This is My Life: Marines in Afghanistan

Photo: U.S. Marine Sgt. Bryan Early, a squad leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, leads his squad of Marines to the next compound while patrolling in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. Early is responsible for planning the squad's patrols, the safety of his Marines and achieving his commander's intent, before, during and after an operation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

U.S. Marine Sgt. Bryan Early, a squad leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, leads his squad of Marines to the next compound while patrolling in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. Early is responsible for planning the squad’s patrols, the safety of his Marines and achieving his commander’s intent, before, during and after an operation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

Story by Marine Corps Cpls. Austin Long and Paul Peterson

The war in Afghanistan is the longest sustained conflict in American history. For more than 12 years, U.S. Marines have cycled in and out of the country. Most Marines today have never known a time when deployments didn’t loom on the horizon. It’s become a facet of their lifestyles, and it’s shaped the people who’ve lived through it.

Now, as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, four Marines assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment share a little about who they are as members of their military community. Their attitudes, leadership styles, experiences and reasons for serving are different. They’re honest and hopeful, rancorous and rash, proud and blunt. Three are combat veterans; one is serving his first tour overseas.

A squad leader, scout sniper, team leader and grenadier – they’ve all weathered enemy fire during this deployment. For the most part they are where they want to be, somewhere between loving their jobs and simply enduring the miseries of deployment.

Meet two of the four Marines in the first part of this two-part series.

Marine Corps Sgt. Bryan Early: Squad Leader 
At 25 years old, this is Early’s third deployment. He uses his past experiences to lead his Marines today. A Libby, Mont., native, the Marines know Early by his natural, happy mood. He tries to think of his men as little brothers to remind him he is responsible for the lives of other people’s sons. He has a wife and a two-year-old son. 

What thoughts run through your head when planning patrols?
The other squad leaders and I sit down and focus mostly on the safety of our Marines. When we make our plans, we look at all the intelligence we have and plan around that while also keeping the commander’s intent in mind.

When you’re going through a firefight, what kind of squad leader are you?
I try to be as aggressive as possible. I know that’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around, but as an infantryman our mission is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy with fire and maneuver. So I try to instill that as much as possible in my Marines. If I show them that I’m scared, then they’re not going to be willing to follow me into that gunfire, but if I’m aggressive and happy and I’m the man to step out into the fire, then that shows the Marines that [leading from the front] concept and makes them more willing to follow me.

Do you approach everything with that aggressive mentality?
Yeah, especially in the Marine Corps. I try to be as aggressive as possible, but life outside of the Marine Corps you’ve got to step back and not be as aggressive. I’ve tried the aggressive approach, and it normally doesn’t go over well [laughing].

Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bryan Early, a squad leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, provides security for Marines moving to the next compound during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bryan Early, a squad leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, provides security for Marines moving to the next compound during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

Why are you the first one through the door and in front of all the other Marines?
I’d rather be the first one through the door so that if anyone has to take a round I’d rather it be me. You put so much hard work in training these guys; you want to give them the opportunities to not only succeed in the Marine Corps, but in life. If anyone has to take the bullet, I’d rather it be me. This is my third deployment, and I have six plus years in the Marine Corps. I’ve already had my time.

How does it feel watching your Marines operate on patrol?
I saw it when we took our first contact [with the enemy] that it was muscle memory for these guys. They never hesitated or choked and that’s the best feeling to have.

Do you regret coming into the Marine Corps right after high school?
Absolutely not.

Why is that?
Being a Marine was one of my dreams as a small child. My mom has pictures of me when I was four or five walking around in old Marine Corps tri-colors [fatigues] with a pellet gun at shoulder arms [laughing].

What kind of camaraderie do you have with your junior Marines?
One of the big things I learned as a junior Marine is that you train your Marines like they’re your little brothers. Always keep in the back of your mind that’s someone’s son. Treat your Marines accordingly, and they’ll give you the respect that you deserve. If I get hit, I don’t want them running out there to get me just because I’m another Marine. I want them running out there to save me because I’m Bryan Early.

Marine Corps Cpl. Charles Kristel: Team Leader 
He’s blunt and authoritative but also respected. Kristel, a Schenectady, N.Y., native was wounded during his previous deployment to Afghanistan. A stocky, deep-voiced man of few words, many unrepeatable in print, Kristel joined the military at the age of 20. After only three and a half years in the Marine Corps, he’s elevated himself to a position of leadership through strength of will, demonstrated competence and unbending character. 

Photo: U.S. Marine Cpl. Charles Kristel, team leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regional Command (Southwest), reviews his map during a break in an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

U.S. Marine Cpl. Charles Kristel, team leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regional Command (Southwest), reviews his map during a break in an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

What were some of the traits you saw in your leaders coming up in the Marine Corps that made them successful?
I would say doing whatever’s necessary. They made a point to do their job in the best manner possible and just succeed, as opposed to being mediocre because mediocre usually fails.

You hold a pretty senior position, how did you get to that point?
Being awesome at my job.

Did you ever picture you’d be who you are now?
Yeah, this is pretty much who I was before I joined.

What were conditions like during your first deployment?
It was a good time. It was considerably more miserable than this. Week one, we [moved into] a compound and lived in there for four months in north Helmand. It rained a lot and was very uncomfortable.

Why do you like working with the infantry?
Well, the infantry is the backbone of the Marine Corps. It’s what defines it.

There’s a lot of trust placed in you and other non-commissioned officers on patrol, how do you earn that trust?
Through my conduct it should be pretty evident that I know what’s going on. I make a point to make it obvious I’m not an idiot.

Would you say that you’re a confident person?
Confidence lets me know I’m making the right choice.

How do you delegate responsibility?
You delegate accordingly. [New Marines] only listen to you if they have some modicum of respect for you. So you need to distinguish yourself as either someone who knows what’s going on, or somebody who doesn’t.

How do you share leadership and break up responsibility?
We just converse. It’s a matter of what needs to be done, and who can get it done the best.

How often do you lead people?
Every day.

Photo: U.S. Marine Cpl. Charles Kristel radios another section of Marines during an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

U.S. Marine Cpl. Charles Kristel radios another section of Marines during an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

How do you encourage leadership in others?
It’s always said make them into leaders. People who obviously distinguish themselves as being competent, they will naturally grow into leaders. It’s not about the people above them.

If you recognize you’ve got somebody who’s a strong leader, what do you do?
Let them do their thing.

What’s more important, your rank or your personal authority?
Your authority. I’m filling a sergeant’s billet.

How did you become versed in all those things that just seem second nature today?
Well, when I was [new], I just made an effort to learn as much as I could so I would be efficient as I picked up rank.

Is there satisfaction for you in leading?
When things go well.

*The Marines selected for these interviews were chosen for their varied experience and leadership roles within their unit. They were told to stay true to themselves. None were in the military when the war in Afghanistan began, but they will be some of the last Marines to see combat in the country.

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