenties, they were already veterans, and they all had a reference point for this moment, some memory they tried to tamp down, an image of a Humvee engulfed in flames or a sniper finding his mark, some specific, defining instant when they learned they weren’t invincible. For Mustang’s “boots,” the green Marines doing their first buck here in Afghanistan, losing Gooch would provide that realization.

And until then, the only blood the boots had seen shed had belonged to the Taliban. Compared with what they’d heard about Ramadi, fighting in Garmsir had been fun. This was, as Branson called it, “a no-shit battlefield with front lines.” There was none of the brutal ambiguity that comes with fighting insurgents in an urban setting, where every trash pile might hide an IED, suicide bombers could wander out of crowds, and children would stray into the middle of street fights. When the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), to which Mustang belongs, had pushed into Garmsir in mid-April, most of the four thousand or so families were long gone, warned off by the Taliban and the thunder of U.S. helicopters. Only a few locals had remained to harvest the spring poppy crop. Now with all the opium scraped and squeezed from the bulbs, the tall flowers stood sun-browned and brittle in the fields, where tree lines and irrigation canals provided cover for textbook conventional warfare.

Mustang had been among the last of the MEU’s platoons to join the battle. They belong to the motorized Weapons Company, manning the Humvees that carry the big guns, and they’d entered Garmsir after the MEU’s three dismounted companies—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie—had secured positions in dun-colored compounds during three weeks of nonstop fighting. As soon as Mustang arrived, they had been hit by a complex, three-point ambush at a sharp bend in the road outside Alpha’s position. The attack was well planned, but the Taliban were outmatched. Their bullets pinged off Mustang’s trucks, and their RPGs sailed high and wide. While Branson radioed for air support, the platoon’s interpreter, a Kabul University medical student who had fled his home and the Taliban for, of all places, Dallas and was known to Mustang simply as “Hamza,” directed their truck’s gunner from the backseat. “They are shooting from behind the trees at ten o’clock, about three hundred meters away,” Hamza instructed. The return fire neutralized the attack, and when air support arrived and started dropping bombs, the Taliban withdrew to the desert. There were no injuries for Mustang, only adrenaline.

They had stayed much of May in town, their days spent running checkpoints and dodging sniper fire and their nights in a compound they shared with Bravo. No one had expected the Taliban to maintain this kind of resistance, and driving them out was a deliberate process. The last enemy foothold was a command center called the Jugroom Fort on the south end of town, about a mile and a half east of the Helmand River. British Royal Marines had tried to take it sixteen months earlier in a botched mission that resulted in a friendly-fire death and headlines in the UK. Some Brits on the nearby forward operating base, FOB Dwyer, had warned the Marines that taking the fort would require at least a week. The May 29 firefight was the final push for Garmsir, and the objective was Jugroom.

Mustang had rolled out at ten o’clock the night before, intending to get behind the Taliban and cut off their retreat when Charlie attacked from the front in the morning. But complications developed almost immediately. Charlie found a huge IED in the road to the fort and would not be able to attack in the morning. Mustang started to move to their blocking position anyway, but their Humvees got stuck in the soft desert sand, and it took six hours to free them. The element of surprise was lost. When Mustang finally rolled into position at four-thirty, the Taliban were waiting.

They threw everything they had at the platoon. Branson took a couple trucks into a compound to set up communications. The rest of the platoon took positions outside, and some of the guys dismounted to fire their guns from nearby wadis, shallow irrigation ditches running through the landscape. The enemy was located a football field away, across an expanse of tomato and cucumber gardens. A few Marines uprooted trees with chains attached to their Humvees to open up firing lines.

For Mustang, the toe-to-toe slugfest was thrilling. Sergeant Dennis Ray, a 27-year-old who grew up near Fort Worth and now commanded Mustang’s 81 mm mortars, had never before fired live rounds in battle. But with bullets bouncing at his feet and RPGs flying close enough overhead that he felt them before he heard them, Ray scooted across the compound rooftops under heavy fire to locate targets and radio their positions to his mortar crews. According to Branson, who later recommended him for decoration, Ray was crucial in suppressing enemy RPG teams. Ray would later say simply, “It all went by pretty quick.”

Quick in the way only intense combat can. The barrage lasted another three hours after Gooch got hit, but between Ray’s mortarmen and well-placed air strikes, the Taliban broke down. At about lunchtime, the enemy fire stopped, and the smell of sulfur settled over the quieting fields. Of the estimated forty-plus insurgents encountered, at least thirty had been killed, and most of the rest sifted back into the desert, presumably southward to camps on the other side of the nearby Pakistani border. When Charlie Company stormed Jugroom a day later, it met with only the scattered resistance of a few desperate holdouts. The Marines now owned Garmsir, and the second and third legs of the “clear, hold, and build” model of counterinsurgency could begin.

But before Mustang could chew over their accomplishment, another consideration popped into everyone’s mind. Thoughts of Gooch’s fate had been an unaffordable luxury during the fighting. Now that it was done, he was the only thought. The takeaway was that training and execution were only part of the equation in combat. Luck was a component of equal importance. There could be no accounting for luck.

And somehow, in the battle for Jugroom, that was a good thing. The RPG that had hit Gooch’s turret hadn’t exploded. The bloody mess he’d been left in was caused by flying glass from his gun shield. Ballistic-strength Oakleys had saved his eyes, and none of the shards had hit his major blood vessels. He’d even survived an attack on his caz-evac; the armored vehicle that carried him away to the waiting helicopter had two back tires shot out. He would rejoin the platoon when they returned to FOB Dwyer.

Branson said that the men he commanded in Ramadi had been known as God’s Platoon. “We had four or five guys who got pretty fucked-up,” he explained. “But no one was killed.” He could only pray for similar grace with Mustang.


I hooked up with Mustang one week after the Jugroom fight. They were staying in a compound they called Big House, the exact spot from which the Taliban had ambushed the platoon when they first arrived in Garmsir. Like the rest of the area, it was a collection of mud structures with dirt floors and no electricity. The buildings spread around a large courtyard, and the Humvees that weren’t being used for fire watch—at sentry positions on the perimeter—were parked inside. Individual bug tents were scattered on the ground with each Marine’s body armor, backpack, and weapon piled next to them. Thatch-roofed goat stalls and rabbit pens lined one side, and on the other a long breezeway with wide arches opened into a series of rooms.

