An American in uniform stands near a landing zone at about 2 a.m., moonlight framing his features, and talks about dead and maimed men he knows. His flight out isn't until next month, and he is counting the days.
Then he says he will miss Afghanistan.
"It's just life or death: the simplicity of it," said Cpl. Robert Cole of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which ends a seven-month deployment in the southern region of Sangin in October. "It's also kind of nice in some ways because you don't have to worry about anything else in the world."
The dominant narrative about war in a foreign land says its practitioners yearn for home, for the families, the comforts, and the luxury of no longer worrying about imminent death or injury. It applies to young American troops in Afghan combat zones, but it's not the whole truth.
Combat can deliver a sense of urgency, meaning, order and belonging. There is the adrenaline-fueled elation of a firefight, and the horror of rescuing a comrade wounded by a bomb on patrol. It is magnified, instantaneous experience. An existence boiled down to the essentials mocks the mundane detritus, the quibbles and bill-paying and anonymity, of life back home.
Building on the costly inroads of a previous unit, the Marine battalion has seen a decline in Taliban attacks in Sangin, a southern Afghan area where the insurgency battled British forces to a stalemate for years. Now the troops have more time to build bridges and sluice gates, and sit cross-legged at meetings with Afghan elders in hopes of stripping the insurgency of popular support.
Early on, the going was hard. Cole said his platoon suffered close to 30 percent casualties, mostly from bombs hidden around its patrol base.
He described how one Marine on patrol triggered a bomb that severed his legs. Another Marine rushed forward to apply tourniquets, knowing his friend would bleed to death if he methodically checked, as training dictated, for more boobytraps in his path. The second Marine started dragging the first toward safety when he set off another bomb, severing his own legs, according to Cole. But he saved his comrade in the process.
"He didn't lose his legs for his country, he lost his legs for his brother," Cole, of Klamath Falls, Oregon, said bluntly. He gestured to another Marine in the dark at the landing zone at Forward Operating Base Jackson, the battalion's headquarters.
"The only shred of sanity that keeps us going out here is that I have to protect his ass and he has to protect my ass," said Cole, who is confined to the base after suffering concussions in two explosions.
Cole, 22, is not bitter. He treasures the fierce loyalty, born of bloodshed. Politics, the debate about the wisdom of the decade-long U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the plan to withdraw international combat forces by the end of 2014, seem irrelevant to young Marines.
When they talk about friends with amputated limbs under treatment in the United States, they often stick to the line, "he's doing really good right now," even if they know that isn't true.
"Get some!" is a Marine slogan, reflecting the U.S. military branch's traditional taste for expeditionary action. On the night of Sept. 11, possibly to mark the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks in the United States, insurgents fired on guard posts at the Jackson camp. It was harassment, not a major attack. Marines returned fire in great volume, red tracer rounds plunging into the darkness.
"Watch your sectors!" warned a company captain as some Marines, adrenaline unleashed, broadened their sweep of fire from defensive berms. After a while, the shooting subsided. One Marine was asked: Is it over?
"I have no clue," he laughed. "They can fire at us all night if they want, as long as nobody gets hurt."
At Patrol Base Fulod, about a 15-minute ride in an armored vehicle from the Jackson camp, Cpl. Ernest Tubbs is something special among his peers. He has discovered three-dozen hidden bombs on this deployment. A smooth talker who radiates confidence, he remembered the first time he uncovered an IED, or improvised explosive device, "heart racing, so many emotions at one time."
Tubbs, 22, of Parsonsburg, Maryland, leads patrols with a metal detector, potentially the most dangerous job in the lineup. In a small victory celebration, he smokes a cigarette whenever he finds an IED; he smoked two in a row after one very hazardous experience.
He is desperate to return to his wife and newborn son, and become a civilian, but he won't forget what it is like to be a kind of savior, to know men depend on him for their lives.
"The feeling of when things happen out here, it's a feeling that you'll never get rid of. But it's a feeling that will always belong to you," he said. "There's no more adrenaline rush in the world than finding an IED. I'm going to miss that a bunch."
For families in the United States, there are no such thrills, only the grind of not knowing. Tubbs' wife, Hannah, gave birth to a boy, Gabe, last month. Her husband's oldest brother cut the umbilical cord. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, she wrote:
"Even when I was still pregnant with him I would tell him that his daddy loves him and can't wait to meet him. I tell him who his daddy is and all about him. Being pregnant for most of the deployment didn't help the emotional part of it all. It was hard getting ready for the baby without him. It was even harder to hear about guys who had been hurt or even killed knowing they did the same job as my son's father."
She continued: "His best friend is a triple amp (amputee) and another lost his life, he had not even been married a year. We kept in touch with his wife and she plans on being at the homecoming. There are no words that describe what families go through during a deployment. The days drag on when there is no phone call and your heart drops when there is an unexpected knock on the door."
Various books, films and television series address the theme of troops liking aspects of war, or missing it when they get home. Many focus on the sacrifice, the brotherhood, or the bloodshed, or some combination. Norman Mailer's novel, "The Naked and the Dead," and the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan" are among works that explore the psychological impact of intense combat on its protagonists.
"It is well that war is so terrible _ otherwise we would grow too fond of it," U.S. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee reportedly said at the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.
Some transitions to home are the hardest of all.
Walking past cornfields on a patrol, 1st Lt. Richard Marcantonio of Corpus Christi, Texas, talked about a Marine who lost three limbs in a bombing and was transferred to a military hospital in the United States. One day, his father walked in and handed his son's baby to him as he lay in bed.
According to Marcantonio, the father said something like: "Here's your child. I'm not going to bring her up, so you better do it."
And, this story of tough love goes, the Marine is doing just that.
Some who come from rural areas in the United States feel a curious affinity with Afghanistan and its web of sparsely populated villages and farmland. Capt. Brian Huysman of Delphos, Ohio _ "Good luck finding Delphos on the map," he said _ sees parallels between the "small town mentality" and rivalries back home and the jostling for advantage among local leaders in southern Afghan settlements.
"It's very eerie," said Huysman, Weapons Company commander for the battalion.
When these men are retired veterans, many will look back on Afghanistan as a place of loss, but also a place that made them better than they were, whether the U.S. military succeeds in its long-term goals or not. The cult of sacrifice finds expression in a shrine to the missing in action of past wars in the dining hall at Camp Leatherneck, the main Marine base in southern Afghanistan.
There, an empty chair sits in front of a table laid with white cloth and a place setting for one. On the bread plate, a notice says, a slice of lemon symbolizes their "bitter fate," and salt stands for families' tears. There are dog tags and an inverted drinking glass.
Cole, the corporal at the landing zone, said that in his time in Sangin, he had seen Taliban fighters only once, in a treeline hundreds of yards (meters) away, too far to fire on them accurately. Marines called for an air strike, but it was denied because there were children in the area. International forces have "rules of engagement" designed to avoid civilian casualties.
As Cole talked, the dark mass of an Osprey aircraft rumbled inward, its lights off to make it less of a target for insurgents. The back ramp was open, a tethered gunner at the edge with a mounted machine gun.
Dust and wind swirled, tossed up by churning rotors. The courteous corporal pulled a departing passenger into a half-embrace.
"Thank you for listening," he said.