Fighting for a People’s Future in Afghanistan

By DIVYA SUBRAHMANYAM Palisadian-Post Intern Returning home from his nine-month deployment with the Marines in Afghanistan, Lt. Collier Gregory gave a talk speech about his experiences at Calvary Church in the Palisades Highlands last Saturday afternoon. Family and friends from as far away as Texas held the reception for Gregory, a former Eagle Scout with Palisades Troop 223, who was on a week-long leave. The walkway to the church was lined with American flags, honoring Gregory’s service, and the foyer contained tables with trays of cookies for guests. At 4 p.m., people began filing into the church, where Pastor Steve Faubian led the audience in singing ‘God Bless America,’ and then in a prayer. A personable and entertaining speaker, Gregory began his speech with background information about his service to date. After growing up in the Palisades, he attended Villanova University and joined the Marines the day he graduated. Last year he was sent to northeastern Afghanistan, where he served as the executive officer of an infantry company of 200 men’his first time in combat. Gregory’s anecdotes of his times in Afghanistan were peppered with jokes, and he emphasized important events and people with video clips or digital pictures. These visuals depicted the dangers and joys of being a Marine’military aspects like explosives and enemies were enlarged on the projection screen, but they were overshadowed by the faces of smiling schoolchildren. Gregory, 26, was careful not to polarize his audience politically, instead focusing on the more human aspects of his time in Afghanistan. He touched on firefights and violence, but his true interests lay in helping local villagers. The most metropolitan of villages, said Gregory, had cars, motorcycles, shops and American-provided electricity, but no sewage system. One village visited by Gregory’s company was so remote that it had not seen foreigners since 1978, when Russia occupied the country. A philosophy circulating among the Marines, Gregory explained, was that they had three enemies: the weather, the terrain, and the people they were fighting. The land was rocky and dry, with much fighting taking place across mountaintops. During the summer, it was 130 degrees, but during winter, it grew cold enough for snow. The enemy, of course, consisted of various Afghan insurgent groups, or ‘anti-coalition militias,’ as they were referred to. The Marines overcame the language barrier with a Pakistani man they called ‘Recon Mike,’ who became one of Gregory’s best friends. More than an interpreter, he aligned himself with the Marines’ cause and would help them gather intelligence. He could blend in and easily communicate with villagers, finding out which members of the community were suspicious. A main problem in Afghanistan, said Gregory, is that the ‘overwhelming majority are against what happened on September 11, but they allow terrorist camps.’ To remedy this, Marines have been trying to show villagers another way to survive. ‘We were not trying to impose the Western way of life,’ but rather to share an alternative, Gregory said. Marines have built bridges, roads, schools, hydroelectric plants, and set up the very beginnings of an agricultural rice and wheat economy. Villagers, it seemed, were perplexed, though not angry, about the Marines’ stay. ‘They couldn’t comprehend why we would want to leave our homes and help them,’ Gregory said. But once they understood the Marines’ mission, they were very grateful. ‘They would do anything they could do to help us, often providing us with food, donkeys, and local intelligence.’ Gregory and his Marines wanted to ensure that all non-insurgent Afghanis around whom they were stationed understood that they were ‘not an occupational force,’ but rather an improvement force, present to increase their quality of living. ‘Most are very [in favor of] this new way of life,’ said Gregory, referring to the Afghani people he interacted with. ‘They see representation in a democratic government’they have a voice for the first time ever.’ Gregory emphasized the time he spent with schoolchildren during his deployment. He was a strong believer in helping children understand from a young age that the Americans were not there to hurt, but to help. ‘They saw us with guns,’ he said, ‘and I didn’t want them to associate us with the Taliban, who walked around with the same weapons as we did. I wanted to influence [the villagers] for the rest of their lives, and the best way to start is with the younger generation.’ He would often sit and pose for pictures with the children, and enjoyed presenting them with Western paraphernalia as gifts. Items included radios, clothing, and even plastic water bottles. ‘We weren’t trying to Americanize them,’ Gregory was quick to say, ‘but anything from the U.S. was something they cherished.’ After a Palisadian-Post article appeared last October, Gregory and his men received boxes of goods from various L.A.-area companies and people, such as college T-shirts and baseball hats, which the children wore proudly. ‘They had a lot of common sense and street smarts,’ said Gregory, comparing Afghani children to American children. With regard to American reaction to his job, Gregory said: ‘A lot of people don’t support the war, but they support the troops.’ He received around 150 supportive e-mails as a result of the Post feature, which included his e-mail address. During his speech, Gregory mentioned how he and his Marines, on their way home from Afghanistan, stopped at a restaurant in Baltimore after months of poor food, and ordered huge dinners. In the end, just as they were worrying about the expense of the bill, the other diners in the restaurant paid for it, writing them a note saying: ‘Thank you for your service; this meal is on us.’ ‘I am so lucky to have served in Afghanistan,’ Gregory said. ‘It was gratifying’I was preventing people from another terrorist attack, making a difference.’ Although there are still ‘factions trying to disrupt the democratic process,’ Gregory is still hopeful about the terrorism- and poverty-wracked country. ‘It’s not that we have all the right answers,’ he admitted later in a personal interview, ‘but we can show them a democratic way of life as opposed to Taliban rule. We want to rid the country of a terrorist regime so that Afghanistan can run itself.’ On February 15, Gregory will return to his base at Kaneohe Marine Base in Hawaii. In June, he said, ‘I’ll either accept a job at Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C., or I’ll get out of the military and return to Los Angeles and look for work.’