HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- The war in Afghanistan is the longest sustained conflict in American history. For more than 12 years, Marines have cycled in and out of the country. Most Marines today have never known a time when deployments didn’t loom on the horizon. It’s become a facet of their lifestyles, and it’s shaped the people who lived through it.
Now, as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, four Marines with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment shared a little bit about who they are as members of that select community. Their attitudes, leadership styles, experiences and reasons for serving are different. They’re honest and hopeful, rancorous and rash, proud and blunt. Three are combat veterans. One is serving his first tour overseas.
A squad leader, scout sniper, team leader and grenadier – They’ve all weathered enemy fire during this deployment. For the most part they are where they want to be, somewhere between loving their jobs and simply enduring the miseries of deployment.
Sgt. Bryan Early: Squad Leader
At 25 years old, this is Early’s third deployment. He uses his past experiences to lead his Marines today. A Libby, Mont., native, the Marines know Early by his natural, happy mood. He tries to think of his men as little brothers to remind him he is responsible for the lives of other people’s sons. He has a wife and a two-year-old son.
Q.) What thoughts run through your head when planning patrols?
A.) The other squad leaders and I sit down and focus mostly on the safety of our Marines. When we make our plans, we look at all the intelligence we have and plan around that while also keeping the commander’s intent in mind.
Q.) When you’re going through a firefight, what kind of squad leader are you?
A.) I try to be as aggressive as possible. I know that’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around, but as an infantryman our mission is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy with fire and maneuver. So I try to instill that as much as possible in my Marines. If I show them that I’m scared, then they’re not going to be willing to follow me into that gunfire, but if I’m aggressive and happy and I’m the man to step out into the fire, then that shows the Marines that [leading from the front] concept and makes them more willing to follow me.
Q.) Do you approach everything with that aggressive mentality?
A.) Yeah, especially in the Marine Corps. I try to be as aggressive as possible, but life outside of the Marine Corps you’ve got to step back and not be as aggressive. I’ve tried the aggressive approach, and it normally doesn’t go over well (laughing).
Q.) Why are you the first one through the door and in front of all the other Marines?
A.) I’d rather be the first one through the door so that if anyone has to take a round I’d rather it be me. You put so much hard work in training these guys; you want to give them the opportunities to not only succeed in the Marine Corps, but in life. If anyone has to take the bullet, I’d rather it be me. This is my third deployment, and I have six plus years in the Marine Corps. I’ve already had my time.
Q.) How does it feel watching your Marines operate on patrol?
A.) I saw it when we took our first contact [with the enemy] that it was muscle memory for these guys. They never hesitated or choked and that’s the best feeling to have.
Q.) Do you regret coming into the Marine Corps right after high school?
A.) Absolutely not.
Q.) Why is that?
A.) Being a Marine was one of my dreams as a small child. My mom has pictures of me when I was four or five walking around in old Marine Corps tri-colors [fatigues] with a pellet gun at shoulder arms (laughing).
Q.)What kind of camaraderie do you have with your junior Marines?
A.) One of the big things I learned as a junior Marine is that you train your Marines like they’re your little brothers. Always keep in the back of your mind that’s someone’s son. Treat your Marines accordingly, and they’ll give you the respect that you deserve. If I get hit, I don’t want them running out there to get me just because I’m another Marine. I want them running out there to save me because I’m Bryan Early.
Cpl. Charles Kristel: Team Leader
He’s blunt and authoritative but also respected. Kristel, a Schenectady, N.Y., native was wounded during his previous deployment to Afghanistan. A stocky, deep-voiced man of few words, many unrepeatable in print, Kristel joined the military at the age of 20. After only three and a half years in the Marine Corps, he’s elevated himself to a position of leadership through strength of will, demonstrated competence and unbending character.
Q.) What were some of the traits you saw in your leaders coming up in the Marine Corps that made them successful?
A.) I would say doing whatever’s necessary. They made a point to do their job in the best manner possible and just succeed, as opposed to being mediocre because mediocre usually fails.