The Marines were still amped up from the firefight, along with the discoveries they’d made when they’d patrolled the Taliban’s fighting positions in the intervening week. They’d collected plenty of trophies, like the kaffiyeh that Branson was wearing around his neck when I first met him. The bigger find was a notebook containing instructions for waging jihad. Hamza had flipped through it and identified sections written in Pashto, as well as Arabic and Chechen, confirming the Marines’ suspicions that the enemy was at least partly imported. The satisfaction of seeing the tactical significance of their effort was as evident in their manner as the lingering rush of hard-fought combat.

But they were a haggard bunch to look at. A month of MREs and 130-degree heat had taken a good ten pounds off every man. They’d been unable to shower or wash their clothes, which would have been less of an issue if they’d packed for more than four days in the field. Then there was the matter of their hair. With no power for their clippers, it had grown well beyond regulation, and they’d started to resemble the people they might have become if they had not joined the Marines. Branson’s stiff brown mane was growing perfectly in place, and he looked like the president of his frat. Neumeyer’s was jet-black and slicked back with sweat, like that of a fine Mafia capo’s. And Ray’s wiry blond hair was a rat’s nest, matted in places and bunched up in others. He seemed as if he’d be at home living in the trees.

As a group the platoon projected a distinct personality, a mix of pride as Marines and the looseness of self-aware underdogs. They all knew the history of the 1/6 Marines, the battalion and regiment to which they belonged. Their forebears had earned the name Devil Dogs from the Germans in World War I and gone on to fight in Guadalcanal and Okinawa in World War II. But Mustang also seemed to thrive on being underestimated. They weren’t exactly the infamous Black Sheep Squadron, but they’d found their share of trouble back at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, through bar fights and drunk driving “events”—though they were quick to point out that the inebriated Weapons Company Marine who had led state troopers on a three-county motorcycle chase was not in their platoon. One of their members had flipped a Humvee during training, and another had punched U.S. senator Jim Webb’s son while deployed in Ramadi.

The product of all that was low expectations, which Branson was determined to use in his favor. He preached constantly that Mustang would be defined by their actions in battle, not at garrison. He instilled an us-against-them mentality. Back at Lejeune, when higher-ranking minds had denied Mustang the opportunity
to train for special operations raids because Charlie Company needed their vehicles during that period, Branson ordered his men to the firing range to become better shots—a move that paid huge dividends at Jugroom. By the time I encountered them, they had new use for the periodic, irrational injustices that come with military service. So when they had received cold-weather gear—mittens, snow boots, and Lambeau-worthy hooded parkas—for a summer deployment in the desert, suffered nightmares from the cheap malaria medication distributed by the Corps, and, most egregious of all, been denied mail during their month in Garmsir, their way was to readjust the chips on their shoulders and get on with business.

Ray was the first member of Mustang I encountered, and as we walked through the compound to find Branson and Neumeyer, he peppered me with questions about Colt McCoy’s shoulder and the Longhorns’ spring practices. We met the lieutenant and staff sergeant in a small room with bricked-in windows, an architectural decision made by the previous owner during the Taliban’s long stay in Garmsir, according to Branson. He and Neumeyer were in the middle of a card game that they happily abandoned for the chance to describe the past week to someone who didn’t already know the story.

“The Green Zone is a mobility quarter for the Taliban,” Branson said, referring to the swath of vegetation that grew along the Helmand River. “It’s like their supply line.” Garmsir was the largest district in Helmand Province, and the Taliban used its dirt roads to funnel fighters and weapons to the north and their cash crops and wounded to Pakistan, to the south. The crop was poppy, which was harvested locally and helped bankroll the Taliban’s operations. Helmand is the opium capital of Afghanistan, which produces 93 percent of the world’s supply, with an export value of $4 billion a year.

For four years, since American forces had shifted their focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, the Taliban had enjoyed unfettered control of the area. The Brits and Scots who had remained at FOB Dwyer, which happened to be where Prince Harry was deployed in late 2007, stopped patrolling this far south two years ago. The MEU had arrived to reclaim Garmsir, with the accompanying hope that the recent relative quiet in Iraq would lead to renewed attention to Afghanistan, that enough troops would follow to do the holding and building.

“Last month was the first time we had more casualties in Afghanistan than Iraq,” said Branson. “It’ll sound counterintuitive, but that’s a good sign.

“And here’s how bad we fucked the Taliban up,” he continued, starting to get excited. “They left and didn’t take their shit.”

“Yeah, they took out their dead,” said Neumeyer, “but left all these backpacks with fresh underwear, hygiene gear, first aid kits, Pakistani money. They were like gift packs these guys had picked up at the border.”

“They had guys coming in from Pakistan in groups of ten, and a week later there’d be two of them left,” Branson said. “They knew they were on the ropes, but they expected us to fight for two weeks, then hand out some soccer balls and leave. So they tried to keep in contact with us, fire occasional potshots, thinking we would leave so they could then make the case to the populace that they’d kicked us out.

“We broke their back pretty much,” he said, starting to look to the future. “But I think they’re still hoping we’ll leave so they can come take it again.”

Jingle Trucks

Mustang was scheduled to return to Dwyer the next morning, and the soldiers woke up to orders from Branson to make themselves presentable. A group gathered around the compound’s well. The ice-cold water had been a devious temptation; drinking it could quite possibly make you sick for the rest of your life. But it was fine for cleaning up. The men took turns shaving in the side-view mirrors of Humvees, and though the place didn’t look like a locker room, it started to sound like one.

“You’re gonna have to shave that unibrow. Regulations call for two eyebrows.”

“Hey, Doc, I need a prescription for Marlboro Reds, please.”

“Wow, if that thing was a little bigger, it’d look just like a cock.”

The Marines loaded up to leave, and on the way out, we saw the first sign that locals felt safe enough to return to Garmsir: Irrigation canals had been opened, and the area around the compound was a soupy bog. Two vehicles got stuck.

I rode in a Humvee commanded by Lance Corporal Cody Huffman, a chatty country boy from North Carolina, whom Branson referred to, almost affectionately, as a redneck clown. Huffman clearly liked the idea of appearing in a magazine story and immediately made it known that he had family in Texas. His maternal grandfather was a full-bird colonel who had been base commander at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, and Huffman insisted that he himself had spent as much time as he could in the great state of Texas. To prove it he ticked off a list of bars he’d been thrown out of on San Antonio’s River Walk and Austin’s Sixth Street.

He talked constantly on the drive to Dwyer. As we approached a patrol of Brits in ragtop vehicles, he gave two big thumbs-up. But once they were past he said, “I bet those jeeps were cool when you were chasing Rommel through the desert. Oh, and you’re welcome; you can come down here without getting shot now.”

