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1/6 returns to Afghanistan; deployment vets guide junior Marines

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Walking off the loading ramp of a C-17 cargo plane and into vibrant sunlight, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment arrived at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, Dec. 15. Within moments, fine, beige dust clings to uniforms and warming layers are shed. Even during the winter, it gets hot.

The Marines grabbed their gear and loaded into rickety white busses turned brown from layers of soot and dust and set out to Camp Leatherneck where they filed into ballroom-size tents and picked out racks in search of a place to rest, while waiting to move out to their area of operations. For some, they’ve returned to Afghanistan after serving with the 24 Marine Expeditionary Unit, in 2008. For others, this is their first deployment, and in many cases, their first time outside of the United States. The past several days have been a blur of drawn-out moments of calm, which slip into frantic scenes of chaos as packs are emptied in search of serialized gear or other necessary odds and ends. Throughout it all, the seasoned veterans and the very new alike all strive to find and retain a level of normalcy. Marines get on phones in the early morning to hear the voices of girlfriends, wives and children as their loved ones back home wind down during the evening hours. Card and board games are played between training and work, as Marines and sailors seek out a routine that can be held on to throughout the course of their deployment. There’s a level of uncertainty tugging at everyone, it’s expected, but solidarity and encouragement are easily found amongst one another, remarked Lance Cpl. Brandon Bright, an admin clerk with Headquarters and Service Company, 1/6. “We’re not fighting some rag-tag group – they’ve been at war for well over 30 years, and are an intelligent and resourceful enemy,” said Bright. “I’m not as worried about gunfire; I’m much more concerned about [improvised explosive devices]. We can handle a straight-up fight.” However, even in the face of worries or angst, there is a general sense of purpose and direction, a thrill at belonging to something larger – something historic. “I’m excited to be a part of the effort to help train and mold the Afghan military in order to lay the foundation for them to provide security and stability for their own people.” said Bright, who is on his first deployment, and until now, had never left the United States. “The biggest thing that I think will help is to just keep some degree of normalcy – to keep your mind off of what might happen,” Now on his second deployment to Afghanistan with 1/6, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Esemann, the training petty officer for Headquarters and Service Company, 1/6, looked back on the change in perspective between then and now. “For my first deployment I was going into the unknown,” said Esemann, who served in a shock trauma team with Charlie Co., 1/6, on his previous tour. “It was my first deployment, and my first time working with Marines. It was hard for my wife and I. We had brief phone calls once every two or three weeks, so mail became the main way to stay in touch with family. Whenever that mail truck came, it was like Christmas, there were always care packages and gifts to share.” On the olive-green canvas cot near Esemann was one of the many red stockings that had been sent to the Marines and sailors of 1/6, from strangers halfway across the world wishing them a happy holiday. “When I first got here last year, there was that feeling of loneliness and uncertainty and that thought of ‘what have I gotten myself into,’” Esemann said. “This time when we arrived, the first thought was ‘I know this place,’ and I felt surprised by how much it had changed for the better. It’s familiar but different, in a good way.” Also on his second deployment to Afghanistan, which marks his sixth deployment overall, Gunnery Sgt. Richard D. Ayala, the company gunnery sergeant for Charlie Co., 1/6, commented on the difficulties facing Marines and sailors deploying for the first time. “Having to deal with a deployment this close to the holidays is probably the hardest part for most, especially those with wives and children,” said, Ayala who has been in the Marine Corps for fifteen years. “You need to stay vigilant and press forward, always taking that 30-inch step.” As he turned to leave, Ayala paused and added that above all else, being a Marine twenty-four seven matters the most now. “You need to remain focused and control what you can; don’t let your mind wander towards what you can’t.”