As you're reading this, Lance Cpl. Ryan Merritt is sleeping somewhere in Afghanistan, hopefully soundly. Either that, or he's been up for five hours after a restful 40 winks.
It's Saturday morning there, too, but they're eight-and-a-half hours behind us. Soon, however, if he hasn't already, Merritt will be waking up to start his Saturday routine, which you can bet is a little different than yours back here in our safe, soft world. While other men his age - the guy can't even legally buy beer yet - slept in this morning or after realizing the pizza box sitting by the door for days now won't throw itself away, decided it was time to clean his dorm room, Merritt, a member of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, got ready for his job as a turret gunner.
Merritt, a 19-year-old from Marshall, is stationed in the Musa Qal'eh District in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He's been out of country for about six months now, "going on lucky number seven, then hopefully back home sometime soon."
Needless to say, he'd rather be home this weekend, but lost in the shuffle of troops coming back home is the fact that there are still many who haven't. Merrit's one of them.
Although many troops have returned to the U.S., Merritt isn't sure when that time will come for him.
During what was called Operation Double Check, Merritt's job was to hold security for a temporary position, usually for a decent stretch of time. Double Check is over now, but he says he's busy almost all the time. As a gunner, he stands in the turret, ready for any threat. He's also charged with looking for indications of an IED (improvised explosive devise). His original job was as a Mortarman but was put into a Mobile section and made a turret gunner.
"A typical day really varies, and I mean a lot," he said. "We could wake up at 2 a.m., even though we had just gotten to bed an hour ago, and we could stay out for five hours or we could stay out for three days with little to no sleep. Another day we could sleep in until noon and actually get a chance to eat breakfast."
Whipping up some breakfast in our jammies is something we take for granted here at home, so that last statement alone should be enough to make us all appreciate our troops overseas and not forget that despite the recent recall of thousands of U.S. soldiers from foreign soil there are still many who are not home yet, including people you might know like Merritt.
Merritt said he hasn't been seriously injured, just "scrapes and bruises." He's one of the fortunate ones.
We lost a lot of soldiers during the wars, and scores of U.S. troops were wounded during Operation Enduring Freedom. The MilitaryTimes' "Honor the Fallen" website says there were 6,345 U.S. casualties in Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.
Merritt said he not seeing much action these days as "things are dying down a lot as we continue to transition the security of the country over to the Afghan National Army and the Local and National Police.
"At the start of the war the Afghan people were either content or too afraid to stand up to the Taliban," he added. "But with our aid in the development of schools and jobs for the Afghan people, they started letting us know what they've seen or heard of the Taliban doing such as IED locations and ambushes or weapons caches. The Taliban have less and less places to hide and less people willing to protect them, so that has caused much action to diminish."
The numbers of casualties and deaths vary, as they always do in wars, and much has been said about how much money the U.S. has spent in the last decade fighting in the Middle East, but from Merritt's perspective, this is what America does and should continue to do. He calls America the "big brother" to other countries that need help.
"I do not believe we are wasting any money being here in Afghanistan," he said. "If we can't or won't reach out to a nation who is being oppressed by terrorists, who else will? And who's to say that in 50 years or 100 years we have made an ally that's willing to help us out when we need it. You could play the "what if" game all day, but it comes down simply to helping someone in need."
Merritt, who decided to enlist because he was enticed by the challenges being a Marine had to offer, says he misses his family, his close friend Heather Buysse, and "even my dog. But I really miss the freedoms of being in America."
He plans on going to college and possibly majoring in physics when his contract is up.