Huffman pointed up at his gunner, Corporal Richard Fowler, who was sitting in the truck’s turret. “Fowler’s mom cut this cool thing out of Reader’s Digest and sent it to him. It said that the Air Force will secure an area by flying over it and dropping bombs. The Army will set up a four-corner perimeter and not let anyone in. The Marines will go in, kill everybody, set up a command center, and make it home. I can’t remember what it said about the Navy. But it made me laugh.”

We rolled alongside mud walls and wadis and fields of burnt poppy and started seeing locals in traffic, mostly men on motorcycles who knew to park while we passed. Many of them had small boys hanging on to their backs and toddlers perched on the handlebars. We came upon one of Afghanistan’s omnipresent jingle trucks, which was also stopped in the road. It was a large Russian vehicle left over from the Soviet occupation that had been painted royal blue, with hundreds of little bells hanging on the side from thin chains. Huffman told our driver to stop and let the Humvee in front of us get all the way around it before going on.

“If that jingle truck blows up,” he said, “we don’t want it taking out two of ours.” He had the driver floor the gas when it was our turn to go by.

Sergeant Ray

It quickly became impossible to imagine Ray as anything but a Marine. He stood an even six feet tall, with a solid frame that seemed to have resisted desert depletion. His rolled-up sleeves revealed a nickname, “RayRay,” tattooed in gothic font on the underside of his left forearm and “Life” and “Death” on his right one. He had bright-blue eyes, a guileless face, and a low, quiet voice that flowed from deep in his chest. His conversation concerned mainly football and action movies, typically in the tone of small talk. It was only on the subjects of the Marines and his girlfriend that he seemed to be describing a life.

He grew up in Crowley, just outside Fort Worth. His dad had served in the Army and met Ray’s mom while stationed in Germany, then brought her back to Texas, where they had Dennis; his younger twin sisters, Natalie and Vanessa; and his younger brother, Tom. Dennis was raised on fishing, football, and what he considers “oldies country,” George Strait and Clint Black. He was a standout on the Crowley High freshman football team, but during the summer before his sophomore year, his dad moved the family to Hubbardston, Massachusetts. Suddenly Ray found himself attending a school with no football program and being called a dismissive new nickname, Tex. He excelled on the track team, and he was good enough at sprints to have been offered a scholarship to a small college. But he never quite found the motivation to fill out the application.

After graduating in 1999 he bounced between day-labor jobs, then left his family to share a Fort Worth apartment with a childhood buddy. One night some cops broke up a party there, finding a case of cold beer and a warm bong in the kitchen. Neither was deemed appropriate for a twenty-year-old host. Ray got off with a ticket but called his dad the next day and said, “That’s it. I’m going in.” Two weeks later he was a Marine.

“I think a lot of us enlist in the Marine Corps because they look hard,” he said one day at Dwyer. “And everybody knows you’re going to get a lot of tattoos. And you’ll get lots of girls because of the cool uniforms. But I also knew I had to get my life back.”

He received the job classification he wanted, 0-3, or infantry grunt, and was at infantry school on September 11, 2001. “We were working on martial arts when the commanding officer told us that the first plane had hit. I went up to an office and was watching on TV when the second plane hit. I was like, ‘We’re going to war.’ ”

His first deployment didn’t come until April 2004, to the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. By then he was a mortarman, but with the pace of the fighting slowed by the bitter Afghan winter, he saw little action. After teaching marksmanship at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, he joined Mustang last fall. Since he’s at least five years older than the rest of the guys, he’s regarded as an older brother, and he enjoys the slight remove. When everybody is sitting in the tent and someone starts throwing small rocks around the room, nailing guys in the crotch, Ray is the last one suspected. He makes good use of his feel for trajectory.

I had to coax an acknowledgement from him of the dangers of his job, like the fact that he rode in a canvas-backed truck packed with 81 mm rounds, each with a kill radius of 45 meters. And that he insisted on being the first through the door when Mustang entered locals’ homes. “I like going point. You never know what’s going to happen, and you get to see shit first,” he said. But what about dying? “If it happens, hopefully it’s quick.”

When I asked for the closest he’d come to death, he talked about a bike wreck he’d had when he was five. When I asked about buddies who’d been killed in combat, he ticked off three names and the dates they had died. He still keeps in contact with their families. “Every year on Mike Marzano’s anniversary I watch The Big Lebowski. That was Marzano’s favorite movie.”

He much preferred talking about his girlfriend, Crystal, a lively blond hospital administrator in Quantico. “I wasn’t really sure how much she loved me until I got here and got an e-mail from her saying she’d tattooed my name at the bottom of her back.” She’d also bought him a German shepherd and started shopping for houses. “And she knew all the Cowboys’ draft picks. She doesn’t play around.”

During the day, while most of the guys read or played cards, Ray liked to lie on his cot and watch a video of her at a pistol range on his iPod. “Sometimes I just think of ideas for how I’m gonna propose. She sent me here with this book that we could write in and send back and forth to each other. Of course I can’t do that because the mail is so unreliable. So I’m going to hold on to it and give it to her when I get off the bus. It’s got a little red ribbon in it, like a page marker, and I’m gonna have the ring hanging off it. Lieutenant Branson got his wife to e-mail me pictures of rings, and one looks kinda like what Crystal would like. White gold. One carat. That’s the one I’m gonna get her.”

Mail Call

The Afghan heat is pure and utter hell. For the better part of each day—from ten until five—the temperature hangs around 130 degrees. One hundred thirty degrees. That number is too high to be meaningful. With your skin in a constant struggle to breathe, the most casual acts become painful reactions to the heat. Putting your hand on a tent pole is like touching a stove top. Stretching out on a cot is like lying on sunbaked pavement. On a hot day back home, you’ll realize the heat when you feel a first bead of perspiration on some part of your body where you don’t want it to be. Behind your ear. Between your shoulder blades. Headed south from the small of your back. You mutter to yourself, “Man, it’s really hot,” and start hustling to the nearest air conditioner. In Afghanistan that feeling comes as soon as you wake. You start to stir, semiaware that your clothes and cot are soaked, your mind fighting to stay in a dream. You blink your eyes open, shake the sleep from your head, then look around. “Shit. I’m here.”

The FOB is even hotter than the field, where the Green Zone shaves off a few degrees. Relief on the FOB comes from overworked AC units that keep the temperature in the tents around 90. But Mustang, of course, was assigned the three tents at Dwyer that had no AC. That’s where they lived, in 50-by-25-foot spaces that held the heat like an oven, the sides and ceilings turned tan by the dust. Each tent had fifteen piles of gear stacked, somewhat neatly, around fifteen green canvas cots blotted by dark sweat stains. There was barely any room to walk.

