"Baby, I walked on a path today. Everything was clear. Nothing happened."
That's what U.S. Marine Cpl. Ernest Tubbs, a combat engineer who looks for hidden bombs on patrol, often tells his wife when he has the chance to telephone her in the United States. Many a time, he has lied. Tubbs won't tell her about the close calls, the near misses, anything about his dangerous job that might rattle the woman he married last year after meeting her on a Florida beach.
"She would kill me" if she knew, he said. His father, Tubbs said, is proud of his military career but shuns the stress of full awareness, once telling his son: '"What happens, I don't want to know."'
Unlike wars of decades past, most American troops in Afghanistan are able to stay in touch with their families with the help of Internet and telephone centers on larger bases, and even those in smaller outposts get a call out sometimes.
But technology, and old-fashioned letter-writing, do not always close the distance. For units in combat zones, where men die and lose legs in fights with the Taliban, it is easier to talk about just about anything else.
Young men share an intensity of experience on a deployment, and the bond that blossoms is theirs alone. There is the rush of a firefight, the zero-to-60 crisis of a bomb strike on a patrol, the grind of humping gear in dust and heat, the numbing wait for a flight or a ride or orders. None of this can be easily explained to relatives back home, and maybe they don't even want to know.
The result, documented over generations of war and evident in the reunion of veterans anywhere, is a clan whose members, in some ways, know each other better than any relative could. So it goes for the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, entrusted with driving insurgents out of the southern Afghan area of Sangin, scene of some of the toughest fighting since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001.
Sixteen men in the battalion have died, and about 160 have been injured. The unit ends its seven-month deployment in October. Tubbs, of Parsonsburg, Maryland, says he's interested in the future, not telling war stories. He wants to get out of the military and become a game warden. And last month, his wife, Hannah, gave birth. He will see the baby, Gabriel, for the first time.
Marines are instructed to avoid giving sensitive military information to families back home, which discourages some discussion of experiences in Afghanistan. 1st Lt. Mark Batey, the platoon leader at Patrol Base Fulod in Sangin, said Marines are better off dodging more personal talk about deployment.
"It does something for yourself. Things that may cause some fear to the Marines, like the fear of losing your legs, or the fear of getting shot, or basically just not going home, or not going home the way that you left home: That's something that if you were to bring it up with people back there, they really wouldn't be able to comfort you," said Batey, of Denton, Texas.
"If you're not here to see it go down, I really can't explain it well enough," he said.
The potential for misunderstandings is high. With a smile, Batey recalled how he once told his girlfriend on the telephone that it was getting "really hot" in his location. She thought he was referring to fighting. He was talking about the temperature.
The troops share an unfettered humor, a form of communal release or therapy perhaps, that would jar in the more constrained, civilian world to which they will return. One Marine said they could occasionally joke about a "black dude" or a "skinny dude" in their ranks, and the target of the barb would come right back at the teller with his own retort, and it was all right.
The deadpan, casual way in which the Marines talk about severe injuries is another source of disconnect with home. Capt. Casey Brock, commander of Charlie Company, drove to a couple of patrol bases in the past week and dropped off photographs of a company soldier who had lost both his legs in a blast and was recovering.
At one stop, he told Marines that their wounded comrade was about to receive his prosthetic legs.
"They're just waiting for his feet to show up in the mail," he said.
"Is he going to be waiting for us when we get off the bus?" a Marine asked, anticipating the return from deployment.
"Regardless of whether he has his legs or not, he'll be waiting for us when we get back," Brock said.
An outline of the attitude toward casualties, one that would challenge civilians who lack the training to deal with trauma, lies in the written guidance that Lt. Col. Thomas Savage provided in January to his Marine battalion before it deployed. Grieving, he said, must wait until after the men have called for aircraft, cleared a landing zone and secured the area.
"The fact of the matter is that we WILL take casualties. It is an unavoidable fact. Be prepared for this, as difficult as it may be," Savage wrote. "You are taking care of your brother by removing the emotion from the event during the execution of the evacuation."
The battalion's Protestant chaplain, David Kim, said Marines sometimes talk to him about personal concerns, and that he guarantees them confidentiality. He doesn't discuss religion with them unless they want to, acknowledging with a laugh that the adage, "There are no atheists in a foxhole," is false.
But, Kim said, he likes to highlight the good things that have happened on deployment as a sign that God is watching. For example, there was the hidden bomb that didn't explode when a Marine stepped on it, or the "silhouette" of Taliban gunfire impacts on a compound wall around an exposed, yet unharmed Marine.
"People who were not really faithful back home, they find it out here," said Kim, noting that danger and hardship seem to make those who experience it more spiritual. "They see stuff here that can't really be explained."
However hard it is for Marines to explain life in a combat zone to their families, home is on their minds. A sign in a recreational area on an American base in Sangin reads: "Your mother does not work here. Clean up after yourself. Thank you."