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Three Marines, three paths

They joined on the buddy program with high hopes. It's been a hard road.

February 16, 2009|David Zucchino

BALA BALOUK, AFGHANISTAN — 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 When he returned home in December to the serenity of Santa Clarita, he was distant and withdrawn.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.

Kept behind

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.

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