Afghanistan 'horrible,' says Marine

By Barry Cleveland
Carmi Times
Fri Nov 14, 2008, 04:25 PM CST

Carmi, Ill. -

A young Carmian shared his experiences and perceptions about Afghanistan with members and guests of the Kiwanis Club of Carmi Thursday.
The speaker was Gunnery Sgt. Danny DeLong, a 1992 graduate of Carmi Community High School and a member of the U.S. Marine Corps for the last 16 years. DeLong, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, recently returned to the U.S. after a 10-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.
DeLong was one of 2,200 Marines deployed into the southern part of the land-locked Asian country in 2007. U.S. and allied forces went into the country in the period after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. in an effort to find and destroy Osama bin Laden and the al Qaida terrorists and to remove from power their Afghan hosts, the Taliban, which at that point controlled the government of the impoverished country.
And although Western forces control many of the cities, the Taliban remains active, using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to kill and maim the Americans, their allies and Afghans alike, said DeLong.
The veteran Marine left no doubt but that he believes in his mission, though he said he steers clear of politics and simply follows his orders.
"We need to be there," he said, "but not because we're the world's police force." Noting that he and his wife (the former Jana Chapman of Carmi) have two children, DeLong said the women and children of Afghanistan have no one else to take care of them.
"The people are terrified," he said. "But they feel safe with us."
And the conditions are often horrible. Many of the Afghans rely on the U.S. military for medical care; there are few schools, few books and children often have to start work at the age of 4 or 5. And the youngsters have another obstacle: the presence of mines.
DeLong spoke of one little 4-year-old girl whom the Marines encountered on their daily patrols. She always wore a pink dress and was eager to accept the candy and other treats the Leathernecks had to offer.
But when she didn't appear for three or four days, the Marines asked why. It turned out that she had been kicking around a soccer ball (given to her by the Americans) in her back yard and stepped on a mine. She was killed by the explosive, which had been meant for the Americans.
The speaker said the Marines' mission was to drive the Taliban from the southern portion of Afghanistan, at least to remove them from the region's small village.
But it's a frustrating process. "It doesn't take long to drive them out," he said of the outgunned Taliban, "but when we pull back, they go back in." The radicals "hold everything" in parts of rural Afghanistan, he said.
Part of the solution would be to increase the U.S. troop strength, and DeLong said that process is underway and he believes President-elect Obama may hasten it. Improving the infrastructure would also help. And some progress is being made, he said, in improving the government, training police and persuading the villagers to stand up to the Taliban.
Eighty-four countries have a military presence in Afghanistan, but fighting men and women from the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom handle the brunt of the fighting, DeLong told the club. Many of the soldiers from the other allied countries want nothing to do with the fighting and sometimes drop their weapons and run in the face of the Taliban, he added.
The allies easily outgun the Taliban, which consequently has turned to the use of IEDs and rockets fired into allied compounds from speeding pickup trucks.
"The IEDs planted alongside the roads are the No. 1 killer," DeLong said. "The Taliban prefers that to conventional fighting. And that's our biggest problem and our biggest fear.
"The whole place is a mine field," he told the club. "It's the worst place you could imagine going to, just horrible."
The enemy flees into the mountainous country's caves when they're driven from villages, but the Marines are very careful about pursuing them into their strongholds. "They have the upper hand there," he said.
DeLong said Obama visited the country last summer but didn't come to the part where he was deployed. He said he wishes that the president-elect and Republican nominee John McCain had ventured out into the contested areas "to see what is really going on."
The speaker had good things to say about what's been happening in Iraq, asserting that great progress has been made in the effort by the Americans and their allies to stabilize and rebuilt the country after the invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein.
"I'm not that concerned with Iraq," he said. "What we've done there is working. We've pretty much done our job. Things are getting better."
But Afghanistan? "I'd rather be in Iraq five or six times than spend another year in Afghanistan," DeLong told the group.
Kiwanians and their guests had plenty of questions for DeLong, and he shared this information during a question-and-answer period:
* Americans may hear little of the Afghan war until spring, because the Taliban often retreats into its high-country hideouts during the winter.
* The country's terrain is mountainous and very rocky, and the roads are full of potholes, creating lots of problems for the allies' vehicles.
* He has no idea where bin Laden is, and neither do the American commanders. The terrorist leader is well-financed and may move from country to country in that region.
* It's often difficult to distinguish ordinary Afghans from the Taliban or the other terrorists, though many of the enemy are from Pakistan, Syria, Turkey or countries other than Afghanistan.
* The Marines live in tents and living conditions aren't too bad, except during the hottest part of the year, when temperatures reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit and even air-conditioners aren't adequate.
* His unit probably dealt with 5,000 to 6,000 enemy forces during his stint in Afghanistan. He described them as more "annoying" than anything, asserting that the enemy has no plan for success and "just likes to cause pain and suffering."
* Ten to 15 percent of the materiel intended for U.S. forces in Afghanistan is way-laid while it's being transported across neighboring Pakistan, nominally a U.S. ally.
* Most of the "greenery" one sees in Afghanistan consists of poppy fields, and allied forces have "daily brushes" with drug lords.
* A normal day involves patrolling small villages and pushing the enemy out of those villages.
* He and his comrades received absentee ballots in time to cast their votes in the recent election.
Several of the Kiwanians (including Chris Myers, a classmate) expressed their appreciation to DeLong for his service, and the audience (which also included his grandmother, Betty DeLong) accorded him two standing ovations. He was introduced by the program chairman for November, Art Saunders, who said local oilman Chris Mitchell and Brad Richards (executive director of the Illinois Oil & Gas Association) will speak at the club's Nov. 20 meeting and the Rev. Luke Raczykowski will address his fellow Kiwanians in a "spiritual aims" program Wednesday, Nov. 26.