We pity the Brits, say US Marines in Afghanistan
American troops shocked by the standard of equipment their British counterparts have to use
Two months ago, 4,000 US Marines descended upon the Afghan village of Garmsir in southern Afghanistan and managed to take the territory over which the British had battled over for three years. Go big, go strong, go fast, their Brigadier General, Lawrence Nicholson, had ordered – and they did.
Yet yesterday there was a notable absence of arrogance among the new inhabitants of the British military's most southerly and often most lethal front. The Marines speak with nothing but respect for those who held this ground in far fewer numbers – the British servicemen who passed, as some might say, this poisoned chalice on to them. If anything, there is muted admiration for how they coped with less equipment, particularly with their vehicles.
With roadside bombs now the Taliban's weapon of choice and the greatest threat to troops on the ground, many in Britain have been calling for greater protection for British troops.
Yesterday, the US commanders of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) who now occupy Forward Operating Base Delhi spoke with admiration of the professionalism of the soldiers that they had replaced – but equally of the lack of armour on their vehicles and the fact that they had women serving on the front line.
The British Jackal vehicle could reach more sections of this inhospitable territory than the Americans' larger, heavier MRAP (Mine Resistance Ambush Protected) – which serves to point out the long-held argument that manoeuvrability is as important as protection. But the young Marines were in no hurry to swap places with the British.
"The biggest thing I noticed was the vehicles they drive. Your guys are friggin' gutsy. I wouldn't get shot at in one of those," said Corporal Aaron Helvig, 21, from Arizona.
Lance Corporal Sean Simmonds, 22, from Connecticut, was one of the first to arrive for a hand-over with the Light Dragoons battle group. "They know how to drive, that's for sure," he said of the British troops.
"They just go as fast as they can, they are not worried about being blown up. It is hard to find drivers like that. And their medics were awesome. I wouldn't mind working with them again at all."
For years in Iraq, the commonly held view was that the Americans had taken on the tougher fight in Baghdad while the southern area around Basra was the softer option. Today, no one is any doubt that the British have been fighting and dying in one of the most lethal parts of Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Christian Cabaniss, the commanding officer of 2/8, praised the British efforts.
"From my perspective, they were doing all the right things," he said. "They knew what they should do, they just didn't have the resources to do it. The plan we executed on 2 July had been done before but in pieces. We just had the resources to execute it all at the same time and stay. That is the difference.
"They did everything in their power to make our transition smooth. A lot of British blood had been spilled in the south and I see our part as a continuation of their efforts."
For some of the younger Marines involved, the hand-over was the first time they had ever met a Brit and, one conceded, he had rather feared they would be somewhat stuck up.
Instead the clean shaven, fastidiously polite Marines landed in Delhi to be greeted by the sight of a bunch of "bad ass" troops in shorts and flip flops, long adapted to this searingly hot, harsh environment.
"They were easy to talk to. I didn't expect that," said Sergeant Andre Livsey, 22, from Massachusetts. "We always think the British have higher standards, would think of us as a little immature. But we found out they are just like us."
Lance Corporal Antwuan Browne, 24, from Maryland, noted that "they swore a lot", explaining: "We don't swear when there are women and officers around."
Once they got over the "incomprehensible" accents, the Marines said, they began trading in time-honoured tradition; Marines gleefully swapping Light Dragoon or Mercian Regiment T-shirts and badges for their own, or their ration packs for a British one.
"You guys have got cool ass MREs [ration packs]. That tropical drink mix, tell them they need to ship that to America," said L/Cpl Browne who confessed to a new-found love for Scotch eggs.
Most of all, they stood in wide-eyed jealousy of the fact that the British, unlike the US Marines, allow women attachments to frontline units.
"I thought it was weird how the women interacted but pretty cool and they knew just as much as the guys," said L/Cpl Simmonds.
A stunned sounding Cpl Helvig recalled:"The first day a British female soldier just walked up to the shower in a towel in front of us, took a shower and walks away."
The Stars and Stripes now flies over shrapnel pitted buildings and sandbag fortifications of Forward Operating Base Delhi. But the Union Flag has not disappeared.
The US Marines moved the flag a few feet along, to flutter above the memorial to the 14 British soldiers who lost their lives here. Soon another one is to be built next to it, this time dedicated to the 14 men that the 2/8 and attached units have already lost in the two short months that they have been here.
"This thing is because of September 11 and it is more our fight but your guys are here to help us and it is extremely appreciated. We know that not that many people would be here for the Americans and we think it is really cool the British are. We have got each others' backs," explained Cpl Helvig.
Cpl Sheffer said: "It is like a brother situation. We fight all the time but it's just for shits and giggles. Somebody outside, like Afghanistan, comes to fuck with you and you join up and kick some ass."
"Yeh," interjected L/Cpl Browne. "Like brothers in arms."
Afghanistan in numbers
50-60 UH-60 Black Hawk
25-35 Apache (non-troop carrying attack helicopter)
6 Sea King
8 Apache (non troop-carrying attack helicopter)
6 Merlin to arrive by end of 2009