Marines in war zone see horrors, risk side effects

SANGIN, Afghanistan — The Marines who arrived in the Sangin district of Helmand province in October have seen the kind of tragedy and combat stress that few can imagine — more than 30 deaths and 175 wounded, with scores losing arms and legs when they stepped on bombs.

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment and smaller Marine units attached to it are fighting to regain this key insurgent stronghold in one of the country's bloodiest regions.

At least 288 NATO service members were killed in Helmand province in 2010.

Many of the Marines in Sangin say they are coping by blocking out the horrors they have seen. Psychiatrists say that behavior is normal during combat, but it could trigger post-traumatic stress disorder when the Marines go home next month.

"It's a day-by-day thing and you don't know if you're going to be the guy to get hit the next day, so you just keep on pushing," said Lance Cpl. Derek Goins, who like most of the Marines in Sangin is on his first combat deployment.

Lance Cpl. James Fischer, whose platoon lost a man to Taliban gunfire the first time they patrolled outside their base, said he has become numb to even the most gruesome scenes.

"Afterward, you just don't get that shock anymore," said Fischer, 20, from Glendora, California. "You'll have to deal with it at some point, but right now the most important thing is keeping everyone around you alive."

Cmdr. Charlie Benson, a Navy psychiatrist who has visited the Marines in Sangin nearly a dozen times, said he has not seen an abnormally high rate of mental health issues in the battalion — although it's too early to tell who will have problems when they go home.

The Marines have stepped up their efforts to deal with combat stress in recent years by deploying additional mental health professionals with the troops.