TOPSHAM — He was all of 8 years old that day the airplanes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the teachers at his elementary school in Machias huddled in horror around a television while the kids sat in confused silence.

Now here Lance Cpl. Tim Carter stood, at 18 the youngest member of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, moments away from the first leg of a deployment to Afghanistan.

“When I signed up they told me, ‘Your unit’s going to Afghanistan,’” Carter said with a smile Thursday morning at the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center. “And I was like, ‘All right! Where do I sign? I can’t get over there fast enough!’”

Why so eager?

“Honor. Personal goals,” Carter replied. “For me personally, I’m strong enough and able enough to serve my country. And I want to do it.”

For some, this week’s stunning announcement that Osama bin Laden is at long last dead segued instantaneously into the assumption that the war in Afghanistan is all but over.

Back when it began in 2001, after all, Operation Enduring Freedom’s goal first and foremost was to track down the man who orchestrated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and, as the euphemism goes, bring him to justice.

“All my school friends were asking me, ‘Well, this means you don’t have to go, right?’” said Carter, a freshman criminal-justice major at Thomas College in Waterville. “And I’m like, ‘No. You don’t understand. The mission in Afghanistan remains the same.’”

The young lance corporal is right — at least for the time being.

And to a man, the 140 or so Marines of Alpha Company share Carter’s view of the post-bin Laden landscape as they travel first to Camp Pendleton in California for three months of pre-deployment drills followed by seven months in war-weary Afghanistan.

Yes, the Marines say, Sunday’s successful assault on bin Laden’s not-so-spartan compound by two dozen Navy SEALs and CIA operatives was a morale booster that couldn’t have come at a better time.

But no, they quickly add, it doesn’t change a mission that in recent years has focused far more on the Taliban than on what’s left of bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

Alpha Company commander Maj. Matthew Dilullo, 42, of Pittsfield, N.H., is by no means surprised that bin Laden’s death is refocusing the political debate on exactly what the United States is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and, just as importantly, how long that commitment should last.

But he and his men “have the luxury that we don’t have to look at the politics,” Dilullo said. “It doesn’t affect what the Taliban is doing — other than crying in their Rice Krispies in the morning, it has no impact.”

Alpha Company last deployed in 2006 to Iraq. Their mission: Patrol the dangerous streets in and around the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and engage enemy insurgents wherever they were found. First Battalion lost 11 Marines that year, but none from Alpha Company.

This time, rather than do the patrolling themselves, Alpha Company will break up into smaller groups and teach Afghan soldiers and police how to hold their own ground against a Taliban insurgency that by most assessments has little overlap these days with al-Qaida.

Cpl. Kurt Fegan, 27, of Yarmouth served in Fallujah and then returned to Iraq with another Marine Reserve Battalion in 2008. A full-time officer with the Falmouth Police Department, he extended his enlistment when he heard Alpha Company was headed for Afghanistan.

Why?

“It’s a very young company,” Fegan replied. “A lot of them, this is their first deployment.”

It showed.

As it got under way shortly after 10 a.m., Thursday’s gathering looked more like a company cookout than a company going off to war.

Laughter and the smell of grilling hamburgers and hot dogs filled the chilly air as the Marines mingled among their wives, girlfriends, children, parents and other family and friends.

There were no speeches, although Gov. Paul LePage and representatives of the Maine congressional delegation circulated through the crowd, shaking hands and offering their best wishes.

But as the hours passed and the 1 p.m. departure grew closer, small family clusters began to form. Here and there, eyes moistened. Conversations grew more serious. Hands reached out to other hands — and held on for dear life.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Jean Libby of Gray, staring at her grandson, Lance Cpl. Thomas Saunders, 20, Gray-New Gloucester High School Class of 2009. “Now I have three grandsons in the military and I pray every night for them.”

A short distance away, Lance Cpl. Carter, the youngest of the young, basked in a similar glow.

The Carter family — grandparents Bob and Joan, parents Wayde and Toni, brother Matt, 16, sister Libby, 11, cousin and next-door neighbor Wyatt Wood, 15 — rose at 4:45 a.m. Thursday for the long drive from Machias to Topsham.

“Not much sleep last night,” confided Wayde Carter, a Maine game warden, who had to sign a permission form before Tim, then 17, could head for boot camp last June only two weeks after graduating from Washington Academy.

“I was surprised when he said he wanted to join, but I know the Marines train best,” Wayde said. “If he’s going to be in the infantry, that’s where I want him.”

Finally, the three charter buses arrived, escorted by a phalanx of local and state police cruisers. Alpha Company fell into formation and stood with heads bowed as Lt. Col. Andrew Gibson, a chaplain for the Maine Army National Guard, offered a brief prayer.

Then it was time to go.

Lance Cpl. Carter, looking much older than his years, embraced each member of his family one last time. For kid sister Libby, three years older than Tim when the airplanes flew into the skyscrapers, this was a day that will not soon be forgotten.

“It makes me sad he’s leaving,” Libby said bravely. “But I know at some point he’s going to come home.”

So may they all.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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