March 8th, 2010
03:35 PM ET

From fighters to fixers: Marines woo villagers

Yesterday I wrote a piece for Afghanistan Crossroads touching on the main challenge facing the coalition now that the fighting in Marjah has come to an end: winning over the local population.

Today, Monday, we saw first hand what that means. We went to the rough base of the Charlie Company to join a patrol heading to the village of Nasiri, outside Marjah. Mad-dogs, Englishmen and the Marines go out in the midday sun.

The purpose of the patrol was not to engage in combat with the Taliban, however. It was essentially a social call, intended to build relationships between the Marines and the people around Marjah. (Watch the video of troops practicing diplomacy in the village)

After trudging through muddy fields (some growing opium) and jumping (with packs and flak jackets) across irrigation canals, we came upon a group of farmers taking a tea break.

Twenty-two-year-old patrol leader Jerrod St. Orge greeted the farmers through his translator, and explained he wanted to meet the village elders to discuss their concerns. St. Orge was accompanied by 2nd Lt. George Russo, a Marine civil affairs officer.

“Can we continue to grow opium?” one of the farmers asked Russo.

He hesitated for a moment. “Yes, you can, but we’ll try to find you alternatives to opium as soon as possible,” he replied.

The farmers told Russo their irrigation canals needed repairs, that they needed new pumps, that they wanted schools to be built, they wanted electricity and they wanted more jobs for the people of the village.

Their wish list was long. The Marines have money to compensate for war damage to civilian infrastructure and to fund small local projects. At some point, however, real aid agencies will become involved, in addition to the Afghan government.

But in this day in Nasiri, the only representatives of the Afghan government, so to speak, were the 10 Afghan Army soldiers accompanying the Marines.

I found it ironic that the Marines, the same men who just a few weeks ago had been fighting, were now in the business of reconstruction.

Russo is bemused as well. An architect, he then became a Marine. “First I studied to build, then I was trained to destroy,” he told me. “And now I’m doing this.”

With their base — a dusty outpost next to an irrigation canal and a field of opium — on the edges of Marjah, the Marines patrol the area on a daily basis. Our patrol was one of the least tense I’ve ever seen either here or in Iraq. Villagers weren’t ordered to keep a distance or go away, kids trailed along, the Marines had learned a bit of Pashtu, the kids a bit of English so there was constant banter, none of it hostile. The Marines took advantage of their outing to buy potatoes to supplement their rations, along with cartons of cigarettes.

This kind of close contact, Russo says, helps in the transformation of their role from fighters to fixers. “We’re the ones there, up front, working day in and day out with these people, so they know more than some of the big agencies that  work from a planning room.”

soundoff (134 Responses)
  1. Jennifer St. Onge

    Does anyone know how I could contact the reporter from this article/video, I believe his name is Ben Wedeman?

    May 20, 2010 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  2. cindy stevens

    God Bless the Marines! You make us proud to be Americans. Oorah to the brave soldiers on the ground , Semper Fi from a Marine Mom Cindy Stevens

    May 4, 2010 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
  3. sandra

    Just want to thank all our us forces out there defending america.may god bless all of you

    March 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm | Report abuse |
  4. AUSTIN K

    GO MARINES!

    March 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. GRM

    "How to win a war" is what this piece should be called. I'm glad to see that someone really wants an end to the fighting. Firing the bullet is the easy part, keeping the people happy is the difficult end of the deal. The villages sound like they want a nice solar power station, satellite internet and a good shovel, not to much to ask for. Paying for those three things would be a lot cheaper then keeping a military deployment there for the next 40 years.

    March 23, 2010 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  6. CPLFig

    It's nice to see that someone's written a piece of truth! Since the begining of this war people in this country have only seen our occupation in Afghanistan from a (mostly) one-sided perspective: Marines are doing bad things and hurting innocent people. Most Marines carry out their duties and missions while maintaining and upholding the respect and dignity of the Marine Corps–just like this story shows.

    Keep up the good work Devil Dogs!

    –Semper Fi!!!

    March 23, 2010 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
  7. Mitch

    Still need to get out. Breaking our economy and running up a huge deficit all for freedom and democracy in Afghanistan.

    March 22, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bill

    Keep making us proud, Semper Fi

    "Once a Marine, Always a Marine" , "God Bless Them All".

