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Behind the scenes: Dreams of a power wash

  • Story Highlights
  • With all the mud in southern Afghanistan, everyone stinks, Barbara Starr says
  • Marines also wear heavy body armor all the time, adding to the discomfort
  • Armor is only heavy "until the bad guys start shooting at you," Marines say
  • Marines often travel in "7-ton truck" that's open in the back and sides
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By Barbara Starr
CNN Pentagon Correspondent
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CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and photojournalist Peter Morris traveled to southern Afghanistan with Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps.

Gen. James Conway, right, talks to a Marine in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

CNN's Barbara Starr is on assignment in Afghanistan, where she says Marines are living in very tough terrain.

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Our travels in Afghanistan continue.

I feel like the title of this posting should be "why I had to get power-washed in Afghanistan" or "the body armor is only heavy until they start shooting at you."

OK, now I will explain.

CNN photojournalist Peter Morris and I just wrapped up spending several days in southern Afghanistan with Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, touring the combat zone.

The Marines are living in some of the toughest terrain there is. It is remote and often raining. That means dust turns to mud, and you find yourself covered in it from head to toe. Stinky, cold, wet, oozy mucky mud.

The good news is, everybody stinks, so you lose any sense of self-consciousness about it. But you do dream of getting power-washed. So, yes, after a few days a shower was, shall we say, more than essential.

For the Marines, however, it is a seven-month tour of duty in mud in the winter and dust in the summer.

It seems very grim, especially when compounded by the fact that the Marines are wearing heavy body armor all the time. Ask them if it's heavy to wear, the typical answer goes something like, "It's only heavy to wear until the bad guys start shooting at you. Then it's OK."

The young Marines know exactly how tough the fight they are facing in the coming weeks and months will likely be. Several of them told me security had gotten considerably worse in recent days. Their bases were being repeatedly shelled by insurgents, several roadside bombs had gone off, and local Afghan police had died at the hands of suicide attacks.

Senior commanders usually have a more cheery outlook, but here in southern Afghanistan, everyone is cautious. Almost everyone is a veteran of Iraq and learned the tough lesson there about not declaring victory too soon.

Even Conway, who commanded U.S. forces in Fallujah, picks his words very carefully. He tells me he believes that everyone must be ready for a spike in U.S. casualties as the Marines begin to move into the region in greater numbers this spring.

All of this was rattling around in my head when I saw the Marines riding around in what they call "a 7-ton truck." As the name suggests, it's huge and has some armor plating on the sides. But what it doesn't make clear is that the truck is open in the back and sides. The Marines insist it is a safe way to transport troops.

For years now, the Army has used fully armored vehicles only in the combat zone. The Marines have a somewhat different view. They believe heavy armor isn't everything; sometimes being able to get around on the battlefield faster is better.

But then again, when someone starts shooting at you, I think you want all the armor you can get.

Next stop, Iraq. Yeah, there is still a war there, too.

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