But when Mustang first got to Dwyer from Big House, the larger concern was mail and how long until the FOB’s logistics officer would release it. Surprisingly, deliveries started arriving in the tent a few hours after we did. A month’s worth of mail amounted to hundreds of letters, thick manila jet packs, and white Priority Mail boxes. Some of the Marines arranged their letters chronologically before opening them, but most went straight for the care packages: cartons of cigarettes and rolls of snuff, fitness magazines, Clif Bars, Gatorade powder, bags of chips, jerky, cookies, candy, DVDs, iPods, the occasional piece of contraband porn. The guys fell silent as they inventoried the spoils.

The tent was informally divided by rank. I was on the end with Ray and the most senior Marines. Branson and Neumeyer had the cots in the corner. They got along better than most platoon commands, like the proverbial old married couple. Branson was a recent graduate of the University of Maryland and the one guy in the tent who ever dropped the term “country club” without derision. Neumeyer was from a tiny town in West Virginia and had a salty sarcasm that made him more one of the guys. Sergeant Walter Graves, from North Carolina, bunked across from them. He was the only man who would do push-ups and planks on his cot when he woke up each morning, and a war photographer who happened through described him as “the real Mariney guy.” Next to him was Sergeant Courtney Rauch, from Pennsylvania dairy country. Just 23, he was young for a sergeant, the result of focused effort and the accelerated promotion track required by two ongoing wars. He was a loud, good-natured kid but had a tendency to bully the boots. He seemed anxious to impress. Corporal Fowler, from Canton, Ohio, had the cot next to Rauch’s. He was a cutup and a big guy—not all of it muscle—with a face dominated by a large pair of government-issued glasses, which magnified his eyes to twice their size. He liked to talk about how he’d met his current girlfriend in a bar by introducing himself as a pro surfer for Billabong. He came across like an overfed McLovin.

Poring over the mail, the guys disappeared into their heads, the quiet occasionally punctuated by little discoveries. “Remind me to tell my wife not to send any more chocolate,” said Neumeyer, holding up a Hershey bar that folded over his hand like a dishrag.

Ray looked bewildered as he pulled a Sam’s-size box of Sesame Street baby wipes out of a package but exclaimed “Whoa!” when he found a leather holster underneath. While Graves tried to hang a poster of a crystal-blue wave from a surfing magazine over his cot, Fowler read through a dozen letters from his mother. He called out “Mom says hi” each time he reached a point where she’d instructed him to do so.

Branson flipped through a stack of magazines sent by his wife, including two months’ worth of the Economist and Time. “Why is Obama on the cover of all these magazines?” asked Branson.

“Because he’s gonna be the next president of the United States,” said Neumeyer, the tent’s only vocal Obama proponent. “Learn to fucking live with it, sir.”

“Fuck,” said Branson, grabbing a new pack of Parliaments and an LSAT prep book.

The spell was broken briefly when Gallucci walked in. A chorus of “Gooch!” rose from the cots, though none of the Marines actually stood up to greet him. The guys nearest to him checked out the new scars on his face, then told him where they’d been when they heard he’d been hit. Fowler suggested he pursue an endorsement deal with Oakley.

An hour or so later a boot came in, a small, wide-eyed kid I hadn’t met. He walked over to Ray’s cot. “You wanted to see me, Sergeant?”

Ray closed his magazine. “Where’s the T-shirt I heard about?”

“Right here, Sergeant.” He held up a green T-shirt with “O-3: Shut the fuck up!” written in Sharpie across the chest, an attempt at infantry braggadocio.

Without getting up, Ray snatched it from his hand. The rest of the tent looked up.

“Why did you do this?” asked Ray.

“I was bored, Sergeant.”

“You were bored? You’re a fucking Marine!”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“And you volunteered to stay on the FOB while we went on patrol.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” The boot looked like he might cry, as the rest of the tent lightly set their letters and magazines on their cots.

“Why is that?”

“I didn’t want to just stand fire watch in my gear the whole time.”

Ray looked at him as if he were trying to figure out why he was even alive. He didn’t yell, but he packed his clipped words with disgust. “You talk to Gallucci? You see what happened to him?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“And you didn’t want to get bored? You’re a disgrace.”

“Well, McLain wanted a chance to go into town—”

“You’re talking back to a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps!” Branson interrupted. “Shut the fuck up!”

The boot’s face flushed red, and his jaw started to tremble.

“Get out of my sight,” said Ray, throwing the shirt under his cot.

The boot walked out. A couple Marines shot glances around the room, then they all picked up their mail and went back to reading.

Amazing Grace

Corporal William Justin Cooper was the only Marine with the 24th MEU to die in combat at Garmsir. A 22-year-old from Eupora, Mississippi, he was a scout sniper with Weapons Company, though not a member of Mustang. He was killed on May 18, after being shot in the chest, just above his body armor, during one of the skirmishes in the month before Jugroom fell. He was buried in Eupora on Memorial Day, May 26, and there was a service on the FOB on June 13.

The ceremony was scheduled for seven o’clock that morning, but Weapons Company arrived fifteen minutes early, dressed in their desert cammies, to stand in formation in a large patch of sand not far from the chow hall. Twenty yards in front of them, a coffin-size box rested on a dirt pile, draped in camouflage netting, with two flags—America’s Stars and Stripes and the Marine Corps’ eagle, globe, and anchor—rising at angles from either side to form the shape of a V. Platoon by platoon, the rest of the MEU showed up and fell into rows on either side of Weapons.

The only sound was the occasional rustle of the flags in the slight desert breeze until a brief prayer broke the silence, at exactly seven o’clock. Three of Cooper’s buddies gave eulogies, none longer than two minutes. They spoke in the superlatives and familiar expressions that young people reach for when they encounter death. “Best.” “Bravest.” “Fittest.” “Live forever in our hearts.” They were followed by the commanding officer of Weapons Company. “Corporal William Cooper,” he intoned. “His parents called him Justin. We called him friend.”

The last speaker was a Navy chaplain who had the easy lilt of a Southern preacher. “When you get home and people ask you about Afghanistan, say to them, ‘Let me tell you about Justin Cooper.’ That’s the fitting memorial.”

A section of the company’s roster was called. First one Marine and then another loudly answered “here.” Cooper’s name was called and met with silence. Then a second time. Finally a third, slowly: “William . . . Justin . . . Cooper.” It was answered by taps. A bagpipe player who’d come over from the Scots’ tents closed the service with “Amazing Grace.”

