Lance Cpl. Daryl Crookston knew there would be casualties. That inevitability had been drummed into him as far back as boot camp, by drill sergeants and infantry school instructors, by fellow Marines.
But when two Marine buddies went down on a combat patrol in the flat scrub desert of western Afghanistan, it was so shocking that Crookston felt overwhelmed. One minute the two men were alive, and in an instant they were dead.
When he left for Afghanistan last spring, Crookston spoke passionately of his desire to fight for his country, to confront insurgents, to test himself in combat. When he returned home in December to the serenity of Santa Clarita, he was distant and withdrawn. He refused to talk about what had happened in combat -- not with his friends, brothers or parents.
In June 2007, Crookston and two high school friends from Santa Clarita joined the Marine Corps under the buddy program, which guaranteed they would attend boot camp together. The Times followed them over the next 18 months and chronicled their induction, their separation from family, and the rigors of boot camp and infantry training.
They were assigned to different units last year. Crookston was the first to deploy, to a desolate base camp at Bala Balouk in remote Farah province. Lance Cpl. Daniel Motamedi, 19, and Lance Cpl. Steven Dellinger, 20, envied Crookston’s chance for combat duty. Dellinger did not get his chance until August, when he was sent to Iraq.
At a rough-hewn base in June, Crookston, 20, was not as eager for enemy contact as some in his platoon. A few complained that their security patrols were boring -- repetitious jaunts through dust and strength-sapping Afghan heat.
“Anyone who has seen action will tell you that you may think you want to see action, but actually you don’t,” Crookston said one afternoon, sweating in the suffocating shade of a concrete guard tower.
“There’s a curiosity about it,” he said. “But most guys would rather it be boring than to have something bad happen.”
The three dozen Marines in Crookston’s platoon, part of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment from Twentynine Palms, were hot, tired and restless. Their small outpost, which did not yet have electricity, was nothing like the well-appointed bigger bases in the country. There was no Pizza Hut, no gym, no Internet cafe, no air-conditioned mess hall, no satellite TVs blaring ESPN’s “Sports Center.”
Crookston’s platoon lived in tents. They ate military MREs. There were two rudimentary showers and two flush toilets for the entire base. They washed their clothes in buckets and dried them in the unrelenting sun.
The dust was all-enveloping and the sun so brilliant it stung the eyes. One afternoon, someone left an oven thermometer outside. It registered 145 degrees -- the baked-ham setting.
The platoon’s mission was to support and train Afghan police officers, but Crookston had little personal contact with them; Marine NCOs did the hands-on training. Instead, Crookston and his buddies spent their days stacking food and water cartons, pulling guard duty, exercising and helping bolster security barriers. They also dug mortar pits, one of which was used as a latrine by Afghan officers.
They went on regular combat patrols, accompanied by Afghan National Police. Occasionally, rockets or mortars thumped down beyond the base walls, sending a joint U.S.-Afghan patrol racing into the desert in a futile attempt to locate the attackers.
Farah province had long been a backwater in the Afghan war, where Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters have gained control of large areas in the south and east. Now insurgents were expanding westward into Farah, trying to disrupt the Americans’ main supply route, which passed next to the base.
Throughout the summer and fall, Crookston saw several friends wounded or killed. He wrote to his parents after the attack that killed two Marines last fall.
“Everyone died except the turret gunner,” he wrote. “None of the others stood a chance or were recognizable for that matter.”
And that was all he intended to say about it.
If anyone was the ringleader among the three high school seniors in early 2007, it was Daniel Motamedi. He was the first to consider joining the Corps, the first to read books on military history and Marine traditions, and the one who persuaded his friends to enlist.
Last fall, with Crookston in Afghanistan and Dellinger posted to Iraq, Motamedi was stuck at Camp Pendleton. Respiratory problems prevented him from leaving with his unit when it shipped out in May for duty in the Pacific and Indian oceans. He passes his days sorting mail, picking up trash, standing guard, exercising at the gym.
It was hardly what he had envisioned when he persuaded his parents to sign papers for him to join the Marines at 17. He feels trapped by circumstances. “It wasn’t like I wussed out or tried to run away,” he said.
For now, the closest he has come to combat is playing a war video game with his barracks roommate. The two blasted away with virtual weapons, killing insurgents lurking in alleys.
Motamedi had excelled in infantry training, despite pneumonia and impacted wisdom teeth, only to come to this low point in his short military career. He wasn’t told that he was on medical hold until a few days before his unit -- 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines -- shipped out. “It hit me hard,” he said.
Now all he could do was await a decision by the military -- one that would determine whether he stays in the Corps and, if so, in what capacity.
His mother, Yasmin, was relieved when he didn’t deploy, though it pained her to see him so dejected. Ali Motamedi empathized with his son. “What’s the purpose of being a Marine if all you’re going to do is guard the gate?” he said. “That’s not what he signed up for.”
