GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan --
Lance Cpl. Robert Lemonte smiles as he patrols, at six in the morning, down the main street of the Safar Bazaar. He’s not smiling because someone told a joke; the Mansfield, Ind., native smiles because he recognizes the shop owners who are opening up for the day. He smiles because they smiled at him first.
“When I first got here, my first patrol through the bazaar was completely different from what I expected,” said the squad leader from Charlie Company. “Everyone was introducing themselves to me, inviting me in for chai. There was even a guy who wanted me to stay at his house for the night because he just wanted me to have me over.”
Lemonte hasn’t accomplished a feat that warrants this “bazaar celebredom;” he just doesn’t miss the chance to introduce himself to a new face. He has been nicknamed ‘the little mayor of the Safar bazaar,’ because when he patrols there, nearly everyone stops to wave, say hello or invite him in for chai tea, and it’s all a part of his job.
He patrols two times a day, sometimes three, with his squad and elements of Afghan National Security Forces. As he walks his beat, he isn’t just looking for suspicious activity. Lemonte makes a point to spend more time interacting with the people than patrolling, not because he is lazy, but because building a good relationship with the people of Afghanistan is part of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment’s mission in Garmsir.
“Lemonte basically treats the local nationals … like he was at home with his friends,” said Lance Cpl. Noel Desantiago, a member from Lemonte’s squad. “And that’s how all Afghans want to be treated. Lemonte knows that you just have to treat them like you would treat anyone else.”
Along with providing security, Lemonte’s squad supports the local community as much as it can, either by finding a place to start a program or by simply explaining why the Marine Corps is in Afghanistan.
“Interacting with a positive attitude with the local people is only going to bring about good things,” said Desantiago, a native of Porterville, Calif. “If you’re scared of them or point your rifle at them, they’re not going to trust you, and [they’ll] ask why are you here. It’s better to interact with the people the way Lemonte does.”
His supervisors and subordinates attribute his success at building relationships to his ability to genuinely relate to people from a different culture than his own.
“He is just the type of guy who is open to everything the locals ask for,” said Desantiago. “He takes his gloves off when he shakes [local people’s] hands; he covers his heart when he meets someone new; he gives them hugs; he is someone (who) accepts their culture, and that is what is unique about Lemonte. He doesn’t think it’s weird; he just gets into it.”
Lemonte’s bond with the local people allows him to tune in more closely to his surroundings. Without them, he would only be able to observe. He has realized that to help someone in need, he has to build a good relationship with them.
“Lemonte comes across as a genuine person,” said 1st Lt. Victor Barnes, Lemonte’s platoon commander. “When Lemonte speaks with village elders, who are often 60 years old or more, and they explain the needs of their village, you can tell that they see the genuine concern Lemonte has.”
Lemonte’s plans for the future include furthering his relationships in the community and providing the support needed to better the local people’s standard of living.
His platoon commander hopes more Marines will adopt the same approach.
“Just being out there isn’t going to win their confidence,” said Barnes, a native of Brunswick, Ga. “If you don’t sit down with people everyday then you’re wrong. You have to meet with people and build a real relationship with them. That’s the only way we are going to be able to help the local people; explain that we’re here to help and having their own government and is better than having [insurgent forces] in the area. And Lemonte does that.”