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U.S. Troops Train Afghan Soldiers In Troubled Helmand Province

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Afghanistan's Helmand Province has long been the deadliest part of that country for U.S. troops. Hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed and thousands more wounded there in seven years, bitter fighting that ended in 2014. Now, the Marines are back training Afghan soldiers rather than fighting insurgents. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story of one Marine who's returned.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Major Mike Manocchio admits he had a difficult time coming back to this troubled province.

MIKE MANOCCHIO: It was hard at first. It's not that I didn't want to be here. I did. It was surreal at first. But I had been here at the height of the war.

BOWMAN: Manocchio was a company commander seven years ago leading Fox Company, 2/9 Marines. They patrolled through fields, over canals and down the dirt roads of a town called Marjah. And they all spent time at a massive Marine base called Leatherneck, home to some 20,000 Marines.

MANOCCHIO: It's a ghost town now. It's like returning to the scene of a crime, I guess. I had a really hard time dealing with the sights, the sounds, the feelings, the smells for the first part of the tour.

BOWMAN: Leatherneck is gone. And these days, Manocchio and just 300 Marines are living inside just a slice of it, a small hardscrabble base with a less glamorous name, Shorab, which translates roughly to salty water. It's nothing more than a collection of trailers, Quonset huts and shacks surrounded by high walls and razor wire. Manocchio sits on a bench shaded from the baking afternoon sun by camouflage netting. He carefully unfolds a piece of paper and smooths it out.

MANOCCHIO: So I did take some notes - just some stuff I want to talk about.

BOWMAN: There were lines of small, tight handwriting.

MANOCCHIO: When I was here, I lost six guys killed in my company, probably took 10 times as many wounded. And what I'd like to do is just talk about those six guys that were killed a little bit. Actually, seven years ago yesterday, Lance Corporal Timmy Jackson was killed. He was the first guy we lost.

BOWMAN: Jackson was just 22 from a small town in Kentucky. His nickname was Mouse.

MANOCCHIO: But he wasn't like the small little mousy guy. He was kind of a lanky guy. Thing that stood out most was his big goofy smile and his - well, his Kevlar was just - seems like it was so big.

BOWMAN: Kevlar - another name for his helmet.

MANOCCHIO: It was sitting on his head just kind of canted to the side or whatever. But he was a good, solid kid.

BOWMAN: There were endless patrols for Fox Company around Marjah and endless numbers of roadside bombs. One of them took the life of Staff Sergeant JJ Cullins on the 19 of October, 2010.

MANOCCHIO: Real kind of laid back surfer guy, smile, always said dude; Just very refreshing to have him around.

BOWMAN: Eight days later, another roadside bomb killed Lance Corporal TJ Honeycutt from Maryland, just 19. Then Fox Company lost Lance Corporal Dakota Huse from Louisiana, followed by Lance Corporal Michael Geary from New Hampshire.

MANOCCHIO: His legacy is going to live on. There's a bridge named after him in New Hampshire that - there's a sign next to it, will always bear his name.

BOWMAN: And finally, there was Sergeant Garrett Misener of Cordova, Tenn. He was older - 25. Manocchio says he was the best squad leader.

MANOCCHIO: He was, you know, killed a couple days after Christmas. At that point, we're getting ready to go home, you know, just devastated. Arguably, really one of the strongest Marines in the company is gone. So those were the Marines of Fox Company 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines that were killed here in 2010.

BOWMAN: Manocchio wears a silver bracelet on his right wrist. It's inscribed with the Marine Corps emblem and a single name.

MANOCCHIO: This is for Staff Sergeant Cullins. His name is the only name that's on this bracelet. It just happens to be him because he was the senior guy. So I wear his name for everybody. And not a day goes by that you don't think about one or all six of these guys one way or another.

BOWMAN: Now, there's a new strategy to train and help the Afghans recapture the territory. Manocchio is part of that effort and like other Marines, no longer leaves this base. Most of the villages the Marines fought and died to clear years ago only slipped back to Taliban control when all the Marines left in 2014 and the Afghan army took over. He brushes aside talk of whether the sacrifice was worth it.

MANOCCHIO: Agree or disagree with the bigger picture, it doesn't matter because it's always for the guys on the left and right. And you have to just look ahead and say, OK. This happened. Now, what do we have to do to take Marjah back?

BOWMAN: And with that, he gets up and heads back to work.

MANOCCHIO: Well, excellent.

BOWMAN: Yeah, I really appreciate it.

MANOCCHIO: Appreciate it. Thank you. All right, I'll see you guys.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.