HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Matt Garst earned the nickname “The Unbreakable Marine” during the campaign to pacify the area around the town of Marja.
Garst, a corporal with 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was leading a squad to establish a checkpoint in late June when he moved into an abandoned compound where his squad could set up an observation post.
That's when the world erupted in a shattering explosion.
“I knew I'd hit an [improvised explosive device],” Garst said.
Those around watched as the 6-foot-2 squad leader was hurtled more than 10 feet into the air. He was knocked out briefly upon hitting the ground.
“I was pissed, but I was fine,” Garst recalled. “I refused to be [evacuated]. I patrolled back with the guys and remember thinking, 'I hope I find the Taliban who did this so I can kill him.'?”
It was a day in late July when U.S. Marine Cpl. Shelton Persons first realized the particular kind of hell his unit was facing as it patrolled near Marja. Persons — of 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment — and 14 fellow Marines were moving along one side of a narrow river when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He saw a bush across the river moving. Then a figure pulled a triggering device, and a deafening explosion shook the ground. The Marines survived intact but with a new appreciation for the perils of the area.
“It feels like you're the new kid in school and you've got that eerie sketchy feeling that you're being watched all the time and you don't want to be there,” said the young Marine, whose wife, Sarah Marie Persons, is expecting their second child in January. “Nothing feels right in that city. We're fighting to win over the people in the city while we're fighting the Taliban at the same time. Sometimes it all blends together.”
At a press conference earlier this month, the outgoing NATO deputy commander in Afghanistan admitted coalition leaders had been “a little bit too positive” when the operation against the Taliban in Marja was launched in February. British Lt. Gen. Nick Parker said there were signs of success in the campaign now but that it would probably take four to five years for Afghan forces to be able to provide security in the area.
The Marines here have born the brunt of that struggle. And they have done it willingly.
“Those guys who've sacrificed their lives, their limbs, did it because we don't want our children 10 or 20 years from now to have to come back here to finish the job,” Persons said.
The Marines in the Helmand area are staging out of Camp Dwyer, a former forward operating base that has been expanded to fit an up-tempo mission.
Throughout the day, helicopters at the camp could be seen and heard flying in with wounded.
“We've lost some good Marines,” said Cpl. Levi Peters, 21, with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Peters' battalion has located more than 100 IEDs within the past two months in and around Safar Bazaar in Garmsir district in the heart of the Helmand province.
“We believe in what we're doing here,” he said. “They died doing their duty. People back home got to remember there isn't anybody out here who didn't volunteer.”
It was late afternoon, and this reporter, along with Garst and Cpl. Joshua Hosler and several other Marines, boarded a helicopter bound for the frontlines of the battle that has simmered and boiled here for several months.
Hosler, 30, was accompanied by Tequila, a 2-year-old black Belgian Shepherd. That breed of dog has an uncanny ability to sniff out explosives. Tequila has been on 142 IED location missions, the most of any dog in Helmand province. She stood on the ramp of the helicopter, patiently waiting to board.
“I remember at the end of July we were under attack after the helicopter got shot down,” Hosler said. “I was out in the fight. After it was over, we realized Tequila had stayed by my side within 10 meters through the whole fight.”
Those memories, both good and bad, have changed the Marines here permanently in ways that only those who have shared the experiences will ever understand.
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at email@example.com.