Once upon a time, when the world was small and safe and predictable — Ammon Carter focused on bringing self-government to Payson High School, serving in student government and excelling on the moot court team.
These days, he laces up his combat boots, slings his F-16 and his Cannon 5D Mark II digital camera over his shoulder and sets out to bring self-government to Nawa in Afghanistan’s infamous Helmet Province.
And he’ll probably sling both his cameras and assault rifle again on Veterans Day, when the folks back home take a break from largely ignoring the nation’s longest-running war ever.
But Carter, 22, doesn’t mind: The 2007 PHS graduate says he has a job to do — and not enough “rank on the collar” to speculate about what it all means.
“They’re just normal people,” he said of the villagers the Marines have sought to win over in a now-relatively secure province that once produced 75 percent of the world’s opium.
“They’re farmers — they just want to be able to farm. These people are looking for peace and that’s why we’re here. It’s always worth doing when you’re doing the right thing.”
The province he patrols now represents one of the bright spots in the long, blurry effort. Once, allied forces had all but ceded it to the Taliban, observing an uneasy truce. But when the U.S. shifted strategy and bolstered its forces, the Marines spearheaded the effort to reclaim the 23,000-square-mile region, with a population of some 1.4 million. That included about 90,000 people living in the Nawa District where Lance Cpl. Carter is now based.
Fierce firefights raged from 2007 to 2009, as the allies drove the Taliban out of one village after another. One account of the struggle recounted an incident in the Nawa District when two Taliban assassins on motorbikes gunned down a village leader. The slain man’s enraged son pulled the killers off their bikes and villagers stoned them to death.
Now, the Marines hope to win over villagers who had long lived in fear of the Taliban’s rule, despite the continued threat of terror, the corruption and inefficiency of the central government and the terrible ravages of decades of war.
With a 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the success of the whole war now turns on whether Marine units like Carter’s can help the Afghan Army take over the battle — and win the crucial alliance of villagers.
“A year and a half ago, this wasn’t such a good place,” said Carter, who enlisted in the Marines two-and-a-half years ago, already set on learning photography and videography.
“But fast forward to the present day and it’s fairly safe out here. The people are welcoming Marines, welcoming the national forces: they’re really receptive to what’s going on here.”
For instance, he recently documented a tour by Nawa District Governor Abdul Manaf, as he toured newly won-over villages and reconstruction projects — including some built by the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines Regiment.
The flag-waving schoolchildren, grave village elders and busy markets belied the deep uncertainty and anxiety that has gripped the country. A flurry of high-profile assassinations by the Taliban have upended efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict. In other provinces the Taliban has stepped up attacks and shifted strategy. So far, 1,815 American soldiers have died in the conflict.
Carter navigates those complexities by sticking to his job — and keeping his eyes open.
Like any photographer, he appreciates the shift in perspective that comes through that one-eyed squint through the rangefinder — especially in a world with the possibility of hidden bombs and would-be assassins around each blind corner.
The camera “makes you see things differently — definitely,” said Carter. “Not only do I have to keep my eyes aware of what’s going on around me as a Marine, my mind is also more open to those kinds of artistic angles and things like that. A lot of times if we’re on a normal patrol, there’s times you have the freedom to look more around and take pictures — whether it’s of Marines or of locals.”
However, specialists in the Marines all undergo the full range of basic combat training — and patrol fully armed as a fighting member of the unit.
“Every Marine’s a rifleman. I have a skill, but I can also be out there with other Marines doing the day-to-day patrol,” he said.
But he always remains ready to unsling his rifle. “No training is going to tell you when to do that. Obviously, I’m a rifleman first any time we go outside the wire. But at the same time, I have a job to do. Nobody is going to tell you where the line is that divides the two roles.”
Few would have predicted Carter would end up a combat Marine at the business end of a camera back in 2007 when he graduated from Payson High School.
His family moved to Pine from Utah in 2001. His father sold vitamins and health supplements across a wide region, but the family settled in the Rim Country for the beauty and the small-town values. His parents are Jeff and Janeen Carter, Carter’s older brother and two sisters had already left home when his parents decided to settle in Pine, after checking out the charms of Phoenix.
He said that despite his success in school here, he graduated eager to see the world. Politics fascinated him, so he landed a job as an intern for Congressman Rick Renzi. While working in Washington, D.C., Carter got interested in photography.
So things clicked when he discovered he could enlist in the Marines as a combat photographer and videographer.
“I’ve always been attracted to the military lifestyle — especially the Marine Corps. And I was looking for a job that would give me a really good skill outside the Marine Corps. But I really just stumbled on it, after I met someone at a church event.”
So he enlisted in the Marines, got assigned to the Defense Information School in Maryland and learned his trade. That included exchange programs in Columbia, Mexico, Panama and Peru, before his posting to Afghanistan this year.
Now he keeps his eyes open and waits for those letters from home.
He has also gained a new perspective on Payson.
“Like most kids in Payson, you don’t like it when you’re there. But growing up and looking back on it — on being in a small town — me and my friends were really close. I still talk to my best friends all the time. When you live in a larger experience, you don’t necessarily get that experience. We’re all in different places now — but we’re connected.”
But not many have had as long a journey as Lance Cpl. Carter.
And not many will spend Veterans Day on the front line — documenting history and very carefully watching where they put their feet.