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Marine General Takes Fight To The Taliban

Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, walks to Camp Leatherneck after being dropped off by a helicopter during a day of visiting his Marines around southern Afghanistan.
David Gilkey/NPR
Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, walks to Camp Leatherneck after being dropped off by a helicopter during a day of visiting his Marines around southern Afghanistan.
Sgt. Maj. Ernest Hoopii and other Marines raise their weapons in solidarity after an address by Nicholson at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan.
David Gilkey/NPR /
Sgt. Maj. Ernest Hoopii and other Marines raise their weapons in solidarity after an address by Nicholson at Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan.

The leader of some 4,000 Marines who descended early Thursday morning on the Helmand River valley in southern Afghanistan is Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, a veteran of Iraq who was seriously wounded there five years ago.

Commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Nicholson has one of those lived-in faces — creased and craggy, like a boxer's or a veteran beat cop.

And he has the scars of a Marine who survived battle. It was Sept. 14, 2004, a day Nicholson remembers clearly in Iraq's Anbar province. The war was not going well.

That evening in his office, he was having trouble with his computer. He asked an aide to come look at the problem, and Nicholson stepped off to the side.

And then the room exploded. Pieces of the rocket tore into Nicholson's back.

"A rocket came into my office, killed Maj. Kevin Shea, who was my communications officer in there with me, and wounded me," he recalled.

Just under his left shoulder is an empty space that buckles through his uniform, large enough to swallow a fist.

"I lost most of my lats, my scapula was shattered. So I had a pretty good hole in my shoulder and back there," he said.

A New Fight

Nearly five years later, on this recent summer day in Afghanistan, Nicholson was pulling his armored vest over his shoulder and getting ready to head into the field, touring the New Jersey-sized area of Afghanistan where his troops are deploying.

In the village of Golestan, tucked between saw-toothed mountains, Nicholson strolled down the main street, a rutted dirt road bordered by mud huts and stalls. He greeted an Afghan policeman and a shopkeeper. Adults peered from windows. Chickens darted about.

The shopkeeper said through an interpreter that the Taliban take food and money, then vanish into the mountains.

Nicholson's challenge is fighting an elusive enemy that attacks and intimidates, then melts away. Even 10,000 Marines aren't enough.

"We're never going to have — even in our wildest dreams — we're never going to have enough Marines and soldiers to be everywhere," he said in an interview. "That's why having the locals take more responsibility in their own — hey this is my neighborhood, and I'm going to defend this neighborhood."

Back at the Marine's base, Camp Leatherneck, Nicholson reviewed battle plans and concentrated on the details.

"Just thinking about do we have everything ready? Do we have the right gear? Are we going to the right places? I think the one leader's lament that I don't want to have is, as we're on those helos and we're flying into the zone, is going, man I wish I'd done just one more thing, or I wish I had taken time to look at that," he said.

The Toughest Business

Nicholson, who went to college at The Citadel in South Carolina before joining the Marines, knows he will lose men under his command in the current operation to drive the Taliban from the Helmand River valley.

"I know this is a tough business, and I think you can't be overly naive about casualties. And I take each one of them personally, and I anguish over each and every one," he said.

At the end of the day, Nicholson assembled a battalion under his command to brief them on the upcoming fight.

Some stood and some sat on a patch of dirt outside their tents at Camp Leatherneck as the general grabbed a microphone.

With his Marines on the ground hunting the enemy, Nicholson will circle the battlefield in his helicopter, watching his plan unfold.

"Our job is to go in there and make contact with the enemy — find the enemy, make contact with the enemy, and then we'll hold on," he told his Marines.

"This is an enemy that's used to having small-scale attacks and having the coalition pull back. There is no pullback," he added. "We will stay on him, and we will ride him until he's either dead or surrenders."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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