PATROL BASE FULOD, Afghanistan — The U.S. Marine swings his metal detector, scanning debris, rocks and swirls of soil for any hints of concealed bombs as he leads the single-file patrol. Alert, pausing often, the troops act like ambassadors too, lobbing smiles and candy at Afghan children in adobe-lined alleyways.
The 24-year-old sweeper, Lance Cpl. Patrick Hawco, was a child when the planes struck the Twin Towers. His school, near New York City, canceled classes — "everyone was freaking out," he remembers — and he went home. His parents were out. He sat and ate some cereal.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shaped a swathe of young Americans who were on their way to their middle or elementary schools or were already there when the first reports, bewildering and then horrifying, filtered into classrooms across the United States. They lived their adolescence in a nation at war, and now they are in the midst of the combat.
Those who were in their early teens largely missed the fighting in Iraq, where the U.S. role has been winding down. But still awaiting them was the longer conflict in Afghanistan, one whose end still seems distant.
"I'm more of the Afghan generation," said Hawco, who lives with about 30 other Marines and an Afghan army unit at Patrol Base Fulod in Sangin, a southern Afghan district where U.S. forces and Taliban insurgents have fought hard for control. The base is austere, ringed by wire, adobe walls and earth-filled berms. Sentries stand at reinforced posts, surveying lush cornfields in the river valley below.
By one measure, for these troops, Sept. 11 is an abstraction, as remote to their mission as their hill-top redoubt is from their homes in the United States.
For combatants on the ground, the Afghan war is cyclical, seasonal for insurgents and framed by deployments for NATO forces. Hawco belongs to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, the third Marine battalion to deploy in Sangin since British forces pulled out in 2010. Sixteen men in the battalion of about 1,000 have died. About 160 have been wounded; roughly one-quarter of those suffered loss of limb or eyesight.
The unit ends a seven-month tour in October, handing over to another Marine battalion. President Barack Obama has ordered the gradual withdrawal of 33,000 troops by the end of next summer and all U.S. and international combat forces will have left by the end of 2014, winding down a war launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, against the perpetrators and enablers of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ten years on, it is a muddy affair, marked by success, notably the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan, but saddled by doubt about Afghan governance and uncertainty over the war's ultimate goals.
The Marines in Sangin think in finite terms, of completing a mission to the best of their abilities in their alloted time. But back home, the long war is hard to grasp for many Americans: the waste and corruption in Afghanistan, the powerbrokers with insurgent ties, the disparate Taliban groups, the tenuous alliance between the United States and Pakistan, where Taliban leaders operate.
"It's really overlooked now. If you go home, a lot of people don't really know that Afghanistan exists," said Hawco.
He recalled how, a decade ago, people in his hometown of Tivoli went down to the Hudson River to gaze at the distant smoke rising from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Many young men joined the military in a "big rush" spurred by patriotism, Hawco said, though family tradition — a grandfather who served in World War II and an ancestor who fought in the Spanish-American war — played a big part in his decision to sign up years later. He wants to deploy to Afghanistan again next year.
Other Marines in Charlie Company's 2nd platoon at Fulod also associate Sept. 11, 2001 with school days. Lance Cpl. Jorge Pedroza of Long Beach, Calif., 20, was living in Florida at the time. He was in the principal's office, waiting to read announcements over the sound system to students at the start of the day. Instead, he watched television news of the attacks on the towers, which he had had visited as a tourist two years earlier.
"The school kept going. A lot of parents took their kids away. My parents didn't come and get me," Pedroza said before heading out on a patrol. As a young man, he joined the Marines: "I didn't have a lot going on in my life at the time. I wanted to do something with my life."
Men like Pedroza have a childlike aura. They grouse, but they are earnest, still new to life as adults. Yet they labor in an environment that inflicts experience hard or impossible for most civilians to grasp. All know Marines who died or lost limbs to bombs laid on routes they walk or drive. At the same time, they engage in complex diplomacy, a form of nation-building at the local level.
Around Fulod and nearby Patrol Base Mateen, this involves constant patrols in full body armor through arid landscapes and dense crop fields close to the river, encouraging farmers and elders to work with the fragile, American-funded district government. The Marines have pushed the Taliban out of parts of Sangin, once an insurgent stronghold. The military success is measurable, but civic efforts are in their infancy, reflecting the wider challenge facing the national government in a country without a deep tradition of statehood.
Pedroza, though, sees progress in his small piece of Afghanistan, for now. When he deployed, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, were plentiful.
"It was kind of like a minefield," he said. "We've seen a drastic change to the point where there's not a lot of IEDs anymore."
His platoon leader, 1st Lt. Mark Batey of Denton, Texas, said he will probably stare at the ground a lot when he returns to the United States, conditioned by months of trying to spot a tell-tale wire or soil patterns that might give away an IED. But Batey said that, unlike past generations of Americans at war, Marine "grunts" at a patrol base have access to comforts at nearby support bases. At Fulod, his Marines can call home on a satellite telephone once every one or two weeks.
"This isn't our grandfathers' Korea," said 26-year-old Batey. "It's a different war in the sense that we're in the frontlines but we can get our laundry done and check our email. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Marine at Iwo Jima who could get his laundry done."
He said: "Sometimes, I feel almost undeserving of all the luxuries."
He referred to the divisive experience of the war in Vietnam, when anti-war protesters denigrated returning veterans, and said the United States had learned from that experience because veterans of this generation were treated with respect, regardless of controversy over military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Heather Sedam of Carbondale, Kansas, who turns 22 in October, was sitting in school on Sept. 11, 2001 when a teacher entered the room and whispered to her classroom teacher. They wheeled in a big television on a roller cart, and by the time they got it into the room, the children were watching the second tower plummet.
"We could grasp that something was happening to our country, but we couldn't grasp who was doing it or why," said Sedam, who talks to Afghan women and children as part of the military's community outreach. On that momentous day, she said, a few children cried, but most were silent.
Sedam, who comes from a military family, joined the military right out of high school. She wanted to do something different, in the bigger world — "I went to high school in a cornfield, basically" — but Sept. 11 was on her mind as the 10th anniversary approached.
"It definitely hits home," she said. "You hear your parents talk about how they remember when JFK died, or our grandparents talk about Pearl Harbor. Sept. 11, it's our generation. We'll remember where we were and what we were doing."
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