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Marines endure fleas, flies, filth in Marjah

By DREW BROWN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 17, 2010

KAREZ-E-SAYYIDI, Afghanistan — By any estimate, the living conditions at Combat Outpost Coutu can only be described as grim.

Named after Pfc. Kyle J. Coutu, a 20-year-old from Providence, R.I., who was killed Feb. 18 during the initial push into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, the small camp sits in a sun-baked mud-brick compound that belongs to a local honcho who the Marines suspect is an opium dealer.

There are no beds, no showers, no toilets and no electricity. Chickens and ducks roam the bare dirt yard amid scraps of trash and rotting animal dung. Fleas, flies and filth are the grunts’ constant companions.

“It’s definitely rough living,” said Capt. Josh Winfrey, 30, of Tulsa, Okla., the commander of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.

The Marines of Company L have been living in the compound since late February. Unless they’re ordered to move into another sector, it will probably remain their home until they redeploy to Camp Lejeune, N.C., in August.

In the meantime, there’s little prospect for significant improvement anytime soon.

Over the next couple of weeks, the Marines of Company L will likely receive a couple of large tents to house their combat operations center, or tactical headquarters. They’ll get generators to power their battle-tracking computers and other mission-essential equipment. They’ll get air conditioners to keep the tents cool in the summer, when temperatures in Helmand province routinely soar past 100 degrees. Maybe they’ll get some weights so they can work out in their spare time, but probably not much else.

They can forget about living in the shipping container-sized trailers that many U.S. servicemembers call home at other bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marines call them “cans.” But the grunts of Company L are unlikely to see them at Combat Outpost Coutu.

“No way,” said Winfrey. “Not for us, anyway. Maybe if the RCT (regimental combat team) determines that this will be a permanent position, but not for as long as we’re out here.”

What about cots? “Hopefully, eventually, yeah,” Winfrey said. “But I wouldn’t bet on it anytime soon.”

Austere conditions are “just the nature of the beast” when deploying to the combat zone in Afghanistan, Winfrey said.

A big part of the problem is that there is simply very little in the way of infrastructure. In remote villages such as Karez-e-Sayyidi, a hamlet on the northeastern outskirts of Marjah, few traces of the modern world are visible. A handful of motorcycles, Toyota Corollas and minivans ply the rutted dirt tracks that link the villages in the area, and a few tractors are occasionally visible plowing the fields. Take these away, along with the precious few other modern amenities in Afghanistan — mobile phones, radios and automatic weapons — and the local villagers are pretty much living the same way they did a hundred years ago.

The dirt roads are in poor shape, and the threat of mines and buried bombs is constant, making resupply by ground convoy an unreliable proposition. Nearly all supplies are brought in by helicopter.

“The ability to provide long-term sustainment on a regular basis is very challenging here,” Winfrey said, with a bit of understatement accentuated by a deadpan voice resembling that of actor Gary Sinise. “It’s challenging just to get the basics. The priority for moving things back and forth is for mission-essential gear.”

Another factor is the Marine Corps’ ethos.

“Our mantra is being expeditionary,” he said. “And to be expeditionary, you have to be able to live with the bare minimum.”

In the meantime, the men make do. The only electrical power they have comes from a mine-resistant truck that serves as Company L’s makeshift combat operations center. An extension cord snakes out the back and keeps two large coffee pots heated around the clock. Batteries are recharged on a communal power strip.

The men share two satellite phones, their only link to the outside world and their families back home.

“I told my wife before we came out here that if you hear from me twice a week, be happy,” says Staff Sgt. Bryan Crowder, 32, of McPherson, Kan. “If not, then no news is good news.”

Until recently, the Marines of Company L ate only prepackaged Meals, Ready to Eat. But once they moved into the compound, supply helicopters dropped off boxes of Gatorade, juices, potato chips and power bars. Hot food is a rare commodity. An Army Stryker unit that pulled out of the area in early March left behind a stack of self-heating tins of Szechuan chicken, corned beef hash, boiled ham, cream beef and biscuits, but the food will soon be gone. Occasionally, the Afghan army company the Marines are partnered with invites them over for rice and lamb.

At night, the men sleep on camping mats and in sleeping bags or rolled up in bivouac sacks on the hard-packed dirt of the compound’s few available rooms. But the fleas and chiggers are often so bad that some Marines sleep outside instead.

Garbage and waste are disposed of in a large burn pit that a squad of Marines recently dug out by hand.

“We’re the Marine Corps’ improvised Bobcats,” joked Lance Cpl. Stephen Korbisch, 25, of Appleton, Wis., as he took a short break from the digging.

The only running water comes from an old-fashioned hand pump in the middle of the yard. If a Marine wants a shower, he has to fill up a large rubber bag and wait for the sun to heat the water, but it’s such a hassle that hardly anyone bothers. Most of them haven’t had a proper bath since before the Marjah operation started more than a month ago. They rely on baby wipes instead.

They wash their clothes at the pump, too, filling a large bowl or ammo can with water, throwing in a bar of soap, and working out the dirt by hand.

“It really doesn’t get them clean, but at least it gets the smell out,” says Cpl. Steven Atkins, 23, of Rochester Hills, Mich. Atkins, who has done two previous deployments to Iraq, says Afghanistan is by far the worst of the two.

With life reduced to the barest of essentials, some of the Marines say they’ve learned to appreciate the smallest of things.

“Last night, I was telling my wife how happy I was that I was finally able to get a bath and wash my clothes,” said Lance Cpl. Christopher Bello, 23, of Jacksonville, N.C., drying his desert camouflage trousers one night next to a small fire. “I feel like a pioneer in the 1800s.”