Marines on way home face greatest danger

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COP JAKER, Afghanistan | Members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines are heading home, with the first units due stateside just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

For the rest, the most dangerous period is just beginning. It’s called the “Rip,” or “Relief in place,” — the time when tantalizing thoughts of home make it easy to lose concentration, and a new unit unfamiliar with the turf arrives to take over.

“Its too late in the game to be complacent. Its too close to going home to get blown up,” 1st Sgt. David Wilson howled at his Marines in the Nawa district of Helmand province when none would admit to dreaming of home.

The incoming forces, meanwhile, are at the forefront of what is expected to be a major buildup, with as many as 35,000 additional troops arriving over the coming months.

President Obama, foreshadowing a long-awaited announcement on his plans for the Afghanistan war, said in Washington on Tuesday that he is determined to complete the mission begun almost a decade ago against al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.

“After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job,” Mr. Obama said during a joint appearance with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“And I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we’re doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive.”

For the Marines at Combat Outpost (COP) Jaker, finishing the job means staying focused long enough to get home in one piece for Christmas. And that means there will be no holiday from duties on Thursday. Patrols will be conducted as usual, and checkpoints along main roads will be manned.

There will be holiday food, of course, if the helicopters and supply trucks can deliver it on time. But there won’t be the catered dining halls and decorations enjoyed on rear bases and featured on television news programs at home. It will be chowing down in the dust.

In case the helicopters don’t make it, Marines have three live turkeys purchased from villagers, stashed in a pen, awaiting slaughter and cooking over an open fire.

And on Friday morning, Sgt. Wilson and fellow noncommissioned officers will keep driving the same message:

“They [the enemy] try to take advantage of a new unit coming in and try to demoralize them with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades], IEDs [improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs] and sniper fire,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Lyne, of Charlie Company.

The 5th Marines, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., have been in Afghanistan since late spring and in the Nawa district since midsummer. They’re handing over responsibility for 400 square miles of desert and farmland and 90,000 people to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, from Hawaii.

About 500 Taliban gunmen were thought to be in the district when the 5th arrived. Most have been pushed into the neighboring district of Marjah, where there are no U.S. forces, but they continue to reinfiltrate in small numbers to intimidate the local population and plant IEDs, U.S. troops say.

“There are still people moving around,” said Charlie Company’s commander, Capt. Brian Huysman. “We aren’t seeing the 20-, 30-man elements anymore. It’s more three-, five-man cells planting IEDs.”

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