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U.S. Marine Veteran Discusses His New Memoir And What It Means To Serve

NOEL KING, HOST:

Frank "Gus" Biggio served in the Marine Corps two times. He left active duty in 1997 and went to law school. He got a lucrative job in a big law firm, but he found that he was dissatisfied. So in 2007, 10 years after he left the Marines, he told his wife he wanted to go back.

FRANK BIGGIO: She said, OK, you can do this. And you can do one deployment. And I know you want to go to where the action is, so I get it. But this will count as your midlife crisis. So you cannot go out and buy a motorcycle, and you can't go buy any fancy sport cars when you get back.

KING: Biggio rejoined the Marines as a member of a reserve unit called the Civilian (ph) Affairs Group. In the summer of 2009, his unit deployed to southern Afghanistan.

BIGGIO: There were a few times in Afghanistan where the tensions were high. Bullets were flying, and bombs were exploding. And I was thinking, oh, maybe sitting in that corporate law office wasn't so bad after all.

KING: Biggio has written a book about his experiences called "The Wolves Of Helmand." He was stationed in a district of Helmand called Nawa. That's an area about the size of New York City and its boroughs, a place that had been shattered by the Taliban.

BIGGIO: We were there to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government, to provide security so that they could come in, and they could solve Afghan problems for Afghans. It takes violence, and it takes perseverance, boots on the ground for a long time. But in a counterinsurgency fight, unlike a traditional war, where the objective is to seize terrain or destroy the enemy's equipment, we were here to focus on the local population. We did that by walking everywhere. Every Marine in that battalion put miles and miles and miles on their boots, and they knew their areas of operation very intimately. They knew the people who lived there. And they knew the people who didn't live there. And more importantly, the people who lived there ended up knowing the Marines and building that trust and building that rapport. And they saw - where there might have been skepticism and scorn for us in the beginning, they saw that we were there for their benefit.

KING: How did you feel about the Afghan people you were working with and alongside and trying to convince, indeed, that you were not the bad guys?

BIGGIO: So we worked really closely with our Afghan government leaders, but we also interacted daily with the tribal leaders and just the general population there. One of my jobs as a Civil Affairs Marine was to distribute money for various things, whether it was the result of some combat damage that happened or to support some small infrastructure projects. Now, when word gets out that a Marine named Jagran Gus at the patrol base has money to give out, I got my fair share of swindlers and cheats and people trying to hoodwink me out of some money. But even those conversations sort of amused me. And they put us in touch on a personal basis. And I didn't just dole out money at free will, but we saw some real good with them.

KING: One of the things that makes this different from war memoirs that we may have read about - Vietnam stands out to me in particular because I read a lot about Vietnam in college. That was, you know - that was the most recent war when I was 20. You describe an environment in which there are periods of violence - there are periods of real fear - but a lot of it is discomfort and even boredom.

BIGGIO: Sure. So going to war can be chaotic. And it can be fearsome and deadly, as everybody knows. But going to war can also be boring, and it can be lonely. And it's a paradox because that loneliness comes when you're surrounded by a battalion of Marines. But when you think about your family back home, or you think of other things that you want to do or go, it's tough to do that when you're in a place like Helmand Province. So the wars that we engage in are never in very cushy, comfortable places. They in dirty, grimy places with poor infrastructure and internet. And the people are often desperate and longing for a change. And that's what it was like in Helmand Province. And to win that type of war the way we did walking around everywhere, we end up getting filthy and dirty and tired. And we don't work a 9-5 schedule. And, sometimes, you think, gosh, it's really boring - maybe this is a time to take a nap and sleep. But there's always that underlying stress that something might happen.

KING: I wonder if you've stayed in touch with any of the Afghans whom you worked alongside and how they view U.S. and NATO forces today, whether their minds have changed either for the better or for the worse as to what the U.S. and NATO accomplished in their country.

BIGGIO: There are a few who I have stayed in touch with. Regrettably, there are a few who I would've loved to stay in touch with who have been killed. One of them was the district governor of Nawa, Haji Abdul Manaf, who, despite the challenges that he was faced with - he endured and persevered and was working for the people of Nawa to his last moment when he was killed in a Taliban ambush. Due to the geographic and technological limitations, I haven't been able to keep in touch with people like Ishmael (ph), one of the young boys who I wrote a chapter about. But I would love someday to be able to return to Nawa and see some of the people that I that I met and worked with. And I hope that they would have good things to say about what we did on their behalf when we were there. And I hope that things in Afghanistan get to the point where they can run their country and secure their country on their own.

KING: And, Frank, lastly, what did you do when you came back from the war? Did you go back to law?

BIGGIO: I did. Of course, the first thing I did was come home, give my family a hug and introduce myself to my new son. And I kept my promise to my wife that I would do one deployment and hang up the uniform. So I did leave the reserve unit and have had opportunities to live and work abroad in jobs in law and finance. And I didn't get a motorcycle or a sports car.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Frank "Gus" Biggio, a former Marine whose book is called "The Wolves Of Helmand." Gus, thank you so much for being with us. We really appreciate it.

BIGGIO: This was my pleasure. And I thank you and your team at NPR for everything you're doing and not just talking to me about my book but everything you're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASERATI'S "THE LANGUAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.