Q.)You hold a pretty senior position, how did you get to that point?
A.) Being awesome at my job.
Q.) Did you ever picture you’d be who you are now?
A.) Yeah, this is pretty much who I was before I joined.
Q.) What were conditions like during your first deployment?
A.) It was a good time. It was considerably more miserable than this. Week one, we [moved into] a compound and lived in there for four months in north Helmand. It rained a lot and was very uncomfortable.
Q.) Why do you like working with the infantry?
A.) Well, the infantry is the backbone of the Marine Corps. It’s what defines it.
Q.) There’s a lot of trust placed in you and other non-commissioned officers on patrol, how do you earn that trust?
A.) Through my conduct it should be pretty evident that I know what’s going on. I make a point to make it obvious I’m not an idiot.
Q.) Would you say that you’re a confident person?
A.) Confidence lets me know I’m making the right choice.
Q.) How do you delegate responsibility?
A.) You delegate accordingly. [New Marines] only listen to you if they have some modicum of respect for you. So you need to distinguish yourself as either someone who knows what’s going on, or somebody who doesn’t.
Q. How do you share leadership and break up responsibility?
A.) We just converse. It’s a matter of what needs to be done, and who can get it done the best.
Q.) How often do you lead people?
A.) Every day.
Q.) How do you encourage leadership in others?
A.) It’s always said make them into leaders. People who obviously distinguish themselves as being competent, they will naturally grow into leaders. It’s not about the people above them.
Q.) If you recognize you’ve got somebody who’s a strong leader, what do you do?
A.) Let them do their thing.
Q.) What’s more important, your rank or your personal authority?
A.) Your authority. I’m filling a sergeant’s billet.
Q.) How did you become versed in all those things that just seem second nature today?
A.) Well, when I was [new], I just made an effort to learn as much as I could so I would be efficient as I picked up rank.
Q.) Is there satisfaction for you in leading?
A.) When things go well.
Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi: Grenadier
An Odessa, N.Y., native, Tomassi can’t seem to ever stop smiling, even when told to. He’s been in the Marine Corps for two years, and this is his first deployment to Afghanistan. Being the new guy, he’s often called on to complete miscellaneous projects. His goofy smile fades from time-to-time, but Tomassi’s go-to-it attitude and optimism carry him.
Q.) What do you think about being so young in the infantry on your first deployment?
A.) I’m 20 years old, I’m in the Marine Corps, and my job is very important. I have a bunch of responsibilities on my shoulders. I’ve always been told just because you’re younger you can’t do this. But out here we’re proving them all wrong. I’ve got 17 and 18-year-old friends here holding [rifles], running towards gunfire. I’d rather have those guys protecting my back than anybody else.
Q.) When you’re going on a patrol, what are some of the thoughts going through your mind?
A.) The safety of the guys around me and doing my best to assure we return with the same guys uninjured.
Q.) What kind of connection do you have with the guys you work with?
A.) I definitely have a strong connection with all the guys. I’ve known these guys since January when I came to 1/9. We’ve been through [extensive] training and all the ups and downs of the Marine Corps.
Q.) Do you self-criticize or take critique from others and apply that to the next patrol?
A.) I try to learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others just so nothing bad happens the next time, and I try to use that to better myself and the other Marines I’m with.
Q.) What have been your favorite parts on this deployment?
A.) Hanging out with the guys and all the experiences we’ve gone through. Even if it’s a bad time, it’s an experience I’m able to share with the guys. I wouldn’t have it any other way. These guys are my family. I couldn’t see myself doing anything without them.
Q.) What thoughts run through your head when you guys get fired at by the enemy?
A.) The first thing is get down (smiling) and then try to find out where the fire is coming from. Hopefully we get through this, take down the enemy, and get home safe.
Q.) What type of camaraderie do you have with the Marines?
A.) Going through the worst times possible has brought us close. We were [training in] Bridgeport, Calif., and it was from -15 to 15 degrees, and we went through that together. Having to rely on each other to survive brought us close.
Q.) Would you take a bullet for these guys?
