A few weeks ago, FRANCE 24 filmed the first American unit to pull out of Afghanistan: the Marines of the "Darkside" battalion. In this follow-up report, we meet the same Marines again as they set foot back on American soil and witness their joys, fears and frustrations.
They’re almost here. After seven months in Afghanistan, the men of the 3rd battalion, 4th Marines are coming home. The very first unit to pull out of Afghanistan as part of the planned withdrawal is now in a bus driving down the highway towards 29 Palms Marine Combat Centre, in California, the second-largest military base in the world.
Friends and relatives have been allowed on base to greet their loved ones. They’ve been waiting on the baseball field for hours, putting the finishing touches to signs they have made for their father, husband or son.
We followed these Marines during the last days of their deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Their theatre of operations, the upper Gereshk valley, has been described as one of the most dangerous in the country. It is home to several hundred Taliban fighters, and since they left it has been handed over to Afghan security forces backed by a few hundred British troops. They will have a hard time containing the Taliban threat.
"They’ll be here in 30 minutes!", says the loudspeaker. Some families run to the gate. Those who are used to these homecomings know they still have a while to wait: once they arrive on base, the Marines must hand in their weapons at the armoury.
Another hour passes and suddenly families rush as they see the buses pull up. Tears, shouts, smiles, hugs…families and couples are reunited. Even those Marines whose relatives couldn’t make the trip out to California are greeted by friends.
Corporal John Goeken, whom we met in Afghanistan, has done these homecomings several times before. He knows being with family and friends again will take a little getting used to. "Deployments change you a lot, he explains. You mature a lot, and you wonder whether your family will recognise you after everything you’ve done."
Within twenty minutes, it’s all over. Everyone has gone. The Marines have several days off before they have to be back on base.
That night, they will enjoy their first drink and good meal in seven months. Some will also miss…Afghanistan. War can be addictive, and some of the Marines have only one desire: to go back. As soon as possible.
Over the next few weeks and months, some will also be pondering what they did in Afghanistan. Did it work? Could we have done better? Should we even be pulling out?