Marines from the 1st Battalion of the 6th Marines grab some flown-in chow. (Thomas Gibbons-Neff)

It was dark and we sat at the edge of our cots on the edge of the empire, our feet buried in the Afghan dirt, our fingernails caked in it.

Chase studied his Gatorade bottle, something he hadn’t seen in months, while Dillon put the chicken wing to his lips and tore at the skin, gently at first until it pulled away and revealed that white meat.

Third platoon was in line for their chow and as they shambled past, they muttered the unthinkable. Acknowledging what had happened the last time we had a proper meal.

“We’re gonna get extended,” they whispered. Some laughed, others groaned, but in the end we all ate.

It was the sixth month of the deployment. 1st Battalion of the 6th Marines had deployed to Garmsir, Afghanistan, on a seven- to 10-day mission, only to be continuously extended. Most of us only had one T-shirt and one pair of underwear, but all of us had written “7-10” on our helmets. The graffiti was a tribute to our misfortune and to our Vietnam War forefathers who were looking down on us and surely smiling.

As the night grew long and the moon rose, we shuddered in the westerly breeze — one that turned into a chill that vibrated our spines.

We slowly finished our meals and dutifully threw away our trays, walking those 20 yards to the trash pit in a drunken shamble of content.

The flames from the pit illuminated our tan bodies and in the ashes of burned batteries and the carcasses of ammo crates we smiled.

It was July 4th, and we were alive. We knew because we could feel it in our stomachs as the artillery rumbled on the plateau, a handful of howitzers firing illumination shells over Alpha Company.

“Hey,” someone said.

“If you squint, it kinda looks like fireworks.”