Former Flagler student talks about Marine life in Afghanistan

By Cal Colgan |

Last year, Zack Thomas Paull traded in his textbooks for camouflage and joined the United States Marine Corps.

After Paull’s unit, the Second Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment (2/9), finished its training in the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in Parris Island, S.C., the 2/9 packed for Afghanistan. Paull has spent the past 6 months in Marjah, an agricultural district in the Helmand Province.

Paull said that his stint at Flagler College proved to be a detour on his quest to be a modern-day warrior, but he doesn’t regret attending the school for a year.

“[S]ome of my fondest memories and strongest friendships were made there,” he said. “My original intention was to earn my bachelors degree at Flagler, then go on to join the Marine Corps as an officer. However, as time wore on I realized that I couldn’t wait four years to earn the title of Marine, so I withdrew.”

According to the USMC website for the 2/9, the battalion’s mission is “to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.”

Paull’s infantry job reflects the 2/9’s goals. While the USMC trained him as a basic rifleman, his military occupational specialty, or special job within the infantry, is an anti-armor guided missile man. Operating the vehicle-mounted Saber and Javelin anti-armor missile systems, Paull locks onto targets and fires missiles at Taliban and other enemy fighters.

Paull and his regiment seldom see such advanced weapons in the hands of the Taliban. He said compared to the average Marine rifle squad armed with M-16 and M-4 rifles, grenade launchers, rocket launchers and missile systems, their Afghan opponents are ill-equipped. As a result, the Taliban mostly use guerrilla warfare against Paull and his fellow Marines.

“The average Taliban assault involves sporadic, hit-and-run tactics carried out by 2-5 individuals armed with archaic AK-47s, medium machine guns, hunting rifles, and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], none of which they know how to employ effectively,” Paull said. “Even if we do encounter large enemy forces, if our squad’s firepower isn’t enough to repel them, all it takes is a radio transmission to call in close-air support from [Cobra helicopters, A-10 fighter jets, F-18 fighter jets], or direct fire support from mortars or artillery.”

Although Paull said his unit always outguns the Taliban, the most difficult part about fighting these insurgents, is locating them. He said that although the villagers in Marjah are generally friendly to the Marines, they are not always cooperative with giving information about the Taliban’s whereabouts, because several Afghan civilians have “disappeared” for giving the Marines information.

“[M]ost of the time the best way to find [the Taliban] is by making them come to us,” Paull said. “This usually involves walking around our area of operation for hours on end, waiting for someone to shoot at us.”

Paull’s uneasiness about the Marines making the Taliban come to them reflects the increasing number of U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan.

Paull initially had trouble making time for an interview over the phone or via Facebook’s chat service because his unit’s commanders had frequently shut down all outside communication ability, due to the regiment suffering casualties in the previous days.

It took more than a month for Paull to e-mail his responses to my interview questions, and when he did, the past two months had been the deadliest for Marines in Afghanistan, with the Marine Corps Times reporting 18 Marine deaths in the month of October.

Paull said that the increase in Marine deaths is probably due to the end of the farming season for the Afghan villagers in Marjah, and because the temperate weather makes it easier for the Taliban to fight. He said that there has also been an influx of Chechen and Pakistani insurgents in the area.

But Paull said Marine deaths due to machine gun and rifle fire are rare, due to the unit’s body armor and the short range of the Taliban’s weapons.

“The biggest threat is IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” Paull said. “[M]ore Marines have been wounded or killed by IEDs than anything else. They are heinous weapons because most of the time, they don’t kill the Marine outright, but leave him severely wounded. No doubt the Taliban have realized that this is the most effective way to impede our objective because IEDs are cheap, easy to make, difficult to find, and undisputedly destructive.”

But the Taliban in Marjah have been largely on the defensive since February. According to the Aljazeera English, the English-language version of the international news network based in Qatar, early February saw NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) sending 15,000 troops into key areas of the Helmand Province to fight the insurgents. Known as Operation Moshtarak (“together” in the local Dari language), the offensive’s first goal was to secure Marjah, known for being the center of the province’s opium trade. By the end of the month, Aljazeera reported, ISAF and Afghan forces wrestled for control of the agricultural town from the Taliban to civilian authorities.

Civilian control, however, does not necessarily mean life in Marjah is easy for the villagers. Paull said that walking around Marjah “is like stepping back in time.”

“All the houses are made of mud, there is no electricity, no indoor plumbing,” Paull said. “[T]he most sophisticated pieces of technology in the villages surrounding our combat outpost (COP) are tractors, which are only owned by the wealthiest farmers, and motorcycles, which are the primary mode of transportation for the locals. Our COP is surrounded by farmland and villages to the east, west and south, with open desert to our north.”

Although 2/9’s troops are not as impoverished as the villagers, the days where the unit is not in combat still do not involve much relaxation. Paull said a typical day for an infantry Marine in Marjah is based on a rotating schedule between duties, which include post, quick reaction force, and patrol. A squad of Marines stands at its post for 7 hours on the COP’s perimeter, providing security for the area.

When the squads change security duty, the outgoing Marine squad serves as a quick reaction force (QRF), providing backup if the patrolling squad needs assistance in the event of a fire fight, a wounded Marine, or an IED. Paull said QRF can sometimes serve as an unofficial rest period, because not every patrol comes in contact with the Taliban or an IED. After QRF, Paull and his fellow Marines go on a 7-hour patrol block, often leaving the COP in an attempt to bait Taliban fighters into engaging in a fire fight with them.

At the end of their patrol duty, Paull’s squad rests for 7 hours. During rest hours, he said, Marines can sleep or eat either meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) or, if they are lucky, whatever their makeshift mess hall is serving. If the outpost isn’t under restricted communication because of combat casualties, the Marines can also call home or go online. “[T]hen you get up and do it all over again,” Paull said.

Paull said his unit will deploy back to Afghanistan in Feb. 2012, but he is scheduled for to return to the states sometime this coming February, where he will mostly stay around Camp Lejune, the USMC base in North Carolina, to turn in his deployment gear, fill out paperwork and take decompression classes so he can be prepared for an environment free of gun blasts, firepower and IEDs.

“My next leave will be from March 1 to April 1, and I plan on spending the vast majority of it in and around the area of Flagler College with my friends there,” he said.

Paull said he has a 6-year contract with the USMC, and his active service ends in Oct. 2015. He said he plans on ending his enlistment as a sergeant, but he doesn’t want to sign up for another term, because Marines with higher ranks than sergeant generally have more administrative roles in the corps.

“I will retire after my 6 years as a combatant with the knowledge that I spent those years accomplishing the goal that first drew me to the Marine Corps: pitting my mind, body and spirit against the trials of warfare,” Paull said.

2011 Gargoyle Anthology Award Winner: Silver Award for News Writing (under the title “An advanced education”)

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