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Brothers in Arms: Marine, Afghan soldier bridge two cultures

GARMSIR DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Less than a month into his deployment to Afghanistan, Sgt. Benjamin Maldonado found a brother in an unlikely place.

Maldonado crossed paths with Afghanistan National Army Sgt. Farhad in Garmsir District, an area in Helmand province that has grown increasingly peaceful due to coalition forces’ ongoing presence.

Had circumstances of military service not drawn them together, they would be as geographically distant as they are outwardly dissimilar. However, Maldonado, a native of Quinton, N.J., and Farhad, from Saripool province, Afghanistan, have become brothers-at-arms.

Although they don’t speak the same language, they are still able to communicate with each other, even if it looks like they are playing a game of charades with an interpreter.

Maldonado, who serves as a squad leader with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, said understanding the Afghan way of life is a critical aspect of counterinsurgency operations here.

“First thing is you must get to know the Afghan culture; that’s one of the first things Sgt. Farhad and I spoke about,” said Maldonado. “If you have a good understanding of their culture, then it makes everything else run a lot smoother.”

For the cross-continental comrades, closeness born of shared danger and hardship stands in stark contrast to the cultural divide between them. They eat U.S. military rations for breakfast and Afghan kabobs for dinner. They join forces on patrol. Each day they see each other for at least eight hours.

For some, living in such close proximity for seven months might become tiresome, but Maldonado and Farhad have already accepted each other as equals — as brothers.

“When the Marines come to Afghanistan they are our guests, so as they come as our guest it is our job to make a good friendship with them,” said Farhad, a squad leader with the 2nd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps. “We are like a family; we have to talk together. Maldonado and I are like brothers.”

After a month, Farhad and Maldonado have found they have more in common than not. Although Farhad is Muslim and Maldonado is Christian, each values religion in his life.

Maldonado said he and Farhad had grown more at ease with each other as they’ve learned about their shared beliefs, and familiarity between them allows each to function as a calm, effective leader.

“It’s basically just about being yourself,” said Maldonado. “Sgt. Farhad is himself around me, and I am myself around him; nobody is trying to outdo the other. We all work as a team. I trust Sgt. Farhad and his soldiers and they trust us, so that helps us work smoothly together.”

But their cordial, light-hearted relationship takes on a serious tone when they attend to their duties in the local community. On patrol, they share a serious demeanor, aware that even though their area is peaceful, the threat from insurgent forces is still present.

“We’re just a big team,” added Lance Cpl. Christopher Klump, an assistant patrol leader with 3rd Bn, 3rd Marines. “It’s not Marines leading the patrol and the ANA following; it’s both working together on every aspect of a patrol. I think the locals have noticed it and respect that it’s a partnership between the ANA and the Marines — and that it’s not one-sided.”

The Afghans, seeing that Farhad trusts Maldonado, have come to trust Maldonado as well. Now, when Maldonado takes his squad on patrol, they address him as Tohlala, a Pashtu word meaning “tall, black man.” Multiple times on every patrol, Maldonado is invited into homes to drink Chai and discuss local issues.

Capt. Brandon Stibb, Maldonado’s company commander, says their relationship has become a model for coalition interaction.

“I bring their relationship up in shuras* with local elders because it’s a great example of the personal partnership between Marines and ANA,” Stibb said. “And I hope that it spider webs in the surrounding outposts and eventually in the entire area of operation, because when the local people see Marines and ANA working so closely together, it gives them confidence in what we are doing here.” •

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