The ceremony lasted exactly fifteen minutes, and it was followed by a FOB-wide silence until eight o’clock. Mustang used that time to pack. After a long week of sitting in the heat, they were headed back to Garmsir. The mood was mixed. Any opportunity to leave the FOB was a blessing, and they were eager for more fighting. But their original mission to push farther south had been scrapped at the last minute, as always without explanation. The new plan was to stay closer to town, setting up vehicle checkpoints on the road to Pakistan and entering some compounds. Mustang was certain that the closer they stayed to Garmsir, the less likely they would be to engage the bad guys.

As eight o’clock passed, they started speculating about the trip, wondering where they’d stay, hoping for a compound with a clean well or perhaps even a canal for swimming.

“Hey, by the way,” said Huffman, “I asked my wife to send me an aboveground pool.”

Everyone in the tent looked up, and a couple said, “You what?”

“She’s mailing me an inflatable pool.”

“Shit, yeah,” said Graves. “Tell her to mark it ‘Hygiene.’ ”

“I did. I figured we could set it up here at Dwyer or down at post when we get there. Hook the filter system up to a truck and fill it with well water.”

“A filter system?” asked Branson. “How big is it?”

“Oh, it’s a family pool, sir. Aboveground. Inflatable. I think, like, ten people can swim in it at once.”

“You can’t set that up down there,” said Branson.

“Hopefully nobody will see it.”

“Shit,” said Corporal David Mason, a college boy from Virginia. “It’s going to be spotted by a Predator, who’s going to radio it in. ‘Do you know there’s a pool at FOB Dwyer?’ ”

“Yeah, with a bunch of Marines in it,” said Branson. “Huffman, you’re an idiot.”


Mustang’s interpreter, Hamza, had just started his second year of med school in Kabul when the United States invaded Afghanistan, in late 2001. A thoughtful, intelligent kid, a top student at every level of education, he’d most enjoyed history and languages growing up, then had sharpened his English with black-market medical textbooks. Among the bizarre laundry list of things outlawed by the Taliban were photography in general and representations of the human body in particular, so illegal books were the only way he could see to becoming a competent doctor. The Taliban also pushed its radical distortion of Islam on the students, and the curriculum was split between religion and medicine. Had he failed one class in either discipline, he would have been dropped from the program and possibly beaten, an extreme consequence but among the less horrific elements of the Taliban’s reign.

At that point in his life—and to this day, really—he had never known anything but war. He was born in 1980, the same year as Ray, shortly after the Soviet invasion. His mother was a school administrator and his father a bureaucrat in the Communist government, not because he believed in the ideology but because he needed to support his family. Hamza had one older sister and a younger sister and brother, and as the oldest male, he would have been the favored child even if he hadn’t been so accomplished. The position brought respect and responsibility. In Soviet-controlled Kabul, before he’d even turned ten, he would wait half a day in line for bread and gasoline while his parents worked.

His face is now thin and handsome, with a steady, intuitive peacefulness. It betrays no nostalgia when he talks about his childhood. Instead his deep-brown eyes go flat as he thinks of things he knows Westerners cannot understand. “There was no fun to be a kid in Kabul,” he said in the chow hall one day. “The city was rocketed by mujahideen every week. You would see blood everywhere. Like, you had a friend from school and then, when you went to school, he would be dead. Some friends were once playing soccer, and rockets came in. I was not playing that game, and I lost my friends.”

Life did not improve when the Soviets left, in 1989. “There were several ethnic groups in Afghanistan, all armed by the United States and other countries, all wanting their commander to be president,” he said. “For that reason they started fighting each other.” External forces maintained a hand in the fight. “Pakistan was supporting the Pashtuns, some Russians supported the Tajiks, the Turkish supported the Uzbeks, Iran was supporting the Hazara people. They were fighting for five years, and they took out fifty thousand Kabul citizens.

“Finally the Taliban came and started telling people, ‘We’re going to help you. We will fight these different groups, these killers and robbers. We don’t want power. We will have an election for you, and then you will have power.’ ”

With the backing of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the mostly Pashtun Taliban swept through southern Afghanistan in 1994 and took Kabul two years later. “Then their real face came,” Hamza said. “They said, ‘Females are not allowed to go to school anymore or work. Males have to grow beards. Don’t listen to music. You are not allowed to watch movies or wear Westernized clothes.’ They brought a lot of bullshit.”

They ruled through the constant threat of violence, quite often realized. “There is no one living in Kabul that hasn’t been punished by Talibs. They took my father-in-law in jail for two weeks because his beard wasn’t long enough.

“There was the night of my wedding. I invited classmates to my house to have a party. This was a happy night for us, and the females were making some noise. Talibs came and knocked on the door. If we had opened it, I wouldn’t be alive now. The women said through the door, ‘We are only females here.’ The Talibs said they saw males in our windows, and the females said those were only the kids. Our bicycles were in front of my house. The Talibs took all the bikes to their headquarters, and when my father went to get them the next day, they beat him with a piece of cable.”

Hamza welcomed the U.S. invasion as a possible end to all that. He took a job as a linguist for Special Forces in early 2002 and began splitting his time between med school and missions to Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. He translated seized documents and gathered intelligence at vehicle checkpoints and on medical-assistance trips into villages. “My mom said, ‘Why not do an easy job in the city and not get killed?’ But I said, ‘If these kids from America are coming over to help, if they are willing to die for Afghanistan, how can an Afghan not be willing to do the same?’ ”

His dual life lasted for three and a half years, until he learned that his name had appeared on a Taliban hit list in 2005, a threat he took seriously. “They behead a lot of linguists in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s a price on our head, and they say we cost more than a U.S. soldier.”

He hid out for much of the next year, maintaining little contact with his parents, wife, and young children. Eventually he received political asylum in the United States, and at a friend’s suggestion he moved to Dallas, where he found an apartment near downtown, in a building with twenty or so other Afghan families. His plan was to study for the medical licensing exam and bring his family to Texas, but in the meantime he worked security for his landlord in exchange for cheaper rent on the unit he shared with two other Afghans. “One of us is a good cook, so he gets rice at Wal-Mart and cooks for us,” he said. “I have books from a friend at medical college that I read. We play volleyball, have barbecues, watch Bollywood and Hollywood movies, go to mosque sometimes.”

Dallas was comfortable but never quite home, especially with his wife and kids still in Afghanistan, where news reports depicted a resurgent Taliban operating unchecked in much of the country. After less than a year, he applied with a contractor that provides linguists to the military. The company sent him back to the war, and his first stint was with Mustang.

At Dwyer he bunked with the boots but frequently stopped in to Ray’s tent to visit with Branson. He went partly to discuss upcoming missions, to explain what to expect from the people and the place. But just as often they talked about getting his family to Dallas. Branson’s dad is a D.C. attorney, and he connected Hamza with a nonprofit specializing in gaining political asylum for Afghan and Iraqi families who help the U.S. Over the summer, Hamza was waiting for word about whether his wife could follow him to Dallas.

