By Marine Corps Lance Cpl. James W. Clark
Jan. 19, 2010 - Two men donned flak jackets and Kevlar helmets here Jan. 15 -- one set coyote brown, the other forest green, each with an emblem of their nation. Stepping out of their tent and walking with their squad leaders in step, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Galen P. Hafner, a platoon sergeant with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, and Staff Sgt. Gulwazir Harin, an Afghan National Army platoon sergeant attached to Alpha Company, prepared to set out on a patrol.
Throughout the battalion and within each infantry company, Marines and Afghan soldiers train, live and are preparing to fight alongside one another.
Until two weeks ago, none of these men had ever met. As U.S. Marines and sailors stand on Afghan soil half-a-world from home, Afghan soldiers stand a few steps away in equally unfamiliar territory -- many of them hail from northern Afghanistan.
Afghan interpreters work to translate Dari, Pashtu and English, bringing new meaning to Afghanistan's moniker as the melting pot of the Middle East, a title derived from its ethnic diversity.
The two platoon sergeants for 3rd Platoon traveled dramatically different paths to reach the road they patrol today. Hafner grew up in Bushnell, Ill. Searching for direction after high school, he found it in the Marine Corps, enlisting 11 years ago, when he was 19.
"I screwed off a bit in high school and didn't have a lot going for me," Hafner admitted. He comes from a family of servicemembers. His father was a sailor, and his grandfather and uncle were both Marines.
"I knew I was going to enlist," he said. "I just had to decide what service." Hafner said he spoke with recruiters from different services before deciding that the Marine Corps would take him where he wanted to go.
"My mom, right off the bat, was very proud," he said, "[and] maybe a little frightened that I wanted to go into the infantry, but very proud of my service. My dad was nervous, mainly because he knew how crazy Marines could be, and would throw away the recruitment flyers and brochures that were sent to the house."
On the other side of the world, Gulwazir found himself drawn into service as well, albeit for different reasons.
Growing up as a refugee in Pakistan, Gulwazir described his time there as one of tribulation and adversity before he made his way to Afghanistan to fill the rising need for soldiers, saying that he "had to come."
"A lot of people decided to join, many of them refugees, or poor farmers," said Gulwazir, who enlisted six years ago, when he was 16. "I want to do well for my country and for my [army]."
As he works with his soldiers, instructing them in a clipped tone and the creases across his brow tightened, Gulwazir seems less like a young 20 year old and much more like the seasoned veteran he is. He described the death of his platoon commander, who had served as a role model when he first enlisted, as one of the greatest tragedies of his life, even greater than the time he spent as a refugee in Pakistan.
However, for all the hardship he'd faced, Gulwazir breaks a smile as he talks about home, his wife and the infant son he has yet to meet.
"I love her very much," said Gulwazir, who has been with his wife for just over a year after their arranged marriage. "I knew her before, and liked her, but [I] am falling in love and missing her now."
Also separated from his family and children, Hafner met his wife while stationed in Naples, Italy, with Marine security forces. He has been married for six years.
Hafner, who has a 5-year-old son and a 19-month-old daughter, reflected on the challenges military life can have on a family.
"Through training and work-ups and deployment, you miss a lot of family stuff," he said. "On the last deployment, the poor conditions and minimal communication made it difficult. We've been fortunate enough to work through it." Hafner's daughter was born while he was deployed last year in Garmsir, Afghanistan. "Hopefully, I can be home for her next birthday," he said.
Although they come from different backgrounds and can't hold a conversation without a third party to interpret, the men share poignant similarities. Each is far from home. Each has a family waiting anxiously for their return. Each has come willingly and with a sense of purpose.
"I'm interested in seeing how [the integration] goes," said Hafner, who alongside Gulwazir, will lead the Marines and Afghan soldiers in the months to come. "We're part of their group, and they are part of ours."
(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. James W. Clark serves with the 1st Marine Division's Regimental Combat Team 7.)