This is My Life: Marines in Afghanistan – Part II

Story by Marine Corps Cpls. Austin Long and Paul Peterson, Regional Command Southwest

The war in Afghanistan is the longest sustained conflict in American history. For more than 12 years, Marines have cycled in and out of the country. Most Marines today have never known a time when deployments didn’t loom on the horizon. It’s become a facet of their lifestyles, and it’s shaped the people who lived through it.

Now, as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end, four Marines with 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment shared a little bit about who they are as members of that select community. Their attitudes, leadership styles, experiences and reasons for serving are different. They’re honest and hopeful, rancorous and rash, proud and blunt. Three are combat veterans. One is serving his first tour overseas.

Last week you met Marine Corps Sgt. Brian Early, a squad leader, and Marine Corps Cpl. Charles Kristel, a team leader, as they shared their perspectives on life in the Corps, deployment, the war in Afghanistan and how their experiences have shaped them personally and professionally.

In the second part of this two-part series, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi, a grenadier, and Marine Corps Cpl. Dennis Cox, a scout sniper, share their insights on leadership, camaraderie and why they joined the Corps.

Photo: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi, a grenadier assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, searches for insurgent activity during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi, a grenadier assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, searches for insurgent activity during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi: Grenadier 
An Odessa, N.Y., native, Tomassi can’t seem to ever stop smiling, even when told to. He’s been in the Marine Corps for two years, and this is his first deployment to Afghanistan. Being the new guy, he’s often called on to complete miscellaneous projects. His goofy smile fades from time-to-time, but Tomassi’s go-to-it attitude and optimism carry him. 

What do you think about being so young in the infantry on your first deployment?
I’m 20 years old, I’m in the Marine Corps, and my job is very important. I have a bunch of responsibilities on my shoulders. I’ve always been told just because you’re younger you can’t do this. But out here we’re proving them all wrong. I’ve got 17 and 18-year-old friends here holding [rifles], running towards gunfire. I’d rather have those guys protecting my back than anybody else.

When you’re going on a patrol, what are some of the thoughts going through your mind?
The safety of the guys around me and doing my best to assure we return with the same guys uninjured.

What kind of connection do you have with the guys you work with?
I definitely have a strong connection with all the guys. I’ve known these guys since January when I came to 1/9. We’ve been through [extensive] training and all the ups and downs of the Marine Corps.

Do you self-criticize or take critique from others and apply that to the next patrol?
I try to learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others just so nothing bad happens the next time, and I try to use that to better myself and the other Marines I’m with.

Photo: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi, a grenadier assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, searches for insurgent activity during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick Tomassi, a grenadier assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, searches for insurgent activity during a patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 22, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Austin Long/Released)

What have been your favorite parts on this deployment?
Hanging out with the guys and all the experiences we’ve gone through. Even if it’s a bad time, it’s an experience I’m able to share with the guys. I wouldn’t have it any other way. These guys are my family. I couldn’t see myself doing anything without them.

What thoughts run through your head when you guys get fired at by the enemy?
The first thing is get down (smiling) and then try to find out where the fire is coming from. Hopefully we get through this, take down the enemy, and get home safe.

What type of camaraderie do you have with the Marines?
Going through the worst times possible has brought us close. We were [training in] Bridgeport, Calif., and it was from -15 to 15 degrees, and we went through that together. Having to rely on each other to survive brought us close.

Would you take a bullet for these guys?
I’d definitely take a bullet for these guys, in a heartbeat.

Why?
They come before me. Most of these guys have a wife and kids. And that’s why I signed up, to protect them.

Could you imagine doing anything else?
I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I’m protecting and serving my country. I’m doing what I like to do and just knowing everyone’s back home safe and that I’m here just makes me feel a lot better.