But looking to the future does not come naturally to Hamza. Making sense of the present is chore enough. “Afghans are religious people, but they are not educated,” he said. “They think because the word ‘Taliban’ means ‘religious student’ that Talibs should be respected. So someone comes and tells them, ‘I know Arabic. The Koran is in Arabic, and you cannot read it. So I will tell you what it says. It says this is a good war. It is jihad against the U.S.’

“But the Koran doesn’t say ‘jihad’ means to kill all nonbelievers. The word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace.’ When Muhammad was living in Medina, he was close friends with Christians. They were his business partners. He never said to kill all non-Muslims.

“This is not about females in the United States drinking alcohol or wearing little clothes. It is about economy. In Helmand Province, they have no roads. They cannot grow vegetables and take them to Kabul or Kandahar. So they grow poppy. There is so much money in it, and whoever makes that money will support the Taliban because they need this business. The locals know it is against Islam to grow poppy. But the Taliban tell them it goes to the U.S. and Europe and kills their people, and that is some kind of jihad.

“I think maybe these people are jealous of the U.S. and wonder why we don’t have anything. Every day I am telling the locals to tell the Taliban, ‘Instead of fighting, build our country.’ I tell them, ‘Your kids are walking without shoes, getting sick. Everyone is skinny, malnourished. You have no schools. Build your country. Get an education. That is good jihad.’ ”

Like most Afghans, when he got specific, he blamed Pakistan. “We have had a border problem with them for a hundred years,” he said. “They want a weak government here so we won’t take the land back. We are a big market for their products, and they get some goods from Afghanistan very cheap. And they send their crazy people, like Talibs, to fight here so they won’t fight there.

“Ask any local, ‘Where is the Taliban?’ They will tell you, ‘They escaped to Pakistan.’ And maybe six months from now, when we are not here, they will come back. So that is the problem.”


The first half of the drive from Dwyer to Garmsir moved through seemingly infinite desert, with the solid wall of dust kicked up by the trucks broken periodically by shifts in the wind or patches of gravel, revealing only that there was nothing to see. The landscape was one long sheet of brown riffled by the heat and low-lying dunes. The trucks slowed on the approach to the outskirts of town, where the dunes gave way to scattered mud homes and, as we got closer to the Helmand River, the Green Zone’s belt of trees and fields. It was far enough from where the fighting had been that even on my first trip to meet up with Mustang the area was full of people. Small bunches of tiny boys in beaded pillbox hats had rushed out of doorways to wave and beg for food while the adults hung back, the men looking on without emotion and the women ducking their heads behind dark veils or scurrying behind mud walls. After crossing the Helmand and an Afghan National Army checkpoint, we pushed through Garmsir’s largest bazaar, a dirt road lined with more mud buildings, these like tan shoe boxes with beat-up metal rolling doors. Some doors were closed, and some were missing, showing nothing but bare rooms. There weren’t even any people inside making use of the shade. Unlike the streets of a place like Ramadi, there were few signs of destruction. Just emptiness.

The town had changed by the time I drove through with Mustang a week later. A shura had been convened in early June, the first meeting of area leaders in nearly three years, and Garmsir had been declared sufficiently secure to invite locals home. But the bazaar hadn’t exactly sprung back to life. There was little sign of commerce, just men lingering at storefronts in groups of five and ten, sitting or squatting next to dusty motorcycles, watching as the patrol crawled by.

To the Marines that was an indication of success but also cause for heightened concern. They’d been warned that the Taliban was going asymmetric, that they would be fighting from within the populace, planting IEDs and using suicide attacks. Mustang had been instructed to watch for anything unusual, such as freshly turned dirt or a face that didn’t fit in. The place didn’t look like Iraq, but it started to feel like it; any one of those men at the bazaar could have been wearing a vest packed with explosives under his shalwar kameez.

We moved on through a residential area, a claustrophobic stretch of narrow road with tall grass reaching higher than the Humvees on one side and six-foot mud walls on the other. At entryways into compounds I saw bombed-out structures with cratered yards and missing roofs and sides, while the Marines saw locations for RPG strikes. Occasionally we stopped to let solitary Afghans, old men or young boys, cross the road with herds of long-haired goats wearing bells on their necks and sheep with ribbons tied in their curls. Minutes started feeling interminable.

There was palpable relief as we pushed into open desert, where there were fewer signs of life. Isolated homes and thatched huts, a family on their knees scraping the ground in a small salt flat. We passed a cemetery on a hill above the town, a spot where Mustang had spent a few nights in April. There were new graves now, and we stopped for a look.

The burial sites were marked by mounds of rocks with a single tree branch standing at either end. Colored pieces of cloth hung like pennants from the sticks, with thin white strips tied between them. Hamza explained that if the strip was taut, as many of these were, then it had not been whipped by the wind and the grave was recent. He pointed out that there were no names on the graves but that you could learn about the dead by the colors of the pennants. The two dozen or so new graves had green flags, which honored martyrs.

“Do you think these might be guys we killed?” asked Neumeyer.

“Yes, I think so,” said Hamza.

“Sweet,” said Neumeyer.

We moved out and found a place to stay the night in the desert. Mustang parked the Humvees about fifty meters apart, and the guys stayed mostly by their own vehicles, each taking a turn in the turret on watch.

The view was brown desolation, the foreground dotted with patches of lime-green and gold, clumps of foot-long scrub that burst from the sand like hair from a mole. Stretching outward, the earth faded into tans and creams until it melted into a sky bleached white in the heat. There was no horizon. The sun was a chalky pill that refused to go down.

Finally it set, but without fanfare—no oranges or pinks and certainly none of the stateside night’s promise of beer or bad TV. The dusk merely signaled time to ready the bedrolls. Scores of dung beetles appeared: nasty black bugs the size of half-dollars that provided the only noise as they crawled over one another to scavenge for food. They sounded like wood burning.

Every Marine followed the same routine. Each spread out a thin mat to cover the stones, then opened his bug tent, knowing it would thwart the mosquitoes and beetles but also dim the stars and trap ambient heat. If a Marine happened to roll over in his sleep, he would discover his backside drenched in sweat. Such breeze as there was could be cooling, unless it carried a sandstorm. Then it would cover his body in grit. When the sun started to rise, at four-thirty the next morning, he’d dump a cup of sand from his sleeping kit.

It’s an awful place to think about home and the people who will miss you if you don’t make it back.


The sun had been up for an hour when the first car approached the checkpoint. It was a small white pickup—the Taliban’s preferred vehicle—barreling down a sandy road from the direction of the border, and the platoon was immediately set on edge.