A.) I’d definitely take a bullet for these guys, in a heartbeat.
A.) They come before me. Most of these guys have a wife and kids. And that’s why I signed up, to protect them.
Q.) Could you imagine doing anything else?
A.) I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’m protecting and serving my country. I’m doing what I like to do and just knowing everyone’s back home safe and that I’m here just makes me feel a lot better.
Cpl. Dennis Cox: Scout Sniper
This is Cox’s third deployment and his second to Afghanistan. The New York City native enlisted at the age of 18, inspired in part by the events of 9/11. He left for his first deployment as a rifleman. Now, at the age of 24, he’s returned to Afghanistan as a sniper supporting Marines conducting foot patrols in Helmand province. Cox is both serious and relaxed but fun loving at the same time. He wants to continue his line of work after the military.
Q.) Why did you come into the Marine Corps?
A.) I’ve always wanted to do it. I always wanted to do something as far as serving my country.
Q.) Did you ever think of doing anything else?
A.) Not really.
Q.) What’s unique about your job that sets you apart from other people?
A.) I have the long gun, and I can see a lot further. I remember when I did my first deployment to Afghanistan I was a [rifleman]. I was like, “I can barely see these people. It was like shooting at little dots.
Q.) What about your job do you like most?
A.) Operating. I love being out there. I don’t know. It sucks that your boys are out there with you, but it’s like brotherhood through misery. It definitely helps. You don’t want to go through that experience alone. Not only out here, but even in garrison, you have a lot of stuff you have to deal with. You just deal with it together.
Q.) Have you seen yourself grow over the last several years?
A.) Oh yeah, I’ve definitely got thicker skin. I never really changed, just got thicker skin.
Q.) Have you seen how you fit into the bigger picture?
A.) [We] definitely instill some fear in the enemy. When you can get that close shot to them, and they watch [their guy] go down, it’s like, “We got to back off because these guys can reach out and touch me.”
Q.) Could you imagine doing anything else other than what you do now?
A.) Not really.
Q.) Have you found the Marine Corps a place you really fit into or
A.) I definitely think I was like this before the Marine Corps. I‘ve kind of grown as far as dealing with things. You can’t just complain about everything. You just have to truck on and roll with the punches. It kind of helps you in life, too.
Q.) Have you had people who inspired you along the way?
A.) I’ve had [them] all throughout my Marine Corps career. You always take the good things from people and just try and instill them in yourself. If you see the bad things, you’re just like, “Hey, I’m never going to be like that.”
Q.) What are some of the traits you’ve seen in successful leaders?
A.) [They’re] kind of like one of the guys, but [they’re] firm too. You don’t want to upset them because you feel like you let them down and that hurts you more than anything.
Q.) What characteristics make you good at what you do?
A.) I don’t know. I’m just me. I’m competent (laughing).
Q.) What’s it like to go out into the field and perform your mission?
A.) I love operating. Not all [missions] are home runs, and you do have some snoozers. It happens. But whenever things do go down, I love it. You get that adrenaline pumping.
Q.) How do you cope with the unpleasant things?
A.) We just have to vent to each other … We’ll just talk to each other. That’s it because our peers are all we’ve got out here.
Q.) What kinds of people succeed in the Marine Corps?
A.) Like I said, you don’t want to do anything to upset them if you’re under them. It’s hard to explain. They have to be guys who stand their ground.
Q.) How does the training and experience help you distinguish leaders?
A.) We’re going to find out if you’re worthy or not. It’s kind of like the Spartans. You need that experience because we’re going to find out. Either you’re going to go into baby mode or you’re going to become a man.
Q.) Have you found fulfillment in your job?
A.) This is what I always wanted to do. It’s definitely like a life achievement goal. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to have to think, “I wish I did this,” or something. I can grow old and happy knowing I made it.
The Marines selected for these interviews were chosen for their varied experience and leadership roles within their unit. They were told to stay true to themselves. None were in the military when the war in Afghanistan began, but they will be some of the last Marines to see combat in Afghanistan.