    March 22, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ED

    To Johnny (79) who decided to display a lack of basic military education... There is no military internet Propaganda Specialists. But you truely outdid yourself with the Ho Chi Min quote. 1 Million North Vietmanese died in Vietnam to 60,000 Americans.

    And the story is what the reporters can find in Marjah. It seems to be something new and different but its the policy of the Marine Corps since the campaigns in Haiti and the Dominican Republic almost 100 years ago. From this experience they wrote Small Wars Manual. Seeing how you don't know much about history and probably don't study its lessons, I will give you the highlights. It provides guidelines on fighting insurgencies, establishing security, building infrastructure, and running elections.

    And for more Vietnam references, as you continue to think this war is exactly the same, the Marine Corps created Combined Action Platoons who worked directly with the Vietnamese people defending them from the criminals in the Viet Cong.

    History has a way of teaching us, we should all listen and learn

    March 22, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Matt

    Makes me proud to be a Marine. Keep up the good work boys and Semper Fi!!!!!

    March 22, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Andrew Lubin

    To Jryan, Post 113:

    The two main languages are Pashto and Dari. Urdu's not spoken in southern Afghanistan. Try to get your facts straight before you post any more snotty – and inaccurate – comments.

    March 22, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nick Danger

    Johnny,

    We are there to establish a democracy that will not be a threat to the region or anyone else. We are also there to assist the Pakistani's in controlling the extremist elements from destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear power. We are not the Soviets by a long shot. To compare us to them is ludicrous. We may very well be there ten more years, but it will not end up in the bloodbath that the Soviets created.

    March 22, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Devis Sri lanka

    the families of all the us and other international forces deserve great respect for their sacrifice in sending their children,husbands and wives to serve in Afghanistan.Also the whole world must contribute with what they can to provide basic human needs in this country when they ask for it with hope.prayers and blessings!! for marines and the peace loving people of Afghanistan !

    March 22, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Glenn Stover MSgt USMC (Ret)

    Carry on Marines, Job well done!!!!!

    Semper Fi

    March 22, 2010 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
  15. John

    All of the afghans that could run a country have already fled to greener pastures. What's left are the poor and the vagrant. That's why we're tasked with rebuilding the nation. That's also why we will never be able to succeed because we just don't have that kind of money.

    The real reason for all this is a lack of strong world support. More nations need to get involved to rebuild this country. It can't happen with guns and bombs. US is spilling too much blood in this war, too much money. The US cannot afford it and the consequences of these wars can be seen in the US debt and in their psychological state – they're increasingly desperate. They need help, big help.

    March 21, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Dee

    So proud of our troops.In the face of adversity you are doing good work.You make this Marine mom very proud.To my son who is there we love you and miss you.Semper Fi

    March 21, 2010 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
  17. Catherine Martinelli

    Semper Fi!

    March 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  18. sandra marie martin

    I am so proud of these young men. They are the best we have, and have worked so hard and given so much. I am sure that if anyone can win over the respect of the people, these soldiers will. America wants them all home, and safe. But we admire the job they are doing. These young men should humble us, and deserve our gratitude.

    March 20, 2010 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  19. Blue

    For Mr. Hausrath; I hear your protestation against the ingnorance of the Marines. Your argument pretends to stem from a wisdom that Marines do not possess, but your broad generalizations and clear lack of actual knowledge are manifest. How you can manage to simultaneously degrade both the Marines as pawns and the villagers as nearly incapable, uncaring throwbacks is a testament to pop-anthro "understanding" of the dynamics of the third poorest country in the world. In an attempt to portray a human political and development problem with a violent component as some kind of inscrutable and inherently unworkable situation, you find yourself stuck in a logic loop that takes you... nowhere. Afghans, including Pashtuns, are people. They each have concerns, problems, hopes and dreams. They are neither pathetic nor incapable, but they cannot begin to resolve their issues as communities under the sway of armed insurgents. Of all the troops in this country at this moment, the Marines are doing it best and setting a great example. The results are showing. I have nothing but respect for the Marines, although I am here with the Army. They're showing the Army how it's done.

    If you want to speak from an educated mouth driven by an educated brain, and you care as much as you portry, join USAID and bring your butt over here. Learn, see, do; then speak. A year here will change what comes from your mouth.

