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Back to the Long War: Helmand Province Eight Years Later

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The goat trails and mud-bricked homes of Helmand were once deemed worthy of the lives of America’s sons and daughters. Christopher Jones returned to see what those lives had been lost to achieve.

Americans are first introduced to Helmand Province from the air. A mass of mountains gives way to sand, patched with green, snaking south along the Helmand River, a roiling brown crease at odds with the fields of poppy and sustenance crops it feeds.

I first met Helmand in November of 2010 from the back of a C-5 Loadmaster, a military cargo plane that’s been hauling American troops into Afghanistan since our war there began in 2001. A gaggle of 19- and 20-year-old Marines, myself among them, crowded around a small, circular porthole catching glimpses of the terrain below. The sergeants stayed in their seats. Most were Iraq veterans, and a few had already been to Afghanistan; they’d already crowded around airplane windows, nervously wondering if the sand 10,000 feet below them would soon become their grave. I had been a United States Marine for seven months, my shaved head both tradition and testament to my combat virginity.

I had not learned to hate Afghanistan yet. I was a believer in our mission there: not just defending America from its enemies, but helping the Afghan people take their country back from the Taliban, so they could one day stand alongside America as a free, independent country in a part of the world where authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations reigned with impunity. The calculus in my young mind was devoutly simple. When a public affairs officer gave us a briefing about encountering journalists on our deployment, he fed us prepared lines about counterinsurgency and supporting Afghan allies. What would we tell a reporter our mission was? Lance Corporal Richmond, who already had an Iraq deployment under his belt, spit out his dip and piped up. “We’re here to kill terrorists. Sir.”

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