Despite their proximity, unit finds Iraq and Afghanistan are worlds apart
HADITHA, Iraq — Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t really that far apart on the map.
But they’re about as different as can be when you ask Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, who have served in both war zones, to compare the nations. The Marines refer to “here” as Iraq and “there” as Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Craig Plutchak, with the battalion’s Company G, described Iraq’s urban environment as claustrophobic.
“There, it felt like you could breathe,” said the 21-year-old from Mass City, Mich. “In Afghanistan, there was still a threat, but it was more open. Here, every time you go anywhere, you have to put all this stuff on.”
“All this stuff” refers to the gloves, body armor, helmets, ballistic eyewear, etc., that Marines have to don at some forward operating bases just to visit the bathroom.
The Marines out of Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, are currently serving in the Anbar province in and around Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwanah along the Euphrates River. This deployment began in September 2006 and came on the heels of a seven-month pump in eastern Afghanistan during the summer and fall of 2005. Not all the Marines who served in Afghanistan are still with the battalion, but the four rifle company commanders were in Afghanistan with the battalion.
“Of the guys that were in Afghanistan, pretty much everybody in the rifle companies got in at least one legitimate firefight,” said Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment commander, who also commanded the battalion in Afghanistan. “They understood coming here how it goes from zero to 60 like that.”
In Afghanistan, the Marines operated in a vast, rural environment, muscled through brutal mountain hikes and at times fought protracted battles with a visible enemy. There, the battalion lost four Marines.
In Iraq, the Devil Dogs work in a crowded, urban setting. They conduct patrols through relatively flat terrain and rarely see their attackers launching mortars, hurling grenades, detonating roadside bombs or sniping. Here, the battalion has lost at least 22 troops with more than 130 injured.
“Here, they don’t really stick around and fight,” said Sgt. Nathaniel Tatum during an early February mission in Haditha. “They try every sneaky, underhanded tactic they can. Physically, Iraq’s a lot easier than Afghanistan. Mentally, it’s more strenuous.”
Still, the battalion’s tour in eastern Afghanistan paid benefits when the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment arrived in Iraq’s volatile Anbar province.
“The character and the personality of this battalion was forged in Afghanistan,” said Maj. Keven Matthews, battalion executive officer, who was assigned to the battalion after its Afghanistan deployment.
In their experiences with the Afghan National Army and police, the Marines grew comfortable working with foreign forces so they were ready to deal with Iraqi army and police, Donnellan said. Culturally, the Marines also benefited from their Afghanistan deployment. Some of the customs transferred to Iraq, he said.
Not all of the Marines’ tactics, techniques and procedures from Afghanistan carried over to Iraq, particularly in running traffic control points amid the threat of bomb-laden vehicles.
“In Afghanistan, we could chuck some concertina wire across the road, get a little standoff and that was a [traffic control point],” Donnellan said. “That’s just not even close to what the standard is here — for good reason. There are some of our Marines who are Afghan vets who think they had it all figured out but learned very quickly that they did not … Overall, our Afghan vets are much better off for it from a perspective of working with a foreign army and understanding counterinsurgency — that it’s about the people, not so much about the enemy.”