CHAPAWALA, Afghanistan — When 35-year-old Lance Cpl. Robert McGuinn enlisted four years ago, he knew what to expect.
But being poised to take part in a large offensive where casualties are a virtual certainty still makes for dark thoughts.
"Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a pit in the bottom of my stomach," McGuinn said during a recent patrol in some of Helmand province’s most volatile territory. "Sometimes, when I’m walking around (on base), I’m so focused on it that I’m looking at the ground, watching where I step."
For the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based infantrymen of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment who will be participating in the battle for control of Marjeh — the Taliban’s last major stronghold in Helmand province — it’s a time of quiet reflection as they prepare for what in the weeks ahead is expected to be one of the largest, and potentially most dangerous, military operations of the past year.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of bombs are likely to be buried around Marjeh, which features a sprawling network of canals and poppy fields mixed together with a busy marketplace, according to Marines.
With too few troops to challenge the Taliban in the past, the city has festered into a place where insurgents can plan attacks in other areas and also access opium stockpiles that are key to its financing.
"As of right now, we’re living day by day," said Staff Sgt. David Murray, 28, at a patrol base near the city. "We know we’ll take casualties. All of us know we may not be here the next day, but we’re willing to accept it. The reason we do it is for the Marines next to us."
Lt. Col. Todd Finley, who commands the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment, said it’s difficult to know whether the number of mines awaiting the Marines in Marjeh is as high as some intelligence estimates forecast.
"Is there a big threat? Certainly," said Finley, who commands an artillery unit near Marjeh that will be giving support to the infantrymen making the push into the city.
"Is it like the Normandy beachhead with mines?" said Finley, referring to the danger of improvised explosive devices in Marjeh. "I don’t know, but I would certainly make the assumption it is" when preparing for battle, Finley continued.
The Marines of 1-6, who deployed in December as part of the 30,000 extra troops being sent by President Barack Obama, have already taken losses in the build-up to the offensive. Last week, two of them were killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol just outside Marjeh.
Those deaths weigh heavily, according to Lance Cpl. Christopher Lima, a 21-year-old from Louisiana.
"I don’t want to lose any more friends," Lima said as he pondered the Marjeh battle.
Lima said he’s trying to stay focused on the mission at hand, imagining scenarios he will likely encounter.
"Last year, they (the insurgents) didn’t know how to fight," said Lima, who is stationed at Patrol Base Mahafiz. "Now they’re using better tactics."
Other Marines also say they expect to encounter a tougher enemy than they found on previous Afghanistan deployments.
"The Taliban are better shots. They don’t spray (bullets) the way they used to," said Lance Cpl. Miguel Otero, 24. "They’re doing more complex ambushes."
Thinking about his 2-year-old son and new baby due in March help take his mind off the danger ahead, Otero said. "I think about home a lot," he said.
McGuinn, who enlisted four years ago at age 31 and is one of the oldest lance corporals on active duty, said he was motivated to join the Marines to be a part of missions like Marjeh. The anxiety at the pit of his stomach on some mornings turns into resolve as the day goes on, McGuinn said.
In Marjeh, McGuinn will be working with the local population, seeking to build alliances through projects and humanitarian relief. During a visit to a small village bordering the site of the looming battle, there have been some cold shoulders from local residents during the Marines’ civil affairs missions. Taliban intimidation of residents is commonplace still, he said.
"They will stay intimidated until we take Marjeh," McGuinn said.