Inside a plywood shack at a combat outpost in Marjah, in Afghanistan's Helmand province, three Marines sit before a bank of computers provided by the military to help keep up morale. The dingy outpost is made up of a collection of tents where troops live among swarms of flies and the constant hum of generators.
One Marine talks with his wife on Skype and another is on Facebook. The sites allow troops to keep in touch with their families, but commanders in Afghanistan have mixed feelings about them. Troops' constant access to social media has led to headaches for the military, including the inadvertent release of the names of American dead before families are officially notified, as well as the release of gruesome pictures of war dead to the American public.
Sitting in the outpost's Internet cafe, Sgt. William Garner is charged with keeping his squad members from posting anything that can cause trouble. He says Marines show him their photos and he decides which ones can go online.
"We get a lot of firefights, come [upon] a lot of dead Taliban," Garner says. "So Marines want to take pictures of that, and there's really no point behind it ... It's pretty cut and dried what you can do and not do, common sense-wise."
It's Common Sense
But the Marines' leadership isn't taking any chances. Before they even come to Afghanistan, troops are briefed on what not to post.
"Don't take pictures of detainees; you don't take pictures of dead people; you don't take pictures of Afghan people in compromising positions — and women," says Lt. Col. Michael Styskal, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. Styskal, the top Marine officer in the area, is paying a visit to the Marjah outpost.
Occasionally, Styskal has one of his officers check online for any potential social media problems. But he says his concern goes beyond pictures of detainees or dead Taliban — they also include the frequent videos of firefights that show up on YouTube. One such video, posted to YouTube in May 2011, shows Styskal's own 2nd Battalion engaged in fighting. The video was taken before Styskal took command, but he says if his Marines posted a video like that today, "I'd probably go to talk to the company and the commander and say, 'What was this guy doing ... videotaping when he should have probably been helping fight?' "
The video is still under investigation, and there's a possibility of disciplinary action against not only the four Marine sergeants involved, officials say, but also their commanders.
'Let Me Make You Proud'
Of course, the military isn't all fighting — there's also plenty of downtime. Back at the plywood Internet cafe, Pvt. Alejandro Francis of Manhattan is logged onto Facebook. He's 19 and on his first deployment. There's a tattoo of St. Michael the archangel on his upper arm.
"I put up pictures that are appropriate," Francis says. "If I have to think about it twice to put it up, then I won't put it up."
That's probably because the message has been drummed home. After a video surfaced in January showing Marines in Afghanistan in 2010 urinating on the corpses of alleged Taliban fighters, Francis says every Marine was required to take a class that discussed why the video was inappropriate and how it gave Marines a bad name.
But Francis isn't even close to giving the Marines a bad name. On this day, he's posting a Mother's Day message to his mom back in New York: "Happy Mother's Day. Words can't explain how I feel about you," Francis writes. "Anything I were to do wouldn't ever amount to things you've done for me. I want to thank you for bringing me into this world and putting up with all my childish acts. It's time for you to sit back and let me make you proud."
And maybe that's the test troops should use when they're thinking about posting something online: Is this something to be proud of?
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