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Marines eager, wary about leading surge into Afghanistan

By Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer
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Marines ready for war
  • Marines, part of initial wave of Obama's surge plan, to head to Afghanistan this week
  • "I'm absolutely ecstatic about the situation," says Sgt. Jason Bendett
  • Questions remain on how Marines without Afghan combat experience can jump right in
  • "When we actually say goodbye, it's going to be hard, but we'll get through it," wife of Marine says

Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (CNN) -- On a base accustomed to deploying Marines into some of the most hostile war zones, you would expect some hesitancy when units from here were asked to surge into some of the worst fighting since the start of the war in Afghanistan.

This week, the first of 1,500 Marines will be part of the initial wave of President Obama's surge plan to head to Afghanistan's restive provinces to support Marines and soldiers fighting a dug-in Taliban force.

However, many Marines we talked to in this coastal, scrub pine-covered North Carolina base are more than excited to go, despite the dangers that await them.

"I'm absolutely ecstatic about the situation. I've got a good group of Marines that are behind me, so I'm real excited about the deployment," said Sgt. Jason Bendett of the 3rd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, based at Lejeune.

But combat deaths in Afghanistan are up -- 305 this year, from 155 during 2008 -- giving pause to even the most motivated Marines.

"I think I wouldn't be human if I wasn't worried, obviously this being my first combat deployment, but the Taliban are an experienced group of fighters, and I'm not taking that for granted," 2nd Lt. John Auer, also of the 3rd Platoon, said during some of his final rifle range training before he deploys.

Members of this unit say they have been waiting and waiting as they watched fellow Marines deploy ahead of them this year, and they say they are more than ready to go.

They were supposed to go to Iraq in June, but as priorities shifted, they were reassigned to Afghanistan's Helmand province, where Marines are in daily battles with the Taliban.

"Having months to train and putting Marines out in the elements in Southern California, where we train, gives them a chance to see what the atmospherics are going to be like and to work as a team, so this is perfect, and we are really looking forward to this," Auer said.

"These guys have a lot of training under their belts, more than Marine units typically get in this situation. Senior military leaders have a lot of big expectations for this team," said the unit's first sergeant, Ronald Neff.

Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, gave some of the deploying Marines an impassioned speech about what they will face.

"We don't have a lot of time. The slope on this insurgency is going in the wrong direction, and it has picked up, three years, each year to a significant degree," Mullen said, describing the deteriorating security situation.

"I believe the strategy that the president laid out, the decision that he's made, is the right decision. Both those are right, and we will now move out, given our orders, and we'll carry them out. And again, I couldn't be more confident and more pleased that you are going to be at the core of that," he told the hundreds of Marines in attendance.

Many of the Marines there are young and are facing their first combat deployment. Although all the bravado of a newly minted Marine ready for combat looks and sounds ready to fight, their eyes showed worry and concern for the unknown as they listened to Mullen.

"Best thing you can hope for is that you personally know yourself, that you're not going to freeze up," Lance Cpl. Matthew Jenkins said after Mullen's speech.

"We'll see how I react when it goes down in a couple weeks," said Lance Cpl. Joshua Williamson.

Questions remain, however, about how so many Marines without combat experience in Afghanistan can jump into a heated combat zone.

Mullen admitted some concerns.

One thing about the Marine Corps is that you always have experience wherever you go.
--2nd Lt. John Auer

"We're obviously not in an ideal situation with respect to that. I understand that, but I have a huge amount of confidence in our Marine Corps based on their ability to adapt, what they did in Iraq," he said.

There seems to be little worry among unit leaders in the 3/2nd LAR, who have been training and watching their troops grow in skills and confidence in recent months.

"One thing about the Marine Corps is that you always have experience wherever you go," Auer said.

"So we've got Marines that have done deployments before and the training they have given me, I'm confident to where I can lead my platoon, but I'm also relying on staff NCOs (non-commissioned officers) that have years of experience.

"That experience we have from the different deployments in Iraq, I'm relying on all the NCOs to carry their weight, and with that I don't think there is anything that can get in our way," Auer continued.

For the families of these Marines, deployments are never easy, especially when they know that their husbands and wives are moving to a region known for its hostility.

"I'm glad he's going where he's needed. It would be a waste for him to go where he's not needed and not be able to do his job," said Kim Durbin, wife of deploying Marine Lt. Dan Durbin.

"It's just not him in the Marine Corps, it's our family, and we are proud to be a part of it," she said.

Kim Durbin and her three kids, ages 1, 3 and 5, will watch Dan Durbin leave for Helmand province on his first combat deployment in a few weeks.

She appears strong for a young mother, but all the preparations a family does can sometimes bury reality.

"Well we're thankful he's going to be with us for Christmas, so we just want to enjoy the time we have together."

But Kim Durbin's eyes close, and she fights back tears that become a sob.

"I think when we actually say goodbye, it's going to be hard, but we'll get through it, and we want to enjoy the time we do have together," she said.

Families on this base are their own support system. Wives of Marines with husbands who have deployed numerous times help younger families get through the first deployments.

"It's very difficult, I think, for people outside the military community to understand what they have to go through," said Marine Capt. Eric Maedor, who returned from his third combat deployment to Afghanistan weeks ago.

His wife, Teresa Maedor, a veteran of keeping the family together while Eric is away, agrees.

"I don't think when you have 'X' number of deployments under your belt that it makes it any easier; you just know what to expect. You know what to expect next time as far as how you need to manage things. Sometimes you worry about them more; sometimes you worry about them less," she said.