GARMSIR DISTRICT, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
It looks like Sgt. Jose Hernandez is teaching an elementary level anatomy class, but he’s actually learning the local language. He points to a local boy’s arms, legs, ears and eyes -- naming each body part in Pashto.
For the last month, Hernandez has been patrolling without an interpreter and has learned enough Pashto to hold a casual conversation.
“If they see me taking an interest in learning their language, it shows I really care about what I talk to them about and they take it as a sign of respect,” said Hernandez, the section leader of 2nd Section, Combined Anti-Armor Team 1, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
His immersion in the local community doesn’t stop at language.
Hernandez befriends everyone, from the children to the local elders.
While on patrol, he never turns down an offer from the local people for chai tea or a meal. Some of the locals have embraced him almost as a part of their family, referring to him as a son or uncle. His relationship has also led to several local tips about insurgents and improvised explosive devices.
“Hernandez keeps a positive attitude,” said Sgt. Christopher Colfer, the assistant patrol leader for 2nd Section, and a native of Philadelphia. “He makes them feel comfortable and that we are here for them.”
Hernandez’s friendships make the area safer for coalition forces and the local community. He has created a special handshake with one of the local children, which shows how close his relationships are with the local people. The local people trust Hernandez and his squad enough to put themselves at risk of being targeted by insurgent forces to help keep their community safe.
“[Sgt. Hernandez] is very good,” said Mohammed Mokhlies, a native of Garmsir. “He is my friend, and he brings good peace and security. We are happy to have all the Marines because they bring peace and security.”
Hernandez encourages his squad to emulate his efforts to treat the local people with respect. He includes his Marines when he is invited to a meal or chai tea, even if it means staying out on patrol two or three hours longer.
“The way they look at Sgt. Hernandez is the way they look at all the other Marines,” said Lance Cpl. Joseph Messina, a machine gunner with 2nd Section and native of San Diego. “When he goes up to the local people and is nice they accept him, it makes it easier for us to interact with the local people because they treat us like they would Sgt. Hernandez.”
For Hernandez, who is thousands of miles away from his family, the local people’s acceptance is comforting.
“Whenever I sit down with one of the local people, I feel like I am being accepted like at home,” Hernandez said.
“Since we arrived, we have gone from having the people resist shaking our hands to them inviting us into their homes,” added Hernandez. “The acceptance increases everyday.”