Motamedi, who lost touch with his two friends on the other side of the world, has begun to accept the fact that he may never deploy. He is considering a new military specialty, perhaps military law or computers. He has dragged out his high school textbooks -- “trying to keep up the old IQ,” he said.
He tries to be the best Marine possible, whatever the job. Even so, he said as he finished off another video game, it was disheartening “seeing your buddies go off to do something you wanted to do.”
Not like the movies
It was small solace to Motamedi that his lifelong friend Dellinger has spent several largely uneventful months in Haditha, in western Iraq. With the U.S. military trying to wind down its presence in Iraq, Dellinger’s unit is closing down its base and is due home in March.
“We’ve done the normal stuff that everyone does on a deployment, patrol, [guard] post, and other little things,” Dellinger wrote in an e-mail this month. “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”
He was alarmed when he heard that Crookston’s unit had suffered fatalities. He made a point of not telling his parents. “They’re worried enough already,” he said.
Dellinger said he had no regrets about joining the Marines, but had not decided whether to reenlist at the end of his four-year commitment.
His mother, Cathy Carlson, said joining the Marines had paid off for her son. “He needs the structure and the balance. It’s been a great experience for him, and I’m so proud of what he’s done.”
Dellinger “expected the kind of action you see in the movies and feels a little let down,” Carlson said. But both son and mother are grateful that he and his fellow Marines are safe and homeward bound.
“He knows he’ll have a whole loving family here for him when he gets back,” she said.
It was bitterly cold in the high desert of Twentynine Palms, but hundreds of family members stood for hours one December day, stamping their feet and waving banners as they waited for their Marines to come home from war.
The Crookstons arrived early, driving past homemade signs posted on a fence at the Marine base: “Prepare for Booty Camp” and “Operation Enduring Wifey.” They carried a more prosaic sign: “Welcome Home Daryl.” The family -- parents and two brothers -- wore T-shirts bearing the slogan of Daryl’s unit: “The Gunfighters -- Ready for All, Yielding to None.”
Wounded members of the unit, sent home early to recover, were in the crowd. The face of one Marine was burned and scarred. Other Marines limped on prosthetic limbs. Strangers hugged them and thanked them for their sacrifice.
When the battalion finally appeared after hours of delays, family members broke through restraining lines and mobbed the Marines. The Crookstons fought through the crowd toward Daryl, smothering him in hugs.
They asked about his back. He had injured it when his Humvee slammed into a berm in a sandstorm. His back was fine, Crookston said tersely.
He looked dazed. He hadn’t slept for a while, and he suffered from jet lag. Though coming home was heartwarming, he admitted later, it was also stressful and disorienting. Everyone wanted to know what it was like in Afghanistan. Did he kill anybody? Was he scared?
He mumbled a standard reply: “It was hot and sandy.”
Reluctantly, he agreed to accompany his mother the next morning to the elementary school where she works, to thank children for sending care packages. She asked him to wear his uniform, but he refused, saying he didn’t want to “stand out.” At the school, children and teachers asked about Afghanistan, and Crookston cringed. He changed the subject.
His mother, Kymmer, was worried about his mental state. If he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, she feared, he won’t seek counseling. “The Marines make them feel weak and not up to snuff if they go for help,” she said.
She did not press him. “I think he just needs to decompress, just get some breathing space,” she said.
Crookston’s father, Kim, said his son told him while he was in Afghanistan that he felt depressed.
“Daryl told me he knows he has issues to deal with, but he’s not ready right now to see anybody for help,” he said.
Daryl doesn’t believe he’s suffering from PTSD.
“No, no. No way,” he said. “There are a few cases when PTSD actually affects people . . . but I think sometimes it’s just people wanting to get attention or something.”
Crookston has decided not to re-up when his enlistment expires on June 17, 2011 (he has memorized the date). He believes the Marine Corps has made him a better person, a better patriot and a more appreciative citizen. But he’ll be ready to move on by 2011.
Sitting outside a coffee shop in Santa Clarita the morning after he returned home, Crookston marveled at how placid and ordinary things seemed. The people around him likely knew nothing of the war, he said, and probably rarely thought about it.
They certainly wouldn’t understand what it was like to plunge into combat and emerge unharmed, he said. He will never tell his family what happened in Afghanistan. “Not only do I not want them to hear about it, but I don’t need to put that on them,” he said.
He wears a bracelet inscribed with the name of a friend, Lance Cpl. Andrew F. Whitacre, 21, who was killed in action during one of Crookston’s patrols. His battalion lost 20 men, and 150 more were wounded. Crookston knows he could easily have been one of them.
“We all knew what we were getting ourselves into,” he said. “We knew this was going to happen.”
He came home with a combat action ribbon. He’s proud of it but keeps it tucked away; it gives him no pleasure to see it.
“Anyone you ask, it’s the ribbon they hate the most,” Crookston said, “because of what it cost to get it.”