"The worst camp experience I've ever had," is the way Spc. Josh Socha of Portland, Oregon, describes his time at Combat Outpost Nolen in the volatile Arghandab Valley of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
The men of COP Nolen have been in that valley for just over a month and have already seen their share of the most intense combat in Afghanistan. When last we reported, one of the camp's platoons had experienced severe casualties, losing nearly half of their men. As they are moved to the rear to regroup, a new set of troops is arriving to reinforce the position. Nolen comes under attack nearly every day, and patrols that leave the protective razor wire around their compound often run into either small arms fire or homemade bombs – IEDs, as the military calls them.
Four to five men sleep in the cramped rooms of this former school. With daytime temperatures often reaching 115-120 degrees, the stench from body armor, equipment and clothing is overpowering. It's nearly impossible to escape the oppressive heat. The ground is littered with spent shell casings from the daily firefights and the cigarette butts that often go hand-in-hand with those firefights. A well provides water for showers, shaving and laundry. The men burn their own trash and feces – a task that often falls to the lower-ranking soldiers.
Bottles of drinking water are stacked in cases in the compound. To keep the water cool the men put it in a large deep freezer. But they burn through water so fast that finding a cool or lukewarm bottle is like hitting the lottery. Breakfast and dinner are cooked by Sgt. Jeffery Meador, who the soldiers swear can make a gourmet meal out of anything. Steak and lobster were even served here this week – a rare treat.
Morbid humor and relentless teasing pass the time. Wives, girlfriends, mothers and past missteps on patrol are all fair game. Men who share the same shoe size joke that if they step on an IED with opposite feet, they can split the cost of a new pair of shoes. The bond of brotherhood runs deep. These men have shared experiences and a part of their lives they will never forget.
I often ask the soldiers what they miss about home, and the answers usually run the gamut from the sarcastic to the sweet. But my favorite came from Socha.
"I miss for the most part that it's never sunny with a chance of RPGs," he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades.
"There's never a chance of mortars at home unless it's the 4th of July and you just came home from the reservation with a boatload of illegal explosives or fireworks. So that's what I miss most about home. That there's an innocence there that you can do things that are dangerous but it just isn't the same there as it is here. Just going outside can get you injured, or killed, or maimed."
Editor's note: Associated Press photojournalists Evan Vucci and Rodrigo Abd are Photoblogging for msnbc.com while embedded with U.S. troops stationed at Combat Outpost Nolen, in the volatile Arghandab Valley in Kandahar, Afghanistan.