    March 20, 2010 at 5:29 am | Report abuse |
  20. Jryan

    Yup – uh huh. How many marines speak Urdu? Will you folks believe ANYTHING the government feeds you?

    March 19, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  21. KatB

    I am very happy to see a story like this. It is always good to see the positive things coming from Afghanistan/Iraq. I am very proud of those Marines involved in this story.

    People seem to forget, these same efforts are and have been being made in Iraq as well. There have been numerous small stories that have managed to slip through the liberal 'doomsday press' about our soldiers giving aid, helping a community, children, even animals in these areas. Sorry, Bush and Cheney eventually lost my respect, but they weren't all for death and destruction either. We just don't get to hear the 'happy feel good' stories from politically biased media. They have done more to drive up the animosity of the US and other countries opinion against us than the wars themselves.

    Again, great job Marines.....and to all those who proceeded you and paved the way. And good luck to those who will follow your tour of duty.

    March 19, 2010 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Melissa

    "The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, and the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps!"
    Eleanor Roosevelt, 1945
    I know this to be true, for I've raised one. They are the sheepdog that guard the flock when the wolves come slinking around.

    For those of you who continue to display either negativity or ignorance regarding the United States Marine Corps and their mission, I would like for you to know that if you talked to my son, if you asked him, "Why?", he would reply, "So you don't have to."

    Further: "There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second-hand opinion."
    Gen. William Thornson, U.S. Army

    Try to remember, as you sit on your high horse, straddling the fence–Freedom is not free, but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share.

    Semper Fi to my sheepdog, and to all of his pack.

    March 19, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Steve

    Outstanding Job Marines! Keep up the Great Work!! Semper Fi

    March 19, 2010 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
  24. YoYi470

    You guys must be proud of yourselves. Semper Fi.

    March 18, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
  25. Willie12345

    Good work, leathernecks.

    March 18, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Nissa

    Good to hear these stories instead of all the heinous things a very few of our troops do. I am proud of our troops and stories like this make me proud to be an American. I want to hear more!

    March 18, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Sgt. Ray Hill

    Keep up the good work, guys. We're thankful for all you are doing. Semper Fi!

    March 18, 2010 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  28. Chuck

    Well done Marines. Semper Fi!

    March 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Nate

    Its really wonderdful to see these types of stories being shared. I wish we'd see more of this. Reaching out to the people is a great way to earn their trust and respect, and a great way of finding out what their needs are. Well done. Thanks to all those serving our country!

    March 18, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  30. ahmad

    hi
    sorry to say that u people can be there for next 10 more years but u can't win the war u are fighting battle that u can never win my friend i hope u go home safe.

    March 18, 2010 at 4:25 am | Report abuse |
  31. Brad in Barrington

    It is nice to finally read stories about the ethics and bulldog tenacity of the USMC!
    Semper Fi !
    For anyone wishing to send a care package ti a United States Marine, the AA battery is gold.If you want to do good in the the US, there is no better charity than the USMC Toys for Tots.

    March 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  32. Nicole

    They didn't stop them from growing opium because they do not want to destroy their only means of income. The vast majority of the farmers are not terrorists, but sell opium to them either because they are forced, or because it is their only option for income. If we destroyed their fields without first providing them a viable alternative (such as wheat, etc), we would be taking away their livelihood and breeding distrust between the locals and the Americans.

    The ignorance of so many people in regards to their lack of knowledge about the military and how we operate never ceases to amaze me.

    March 17, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  33. Troy

    Everyone, please go back and read Stephen's post(#82). Read it, read it again, and read it once more....got it?

    To Nadeem – in response to your second statement (This is from Stephen's post #82) – "Remove the threat, rebuild the community and put the trust back into a safer local government."

    March 17, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
  34. Andrew Lubin

    Nadeem ( post # 97).

    Perhaps some villagers will take money from both sides, but many prefer the stability brought by Marines. Afghanistan has been at war-civil war since 1974; they want the same peace-stability-doctors-schools we have. But they want it on their (Islamic& Afghan) terms, which is good – it;s their country. And the Marines know this, so the 'ground-up' approach is far more popular than the ISAF-Karzai concept.

    March 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Report abuse |
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