PATROL BASE BOLDAK, Afghanistan -- A horde of flies swarms above Cpl. James Baker’s head. They repeatedly swoop down and buzz around his face. He quickly swats one away, only to swat another moments later.
Baker has been standing inside of a sandbag bunker the size of an office cubicle for the past six hours. On his desk sits a MK-19 grenade launcher pointing towards the endless expanse of the Afghan desert.
Baker, a mortarman with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, and a native of Yarmouth Port, Mass., is manning an observation post at Patrol Base Boldak, Helmand province. It is a duty that lasts several hours in which Marines watch for suspicious activity and serve as the first responders in case of an enemy attack. Today, the only attack is coming from the hundreds of flies dive-bombing Baker’s face.
“I’ve killed like 80 flies…at least it seems that way,” said Baker. “They don’t go away. You can keep killing them and they just keep coming.”
A couple hundred yards away, an Afghan farmer is herding hundreds of sheep. That is all Baker really sees while on post. Every once in a while the silence is broken by another Marine’s voice on a radio.
Boldak is a forward operating base located near Camp Leatherneck. It is the first line of defense for the largest coalition base in Helmand province. It is occupied by the Marines of Weapons Co., 1st Bn., 25th Marines, a reserve unit based out of Fort Devens, Mass.
The guard post scene is typical for Marines at Boldak. For Baker, his day started before sunrise when he replaced another Marine on a similar several hour-long shift. In addition to his body armor and helmet, he wears a metal bracelet with the name “Cpl. Nicholas Xiarhos” engraved on it. Xiarhos was Baker’s best friend growing up. He was killed by an IED two years ago in the Garmsir district while serving with 2nd Bn., 8th Marines.
In a few hours, another Marine will relieve Baker. After a few more shifts, he will return to man this post again. This is his routine.
“Living on a patrol base is like living in a perpetual Groundhog Day,” said Cpl. Ryan Arsenault, a mortarman with Weapons Co., 1st Bn. 25th Marines, and a native of Boston. “Time kind of stands still. Your life stops, but the world keeps going.”
The perpetual Groundhog Day Arsenault refers to consists of routine…and more routine.
When the Marines here wake up, they shave, shower and conduct other morning necessities. However, there is no plumbing on Boldak. The Marines hygiene using bottled water with a hole punched in the cap and rear-view mirrors broken off armored vehicles to see their reflection. They shower using baby wipes or by grabbing some bottled water and stepping inside a room that looks like a telephone booth made out of plywood.
Once they are done with hygiene, the Marines quickly eat breakfast, which consists of Pop-Tarts, packaged muffins or dry cereal. From there, they go to work.
If a Marine is not standing post, he is on a patrol. If he is not on a patrol then he is cleaning or maintaining some part of the base, filling the generators with fuel or finishing a project like building a new kennel for the military working dogs.
If the Marines have any free time, they exercise in the “prison gym”, which is a collection of free weights located in a dusty, dimly lit tent.
At dusk, the Marines gather around a large wooden table and eat dinner together. On rare occasions, meat is taken out of a freezer and prepared with some canned vegetables in a makeshift barbeque grill made out of a fuel drum. Paper plates piled with food are delivered to the Marines who are standing post.
The conversations at dinner are reminiscent of friends meeting together at a tavern. In distinct New England accents, Marines can be heard griping about work and about the Red Sox losing their last few games of the season. They frequently burst out in laughter from the ruthless joking and needling going back and forth.
“We’re all from the same area,” said Arsenault. “We all love the same sports teams. We all know the same places. It’s different in the fleet where you have people from different backgrounds. Here everyone is almost the same person.”
If there is a patrol going out the next day, the Marines will gather around a map to plan and discuss where they will be patrolling. Once the meeting is concluded, the Marines retire to their tents to watch a movie. Some prepare the armored vehicles for patrolling the next day.
At night, the Afghan sky is filled with stars and the occasional helicopter or jet flying by. To the north are the bright lights of Leatherneck. To the south are the districts of Nad’Ali and Nahr-e-Sara, where firefights between U.K. troops and insurgents can be seen from time to time.
The next morning, the routine starts over again.
About once a week, a convoy will come in from Leatherneck carrying mail and care packages from home. Marines trade snacks and magazines sent from family and friends with each other and throw the rest underneath their cots.
Other than traditional mail, there is really no other way to contact home. Periodically, the Marines will rotate back to Leatherneck for a week of quick reaction force duty. There they will be able to use the wireless internet to get on Facebook and email.
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Greenfield, a platoon sergeant in Weapons Co., and a native of Spokane, Wash., enjoys being in the austere environment that he and his Marines have made home.
“I like Boldak,” said Greenfield. “I wish I could stay up here. There’s less going on. No phones or computers. It’s more of a sense of pride and ownership because we own it. The Marines have been working to making it our own piece of home.”
For the next several months, Boldak will be the Marines’ home. It will be their routine. It will be their life.