Marines compare Iraq, Afghanistan tours
April 20, 2008
Editor’s note: Since the start of the war on terrorism, thousands of servicemembers have made multiple combat deployments. Many have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Stars and Stripes recently sat down with four Okinawa-based Marines who have deployed to both countries. Here are their takes on the differences between the two war zones.
For Gunnery Sgt. Scott Franklin, the recent nine-month deployment to Afghanistan gave him an opportunity to interact with the local populace.
It was something he said he wasn’t able to do in Iraq.
Franklin, 35, took part in the initial pushes into Iraq in 2002 and served there again from April to December 2006.
“In Iraq, getting from point A to point B wasn’t a mission where we could interact with people,” the Bernardston, Mass., native said.
Because the American troops had to focus on combat missions, “we weren’t well received,” he said.
That wasn’t the case at all in Afghanistan, he said, because of their interaction with the locals.
Instead of the scornful looks he and his unit got in Iraq, “as we drove down the roads, we got smiles and waves,” said Franklin, who served as the senior adviser for Embedded Training Team 4-2.
Two incidents during his Afghan deployment drive home his point, he said.
When he and other Marines were in the villages, they gave Girl Scout cookies and other goodies to the local children. In one village, he saw a shoeless child standing by the road.
Franklin said he felt he had to take the boy to a nearby bazaar and buy him shoes. When villagers saw this impulsive act of kindness, they showered him and fellow U.S troops with food and drinks, he said.
“That one little thing really opened up the villagers with us.”
He had a similar experience with Afghan soldiers.
While operating with Afghan troops and preparing to bed down for the night, Franklin asked one soldier which way was east so he could lay with his head toward Mecca and his feet toward the east. Sleeping with one’s feet toward Mecca is disrespectful in Afghan culture.
Franklin said that gesture changed the soldiers’ attitude about the Marines.
The soldier told Franklin and his troops not to bunk down in the area because it was a frequent target of mortars, and he showed them a safer sleeping area.
“The soldiers started to look out for us and protect us because they saw that we respected them,” he said.
Reminders of homeThe vegetation and terrain of Afghanistan was a boon for Staff Sgt. Christian Dunne, 33, from Fortuna, Calif.
Dunne, an operations chief with 14 years in the Corps, was an adviser with Embedded Training Team 6-2 in Afghanistan and served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
“I’m from the Sierras, so it was more my natural environment,” Dunne said.
The large, tree-covered mountains with rivers flowing through reminded him of home, he said.
That’s not the case with the arid desert of Iraq.
But the main difference was the missions, he said.
“In Iraq, right after 2001, we were removing the army, and now in Afghanistan, we’re rebuilding the army,” he said, adding that he’s aware that’s also happening in Iraq now.
New experiencesSgt. Michael S. Mahaffey, 29, from Marlow, Okla., was an adviser during his Afghanistan deployment, but he served with an artillery battery while in Iraq from January to June 2003.
In Iraq, Mahaffey rode in vehicles everywhere. But in Afghanistan, “I was walking everywhere, which is a big deal for an artilleryman,” he said. “We don’t like to do that.”
The nine-year veteran said working as an adviser was a big difference from his experience during the initial invasions into Iraq.
“It was my job to go with the Afghans to go in the towns and help the people,” he said. In Iraq, “I didn’t even talk to any civilians until the end of the deployment.”
In one way, Afghanistan was more difficult for Mahaffey.
In Iraq, he was doing what the Marine Corps trained him to do, he said. That wasn’t the case in Afghanistan.
“I was learning as I went. The first few months, it was very difficult,” he said of his recent deployment as a mentor to Afghan soldiers.
“But after all was said and done, it was extremely rewarding.
“The place was better when I left it than when I got there. I did my best to give an example of how to look and act” as a professional soldier.
Being a mentorThe role was one Master Sgt. Scott Ingbretsen relishes as well.
Ingbretsen, 38, from Spokane, Wash., was a company-level adviser in Afghanistan. He also deployed to Iraq three times between 2004 and 2007.
“The big thing is the reward I had as an adviser, mentor, friend” in Afghanistan, he said. “I taught classes to platoon sergeants and first sergeants and would then see them teaching those classes to their own soldiers.”
He saw them become mentors themselves and develop their own noncommissioned officers, he said.
In Iraq, he worked as an EOD technician and “obviously, when we arrived it was already a bad situation,” the 20-year veteran recalled. So he didn’t interact with the locals. “In Afghanistan, I actually built a relationship with local people,” he said.
This most recent deployment also has cleared up some misperceptions for him, he said.
“I know I had my own feeling of Islam and what Islam is about,” Ingbretsen said.
During the Afghan deployment, he built relationships with nonextremist Muslims who were hard-working, caring, intelligent people, he said.
“They’re just like us,” Ingbretsen said. “They’re good and bad just like we are.”
He said he’s also learned that you “can’t just lump everyone in that region of the world into one group” and call them all Arabs.
Something servicemembers should keep in mind is that “Iraqis are not Afghans,” he said. They are different ethnicities, they have different cultures, and those different cultures have shaped them into distinctly different people, he said.
“It would be like saying Americans are the same as Germans” since both are part of the Western world, he said.
He also learned that working in a Marine area of operations is different from working in an Army area, partly because the services handle counter-insurgency operations differently.
The Marines really pushed the Iraqis to take the lead in their own country, but Afghanistan is run by the Army.
“There isn’t the push there for the Afghan National Army to take the lead,” he said.