From an overlooking hill, Ray radioed that he saw two passengers in the cab and four more in the bed, and it was assumed they had weapons. Four Mustang Humvees swarmed from the dunes to intercept it. The gunners shot pin flares, like fluorescent bottle rockets, to alert the driver to stop, and the Humvees ringed the truck at a safe distance. The driver and his buddy stepped from the cab and raised their shirts to show they weren’t wearing explosives. Then the Marines walked to the truck with their M4s trained. The passengers in the rear turned out to be young boys, and the truck was carrying their dead uncle into Garmsir for burial. Branson gave the kids some candy and waved the truck on.

An hour passed before the next vehicle came, an ancient tractor pulling a single-axle trailer piled fifteen feet high with large yellow sacks. The driver’s wife and four kids rode on top of the bags, and his father, an old man with a white beard, balanced on one of the tractor’s rear fenders. There was a bouquet of lavender-colored silk carnations in the exhaust pipe sticking up from the engine.

Branson’s instinct was to let them pass. But the driver, a small man with traces of henna under his nails and in his beard, answered Branson’s questions wrong. He said he was taking his family north to Lashkar Gah to stay a few weeks with a cousin. But he looked to have packed everything he owned. More troublesome, he said he’d never seen the Taliban. When Hamza translated that response, Branson said, “That’s ridiculous.”

“Yes, I told him that,” said Hamza. “He is lying, but I cannot tell if that is because he is bad or just scared.”

The Marines carefully opened every bag, mindful of offending the family or blowing themselves up if the trailer was rigged. They searched for anything that might be trouble—guns, rounds, pressure plates, explosives, wire. They found hay and blankets.

I walked around to the far side of the tractor and noticed that the tow bar to the trailer was wrapped in fur. I reached down to feel it, thinking this was an unwise spot to put a cushion for the grandfather. It gave out a loud bleat. It was the family goat, hog-tied to the trailer hitch.

Branson finished up with the driver. “Tell him that we will be staying here a few days and then some others will replace us. Tell him that we know the Taliban were here, that they left, and that they’re coming back. Last night they fired a rocket at us that hit a house. They’re going to be planting IEDs that could kill his family. Anything he can tell us will make him safer. And he could receive a reward.” The man nodded to Hamza that he understood and got back up on his tractor.

And so it went for the next two weeks. Families came home in small Datsun sedans packed like clown cars. A convoy of tractors and trailers carried groups of men into the distant mountains to scrounge for wood. Jingle trucks stacked with dozens of oil drums brought gasoline from Pakistan to sell in Garmsir.

No caches of weapons turned up, but the checks served a purpose. Hamza gathered intelligence, and Branson’s men put a human face on the coalition. One truck brought a load of opium up from Pakistan. But drug shipments always went south. The driver said he’d gone to market and been unable to get a decent price, which Branson and Hamza took to mean that there weren’t enough Taliban left to provide security for buyers. And a number of travelers said that, given recent history, it was nice to be stopped on the road by people they knew wouldn’t kill them.

But the end of each day brought a letdown. There’d been no release for the adrenaline rush. A second, more subtle enemy threatened: boredom. Asymmetric attacks wreak unspeakable damage, but that can be minimized if the Marines stay sharp. Boredom dulls the necessary edge, and the combination with stress is combustible. Neumeyer was tasked with dealing with that. One morning in the desert a couple wound-up boots got in each other’s faces and started bumping chests. Neumeyer stopped the fight but didn’t separate the fighters. He ordered them to hold hands, then wrapped the clinch with duct tape. They spent the next two hours that way, cleaning up the campsite and digging a fire pit for trash. They were finally cut free when one had to take his morning constitutional, but not until they had walked over a dune together, one carrying a roll of tissue and the other a small wooden box called a shitter.

Dead Little Girl

The summer was beating the hell out of Mustang’s trucks. A Humvee isn’t designed to carry such heavy armor over such soft sand, least of all in that kind of heat. The worst luck belonged to Rauch and his crew. Their truck kept overheating and getting sent to Dwyer for repairs, at which point Rauch, the young sergeant from Pennsylvania, would commandeer a lance corporal’s Humvee, sending that crew back to the FOB as well. We were at Bravo’s position when that truck crapped out, and this time Rauch had no choice but to return with it. Branson ordered Graves to take half the platoon and escort Rauch and his men to a nearby outpost, where they could catch a convoy back to Dwyer. The errand was supposed to take about an hour.

Two hours passed, and Graves had yet to return. Then Branson got a call on his radio. Rauch had been safely delivered, but on the ride back to Bravo, Graves had found a dead girl in the middle of the road. A crowd had gathered, giving Graves a bad vibe. He wanted to help the girl’s family and make sure they knew she wasn’t killed by Marines, but he was also wary of wandering into a trap. In either event, he needed Hamza to translate. Branson and Hamza left with the rest of the platoon.

I stayed back with Ray, whose mortars weren’t needed. He was seething, not at being left behind but that anyone was going at all. “They should just leave her right where she is, just drive right by. These people have their own way of dealing with death. It’s their problem, not ours.”

“What if the Taliban killed her to intimidate the locals?” I asked. “Doesn’t it make sense to be seen trying to help?”

He switched to the clipped tone he’d used on the boot with the T-shirt. “Not if they rigged her body to explode as soon as we touch it. Not if they put a trip wire nearby or put a grenade underneath her that’ll blow as soon as one of our guys moves her. They’re probably watching right now to see what we do. They’ll see how we respond, then kill some other little girl, rig the body, and wait for us. It’s just stupid.”

He slammed his truck door and walked off to a little tomato garden Bravo used as a bathroom.

Two more hours passed without a radio report. We sat listening to an imaginary breeze, hoping not to hear any explosions. Finally Mustang rolled back in. They were slow to climb out of their trucks, and once they did, they looked dazed. Gallucci walked over.

“That was fucking awful,” he said. “We’re driving up there, and I’m on my gun with eyes on the road, and right here”—he pointed with his right hand—“I see three freshly dug holes covered over in the ground. That’s not supposed to be there. And a little ways up there are three rocks stacked together. Then ahead of that I see these two trailers on either side of the road, one with a big drum in the back and the other with this weird black mass in it. I looked through my scope and it’s a guy who sits up and looks at us. And then he lays back down. I’m like, ‘Dude, what the fuck?’ You know? Luckily nothing happened.

“So we get there, and this little girl, maybe six, is just lying there, at this weird angle, like she’s been shot. Her brother came out and started yelling at her, and none of the locals are doing anything. Then Hamza walked over to her to check for a pulse . . . and she sat up. I’m not kidding you, dude. She got up and went in her house.”

