Local Marine in Afghanistan: 'I just have to stay alive'

  • Justin Blancas of Mount Prospect

    Justin Blancas of Mount Prospect

 
By Jason Gutierrez
Updated 2/18/2010 7:48 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan - For the U.S. Marines, including Justin Blancas of Mount Prospect, who are deployed to the battlefields of southern Afghanistan, life is fragile and thoughts focus on the day they see their families again. But something about this war is different.

They are now conducting an offensive on Marjah, one of the Taliban's big urban strongholds in the southern province of Helmand, but progress is slow with the militants preferring fight to flight.

 

The Marines will soon be joined by tens of thousands more soldiers, the lion's share of the 30,000-strong troop surge promised by President Barack Obama in December to try to turn around the grinding Afghan war.

Until then, the Marines are on their own. A foot patrol for one platoon of Marines one day ends with a dash under a hail of bullets across a heavily-mined poppy field.

The soldiers have been pinned down in a muddy mound, the thorny weeds cutting through skin. They recover soon enough, however, maneuvering away from the Taliban's crosshairs and driving them away with heavy machine-gun fire.

"I pray in the morning and at night, hoping that someone up there is looking after me," says Blancas, a 23-year-old lance corporal serving with the Marines 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment Alpha Company's 2nd Platoon.

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"I have already made my peace with God because this war is different; it's not conventional.

"These Taliban have learned their lesson. They adapt as fast as we do, but we are bound by our strict rules. They are not," he says, panting after a 100-yard dash for cover behind an abandoned mud house. "It can be a death run like this every day."

The U.S. and NATO troop surge will the push the foreign force to 150,000 this year, but Afghan and Western officials are also talking about a political solution to end the Taliban-led insurgency as its enters its ninth year.

To force the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table, however, U.S. military officials have said there needs to be greater success on the battlefield - and this is where the Marines come in.

Yet the challenges on the ground are immense. Fields are littered with improvised explosive devices responsible for most of the deaths of foreign troops in Afghanistan, which hit a record 520 fatalities last year. The area is also filled with opium poppy, which bankrolls the Taliban movement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Marines' mission is to show U.S. strength, assist in installing government control in Helmand province and let the local population know they have arrived.

But Taliban militants harass the villagers at night, warning them of trouble if they help U.S. troops.

Under the cover of darkness, they also plant IEDs in fields the Marines have to cross.

Blancas, a father of a toddler, has armed himself with his assault rifle, two rosaries and prayer cards stuffed in his pockets. It all comes down to one simple thing, he says.

"We do what we have to do, but I plan to be out of the corps soon and be Daddy. I just have to stay alive till then."