CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - U.S. troops in Afghanistan face some of the harshest conditions imaginable-- temperatures are more than 120 degrees in the summer and there are no showers or home cooked meals.
But when former Army ranger Chuck Holton embedded with the Marines, he found morale surprisingly high.
The United States Marine Corps is known around the world for its toughness and tenacity. That tradition continues today in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are here to push out the Taliban. What started out as a seven-day mission turned into five months. It's hot in the desert region all year round and at times, temperatures can quickly rise above 100 degrees.
"It's intense," one Marine said. "There's really no way to escape the heat but drink water and sweat all over yourself."
Experiencing the Heat Firsthand
When I joined Bravo company, 1/6 Marines, it was already 120 degrees by noon. Marines stripped down to their shorts and escaped to shade wherever possible. Hot wind kicked up dust that covered everything with grime. The Men did their best to keep their equipment clean - a losing battle.
"I've been wearing the same pair of underwear for three months," one soldier claimed.
An hour later, a dust storm blew in bringing with it the first rain in months. That combination meant for a short while, it was actually raining mud. But nobody complained - it was the first relief they'd had in a while.
That night, we slept under the stars, like these men have done every night since they arrived.
The next morning, the heat returned, so stifling I thought I would die. The Marines, however, hardly seemed to notice.
The food here is filling and not much else. There are some hot meals, but mostly it's just field rations. These guys have learned to be creative, though.
"Mix in the potato sticks, get some cheese with that, mix it all together with the veggie burger and it almost tastes like a little taco salad," a Marine said.
That same resourcefulness showed through when it was time to head out on mission.
The marines always bring leftovers from their rations to give away to kids - which goes a long way toward winning friends.
This patrol didn't find any Taliban, so the Marines took the opportunity to document the owner of each house-- human intelligence for future missions.
Keeping Peace of Mind
Overall, it's amazing their morale can be so high despite the brutal conditions. I asked some of them how they do it.
"Every day you take out your daily bread and you read your verse in the Bible - and that pretty much keeps me sane out here," a Marine said.
"When you put it in perspective that so many went before you to fight for your freedom, you can't help but be willing to give a couple years of your life to fight for, in my case, my daughter's freedom," another added.
After eight months in the desert, the Marines of 1/6 came home. I caught up with them at camp Lejeune, where they are already training for their next deployment.
"They'll be home about six-seven months and then head to Iraq. That's the plan so far," Lt. Buckle said.
A Worthwhile Mission
In looking back on their time in Afghanistan, these men say despite the miserable conditions, the mission was worthwhile.
"I'm really glad we went out there and helped the local populace with everything we did," Lcpl Steve Chicos said. "We helped them push out the Taliban, and hopefully make their lives a little better and easier."
But more than anything, after this deployment, there's one thing these men are proudest of.
"As far as my platoon, everybody that I took care of came back," Lcpl Coz Balacz said.
"It didn't cost us any lives," Buckle added. "God was good to us, and my platoon came home with everybody."