The whole platoon was affected. Gallucci kept seeing a man in Ramadi who had carried his daughter through the streets after she’d been hit, trying to hand her to Marines. Neumeyer said all he could think about was his own little girl, who was about the same age.

“I had a buddy who killed a kid in Iraq,” said Ray. “It was after curfew, and the kid was on the street. My buddy saw him out of the corner of his eye and opened up with his SAW. Killed him. My buddy’s response was, ‘I guess I’ll be dealing with that the rest of my life.’ ”

Only Hamza had a different response. “Everyone is giving their ideas of what happened. The kid was dehydrated and tired, and she passed out. Some Marines say it was some kind of trap, but it was not. If it was a trap, for what?”

“To see what y’all would do?” I asked.

“They already know that,” he said. “If we see a sick dog, we will go treat the dog. I was kind of pissed off at the mother. First question I asked was ‘How many kids do you have?’ She said four. I said, ‘If you cannot take care of them, why are you giving birth to them? First be responsible for one, then you can make a second one.’ She said she went to get water for the one who had fever. I said, ‘How long does that take? Five minutes? Ten minutes?’ They’ve got to know what is going on with their kids.” He trailed off and threw up his hands.

It didn’t feel like a happy ending.

Going Home

Only half of Mustang was on patrol when Rauch and Corporal Arnaldo Figueroa got hit. The platoon was two weeks into a new detail, having been called in from the desert to provide security for mine sweeps in town. A number of IED cells had moved into Garmsir, and Mustang’s new mission entailed two daily patrols with an explosive ordnance disposal team, or EOD, walking and driving one of the main strips, looking for mines. Like clockwork, new IEDs turned up every three days, either by inspection or, in less fortunate instances, by detonation. So far Mustang had been lucky. Just a couple concussions and no destroyed vehicles.

Rauch was back in the field and feeling particularly fortunate. His broken-down truck had finally been replaced, and on the afternoon of August 3, he and a handful of Marines were patrolling the town.

They encountered a group of men in front of some shops and dismounted. They spent a half hour on foot reading the locals, but mostly just being a presence. Then they remounted and left the strip on a side street. Rauch’s truck was in the lead position, and Corporal Joseph Donald was manning the .50-cal. He saw some kids gathered in front of a compound, then put his eyes back on the road. Nothing looked anything but ordinary.

Then the Humvee’s right front tire rolled over a pressure plate, triggering thirty pounds of high explosives buried just below the road. It ripped the engine block apart and sent fragments through the front of the cab, where Figueroa was driving and Rauch was riding shotgun. The IED had been packed with an accelerating agent that produced a huge ball of flame that engulfed the truck. Branson saw the explosion from three Humvees back and instantly assumed the crew was burning to death.

But they weren’t dead yet. Shaking off concussions, Donald and Corporal Timothy Wright, who had been in the backseat, dragged Figueroa from the truck. Then Wright ran to the other side, where a cameraman who had been riding with them helped free Rauch. A few short AK bursts came at Rauch’s truck, and the rest of the Marines readied for a fight.

“Somebody was firing at us to provoke a death blossom situation,” Branson said later, “to get us to open fire, just start killing everybody in the area. Sometimes when you’re afraid for your life, not using your gun is more important than using it.”

As Graves arrived with the rest of the platoon, Mustang held its fire, and the shooting stopped. A helicopter landed nearby, and Figueroa, whose right leg was badly broken, and Rauch, whose left leg no longer looked like one, were flown to the hospital at nearby Fort Bastion. Within days they were both at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in D.C., where Figueroa would have his leg bolted back together and Rauch would have his removed. Miraculously, no one in the truck suffered significant burns.

They were the only serious casualties the platoon would suffer. In mid-October, with the MEU’s deployment having been extended one month, Mustang returned to the States. Branson’s goal of bringing every one of his Marines home alive was realized.

The bigger picture was harder to assess. About the time the MEU returned, I talked with Seth Jones, a RAND Corporation analyst and military adviser who is one of the best-known names in the small circle of observers of the war in Afghanistan. “The MEU was successful in their mission: They cleared a significant part of the district,” he said. “But they were only there a short time. A regiment of Brits and a kandak of ANA replaced them in August, and it’s not clear whether they have the numbers to hold the territory. The Taliban had been closely monitoring Marine operations, and as soon as the Marines left, they conducted targeted assassinations of locals who had been cooperating with them. But the area has not entirely reverted.”

According to Jones, it’s not clear what these short-term gains—or losses— will mean. “It takes twelve to fifteen years to win a counterinsurgency, so it’s hard to put long-term gains into perspective,” he said. “It will be particularly important to continue to disrupt key supply lines, hold territory, and engage in reconstruction. Implementing this strategy will take several deployments spread out over a long period of time. It will take an international force—including the U.S.—fighting alongside Afghan national forces, local tribes, and clans. But most counterinsurgencies are won by local forces, not outside ones. And they have to clear and hold and build.”

The men of Mustang were thinking long-term as well, but now that they were finally home, the future had meaning in more-personal terms. Rauch received a prosthetic leg in November and at year’s end was relearning how to walk and wrestling with whether to remain in the Corps.

Branson left the Marines on December 4 and started studying in earnest for the LSAT in February. He’d been wait-listed for a position as a Marine liaison to Congress, but when no spot opened up, he began planning a career in government or Republican politics. Neumeyer, on the other hand, celebrated Obama’s election while the platoon was enjoying postdeployment leave. When Mustang returned to duty in mid-November, he got back to work at keeping them in line.

Ray spent his leave watching the Longhorns with Crystal in their new house near Camp Lejeune. He’d yet to propose; he said his ring wasn’t ready when he arrived. But the couple were talking about having kids and eloping to the Caribbean. They also discussed his leaving the Corps. Yet after receiving the Navy Achievement Medal for the Jugroom battle and then catching wind that he might be bumped up to staff sergeant, he decided to stay in.

Back in Afghanistan, 2008 became the deadliest year for Coalition Forces, with 268 troops killed as of December. The headlines drifting out through the rest of the year grew increasingly grim. Hamza was still somewhere in the middle of it. One of his co-workers said he was translating for Army brass in a much safer environment but declined to identify exactly where. He was still waiting to hear if his family had been granted visas to move to Dallas.

And at the Pentagon, the war’s architects were mapping out 2009. At the request of General David McKiernan, the commanding officer of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Defense Department was planning to deploy four additional combat brigades. It was not yet clear if or when those troops would be sent to Garmsir to continue the work of the 24th MEU and Mustang Platoon.

Related Content