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US marines miss out on home comforts in Helmand

Amid the maze of trenches and dug in positions, mortar barrels poke forth circled by sleeping bags encased in mosquito nets and camouflage ponchos offering shade from the searing heat of the day.

Nearby a few industrious troops have fashioned small huts out of wire, sacking and dried up reeds. The lop-sided sign on one reads Home Sweet Home. A hammock strung from two trees offers somewhere to rest away from the beating sun.

This is Combat Outpost Sharp, the US Marines’ most remote base in southern Helmand, deep into Taliban territory in the notoriously lethal green zone bordering the river.

Here a few hundred Marines have set up camp in the shattered remains of a derelict school. The graffiti on the walls, childish pictures of planes next to Jihad proclamations, bear testament to the previous Taliban inhabitants who made it their headquarters.

Every room and hallway is packed with cots, next to each are neat piles of body armour, helmets, weapons, MRE (meals ready to eat) and the rudimentary basics needed to survive. Only the odd package from home, a United States postal service box bearing the words “America Supports You”, a pack of Cheez It crackers or some Close Up toothpaste stand out from the military paraphernalia.

Everything is covered in thick grimy film, blown in from the foot-deep powder-like sand outside. As a helicopter descends, giant rolling clouds of dust sweep like a tsunami over the camp.

Ants and rats share the accommodation. At sun down the mosquitoes buzz in from the surrounding canals while at night bats swoop low around the buildings.

A plastic toilet seat, ingeniously fashioned on to some ammunition cases over a cess pit are the ablutions while a series of tyres and bars strapped to wooden posts make up the “gym”.

The camp – officially called COP Sher (Lion) but renamed by Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines after Lance Corporal Charles “Seth” Sharp - a popular 20-year-old from Georgia who was killed on the day they arrived in July - is fortified with large Hesco barriers on top of which sit make shift look out posts fashioned out of wood and sand bags, from where sentries maintain a constant look out into hostile territory beyond. Almost every day involves a battle in this Taliban heart land.

“Welcomed to paradise,” grinned one US Marine. Bar the insignia on the uniforms and the tattoos, it is identical to the British forward bases – conditions their forefathers of the Great War might have recognised. Even the black humour remains the same.

To the young American Marines – who pride themselves on living rough – it is a source of some amusement that the British believe that they operate in considerably more luxury than our troops.

Ask an English squaddie what he thinks of the way his wealthier coalition counterparts live and he will respond: “five flavours of ice cream...and they get lobster and steak on Sundays”.

War weary Brits passing through the big American bases on their way home are greeted by the sight of a dazzling array of fast food joints, palatial canteens packed with fridges overflowing with cold drinks and shops offering anything from Harley Davidson motorcycles to wide screen TVs. It only helps to reinforce the belief that while “our boys” endure deprivation and squalor, our north Atlantic chums are living it up.

But for once the tables are turned in Helmand, where the British have established a foothold for three years while thousands of US Marines have had but a few months to make it their home.

The sprawling Camp Leatherneck, which has sprung up next to the main British base in the Helmand desert is reminiscent of Camp Bastion’s early days, rows of 12 man tents, blast barriers and ISO containers endlessly buffeted by swirling sand clouds blown up from as yet ungravelled roads. Another tent contains the “chow hall”, a basic field kitchen, while a third houses a PX shop offering a limited amount of luxuries of cold drinks, toiletries snacks and basic electronics. For once it is the young Americans who peer over the fence and talk longingly of the British food halls and coffee shops.

And on the frontline the conditions remain the same. Last month an American commander criticised the British for their “standards of personal hygiene” in the field, apparently oblivious to the fact that re-supplying frontline bases is a deeply treacherous task and vital essentials such as ammunition and drinking water take precedence over anything but the most basic sanitisation.

Down in Forward Operation Base Delhi, Garmsir, which the US Marines inherited from their English counterparts in June, little has changed. The men still sleep in cots under the stars, wash their laundry in bowls of water and use flimsy, hastily made wooden toilets over less than fragrant pits. The only “luxury” acquired are the Afghan water tanks which now feed into the plywood showers, where once plastic solar showers hung.

The same enterprising Afghans, who had the foresight to purchase a fridge in these hellish temperatures, provide the only retail therapy in the shape of cold cans of drink for 50 cents.

Everywhere, there are still signs of the previous British inhabitants from the men’s magazines to the bible bearing the insignia of the Mercian Regiment. The graffiti on one wall says. “I’m a Sqaddy Get me Out of here.” Another reads: “To the Taliban – see you in two years. In 2010. Be ready. From the Gurkhas.”

The Stars and Stripes may billow next to the Afghan flag over the operations room but the Union Flag also remains, permanently stationed over the small cairn memorial that bears the names of the young British soldiers who perished in this lethal front. No doubt one day the same or a similar memorial will bear the names of the 12 young men this battalion has lost so far and those that will undoubtedly follow.

By then, the Americans will have constructed a few more home comforts for their men. As one Marine put it with rolled eyeballs: “Wait until the army and the air force get here.”

Already changes are appearing. This week at Camp Leatherneck a gleaming new DFac (dining facility) is due to open and it will not be long before Brits begin eyeing up their coalition partner’s ice deserts once more with envy.

The US Marines, however, will be doing their seven month tour without any hope of leave half way through. One can imagine a sqaddie proffered a bowl of Baskin Robbins or a boarding ticket home would take the latter.