Marine Corps Cpl. Dennis Cox: Scout Sniper 
This is Cox’s third deployment and his second to Afghanistan. The New York City native enlisted at the age of 18, inspired in part by the events of 9/11. He left for his first deployment as a rifleman. Now, at the age of 24, he’s returned to Afghanistan as a sniper supporting Marines conducting foot patrols in Helmand province. Cox is both serious and relaxed but fun loving at the same time. He wants to continue his line of work after the military. 

Photo: U.S. Marine Cpl. Dennis Cox, a scout sniper assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regional Command (Southwest), inches closer to the edge of a dirt wall during an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

U.S. Marine Cpl. Dennis Cox, a scout sniper assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regional Command (Southwest), inches closer to the edge of a dirt wall during an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

Why did you come into the Marine Corps?
I’ve always wanted to do it. I always wanted to do something as far as serving my country.

Did you ever think of doing anything else?
Not really.

What’s unique about your job that sets you apart from other people?
I have the long gun, and I can see a lot further. I remember when I did my first deployment to Afghanistan I was a [rifleman]. I was like, “I can barely see these people. It was like shooting at little dots.

What about your job do you like most?
Operating. I love being out there. I don’t know. It sucks that your boys are out there with you, but it’s like brotherhood through misery. It definitely helps. You don’t want to go through that experience alone. Not only out here, but even in garrison, you have a lot of stuff you have to deal with. You just deal with it together.

Have you seen yourself grow over the last several years?
Oh yeah, I’ve definitely got thicker skin. I never really changed, just got thicker skin.

Have you seen how you fit into the bigger picture?
[We] definitely instill some fear in the enemy. When you can get that close shot to them, and they watch [their guy] go down, it’s like, “We got to back off because these guys can reach out and touch me.”

Could you imagine doing anything else other than what you do now?
Not really.

Have you found the Marine Corps a place you really fit into?
I definitely think I was like this before the Marine Corps. I‘ve kind of grown as far as dealing with things. You can’t just complain about everything. You just have to truck on and roll with the punches. It kind of helps you in life, too.

Have you had people who inspired you along the way?
I’ve had [them] all throughout my Marine Corps career. You always take the good things from people and just try and instill them in yourself. If you see the bad things, you’re just like, “Hey, I’m never going to be like that.”

What are some of the traits you’ve seen in successful leaders?
[They’re] kind of like one of the guys, but [they’re] firm too. You don’t want to upset them because you feel like you let them down and that hurts you more than anything.

What characteristics make you good at what you do?
I don’t know. I’m just me. I’m competent (laughing).

What’s it like to go out into the field and perform your mission?
I love operating. Not all [missions] are home runs, and you do have some snoozers. It happens. But whenever things do go down, I love it. You get that adrenaline pumping.

Photo: U.S. Marine Cpl. Dennis Cox, a scout sniper assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regional Command (Southwest), uses his rifle scope to scan distant buildings during an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

U.S. Marine Cpl. Dennis Cox, a scout sniper assigned to 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, Regional Command (Southwest), uses his rifle scope to scan distant buildings during an interdiction operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Paul Peterson/Released)

How do you cope with the unpleasant things?
We just have to vent to each other … We’ll just talk to each other. That’s it because our peers are all we’ve got out here.

What kinds of people succeed in the Marine Corps?
Like I said, you don’t want to do anything to upset them if you’re under them. It’s hard to explain. They have to be guys who stand their ground.

How does the training and experience help you distinguish leaders?
We’re going to find out if you’re worthy or not. It’s kind of like the Spartans. You need that experience because we’re going to find out. Either you’re going to go into baby mode or you’re going to become a man.

Have you found fulfillment in your job?
This is what I always wanted to do. It’s definitely like a life achievement goal. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to have to think, “I wish I did this,” or something. I can grow old and happy knowing I made it.

The Marines selected for these interviews were chosen for their varied experience and leadership roles within their unit. They were told to stay true to themselves. None were in the military when the war in Afghanistan began, but they will be some of the last Marines to see combat in Afghanistan

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This is My Life: Marines in Afghanistan – Part II