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thedrifter
09-01-09, 07:07 AM
No Mochaccinos, No Problem for Marines of Echo Company
By Noah Shachtman August 31, 2009 | 7:55 am

MIANPOSHTEH, Afghanistan — By any rational measure, the Marines of Echo company should be miserable. During the day, they trudge through the mud until they got shot at and endure temperatures that regularly spike above 110 degrees. At night, they sleep in holes in the dirt, next to mortar tubes. Dinner for the last three evenings has been something brown called “beef burgundy.” With enough hot sauce, you can keep it from tasting too much like cigarettes.

Yet morale here at this converted school compound that serves as Echo company’s headquarters is uncannily high. The things most people would find intolerable – the danger, the Third World living conditions – are exactly what makes Echo company thrive, these troops say. “Marines don’t miss what they don’t get,” Staff Sgt. Timothy Funke tells me.

Since the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military has built a series of titanic bases, where troops can get Pizza Hut delivered, sip an iced mochaccino, surf the web wirelessly or enter salsa dancing competitions. In my limited experience, these places are greenhouses of ennui and existential angst; the comforts of home only make the residents more despondent.

At Echo company’s compound, the only air conditioning is for the computers in the operations center. The shower is a bucket. The toilets consist of a few sandbags and a wooden box, positioned over a hole. And when the Marines here leave the base on patrol, it’s a virtual guarantee that they’ll encounter Taliban trying to kill them. In 57 days here, Echo has received enemy fire on 44 of them. Which, strangely, suits the Marines here just fine.

“Last deployment, I went to Iraq and spent seven months rebuilding stuff that marines destroyed and thought: why can’t that be me?” says 1st Lt. Ben Phillips, a weapons platoon leader serving with Echo company. “Now I’m happy. I get to shoot and blow things up — all the stuff they show you in the commercials.”

Just about everyone here enlisted after 9/11. They didn’t join to get college money, or to learn some profession they’d take into the civilian world. They signed up with the United States Marine Corps to go to war. “This is all I wanted to do for a long time,” Phillips adds.

Echo company has had a lucky war, too. They had three Marines killed in action during their initial push here, in early July. Since then, no deaths, and only five wounded – a remarkably low figure, given how much action they’ve seen. Earlier this week, a squad stomped past four improvised bombs on a single patrol; none of the weapons went off. A sniper got shot in the chest, and walked away with a little bruising. Four others stepped on a jury-rigged explosive, and suffered only moderate concussions.

On Thursday, the base fell silent and sullen when a sniper was shot through the arm and into the rib cage. But by Friday, the mood had lightened. The sniper was okay. The mail truck came, delivering Ramen noodles and baseball gloves and Maxim magazines. At one of those mega-bases, those small luxuries would be no big deal. Here, it’s a mini-Christmas. And when the delicacies are consumed, there are few complaints about the return to MREs and recycled paperbacks and mind-numbing heat.


It’s not the only unusual thing about Echo company. Despite the fields of 10-foot tall marijuana plants a few hundred yards away, no one has yet been caught getting high. The local bomb squad technicians aren’t keeping a secret booze stash – and those guys almost never travel without an ample liquor supply. (The constant danger of an impending firefight tends to encourage sobriety.)

At most Marine Corps outposts, the troops blow off steam by hitting the gym. Two years ago, I spent time at a combat outpost in Fallujah. There was no running water. But there was a full weight room, packed with Marines getting jacked up. Echo company has none of that. The patrols here are hard enough. “Beach muscles: What do they get you? Action on the beach. We concentrate on combat fitness,” Funke says. The Marines here tend to be skinny, not pumped up — kind of like their commanding officer, Capt. Eric Meador, a 142-pound former trumpet player and Mississippi cop. They also share his unhealthy obsession with tabloids and gossip magazines. A picture of reality television star Kate Gosselin from Jon & Kate Plus 8 hangs inside the company operations center, next to the list of the latest bomb and gunfire attacks.

Of course, not everyone is happy. The infantrymen-turned-supply-clerks are both overworked and understimulated, threatening to hang themselves if their deployments are extended beyond seven months. A few of the Marines are so slow, they still haven’t figured out that it’d be a good idea to bring water with them on patrol. But, from what I can tell, those are the exceptions. The rest of Echo is rather enjoying their war.

[PHOTO: Noah Shachtman]

Ellie